Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Sister's Lenten Reflection

Sister Camassia may be about to make an honest woman of herself (or to allow the Church to make an honest woman of her). She seems on the cusp of setting the date for her baptism. This is overdue, if I may judge the faith of a friend: In my conversations with her and in reading her blog for the last couple of years, I have been impressed that she is a woman of faith -- of such scrupulous faith that she wants to be able to affirm the Creed almost without any doubt (which sort of stretches one definition of "faith," it seems to me). Hers is a faith of deep intellectual probing and sincere existential import, and I can't wait to welcome her formally as a sister in Christ. (I know that that's a kind of exclusive view of Christian fellowship, but it's the one I'm stuck with.)

Now to the point of this post: Camassia reflects on her concerns about the "Church" she will be inducted into with her baptism. What about the confession of the "one true Church"? Where is it? Which is it? When is it? She raises good questions -- as she always does. She thinks deeply about things that many of us take for granted (unless we are similarly granted a strange sense of curiosity about matters theological).

I commend her reflection to you for several reasons: You might want to tie in to the discussion with your own counsel. You will find there the kind of thinking that some of us urge on the Church as a part of a renewed "ecumenical movement." (Her friend Telford Work, a brilliant theologian of the Pentecostal tradition, contributed to the scholarly dialogue which issued in the book In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, published by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology.) You will be challenged to think about your own relationship to the Church.

I think that last point is vitally important. I have been trying to formulate a statement that you can't be Christian without the Church, even though most theology seems to represent the Church as a pleasant adjunct to faith, something one may or may decide to participate in. She states the matter succinctly and exactly right, I think.

In the Reformation tradition, I think there is a weak ecclesiology: It developed after Luther and Melancthon and Calvin left the scene. They all, I think, had deep, almost instinctual senses that we can no more be born Christian without the Church than we can be born human without a mother.

The problem, for Lutherans, is that Luther didn't talk much about the Church except to castigate the institutional structure of his day, the admittedly corrupt-beyond-reason Roman Catholic Church and papacy. But he didn't say much more about the Church because he took it for granted -- just as was the case with the mass. Luther knew his Patristics (earliest post-biblical Christian preaching and teaching), and one thing the Fathers make clear is that the Church is critical to God's working. He didn't need to reform that, so he didn't talk about it. (Calvin apparently did somewhat better, but I don't know much about his ecclesiology.) In the absense, though, of Luther's word (which came to be held as sacred as scripture and more sacred than earlier Christian writings) about the church, the Lutheran teachers went their own fantasizing ways and developed all kinds of misunderstandings of the Church -- misunderstandings that at times leave us, contrary to John Donne, as islands onto ourselves when it comes to faith.

For Lutherans, a healthy attention to ecclesiology is in the wind (again?) -- if only because of the problems in ELCA. So Lutherans may be able, at some point, to answer Camassia's questions with a clear teaching. (For now, Carl Braaten's Mother Church may be a good place to start. What a daring title for a Lutheran discussion of the Church, eh?)

In any event, check out Camassia's musings. She promises more in this vein to come.

1 comment:

Lee said...


My understanding (admittedly fragmentary!) of Luther is that the church was important in his theology, but we have to understand why it was important if we want to avoid certain errors.

Wasn't Luther's position that the church is where the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered? To talk about being a Christian without the church would then indeed be absurd because that's where the means of grace are! (Though, of course, we can't rule out the Spirit's activity outside the wall of the church). Thus Luther is second to no one in his "high" estimation of the church.

This seems to me both to establish why the church is indispensable but also to set a certain limit to what is expected of the church. I see among some brethren a desire for a more "robust" ecclesiology, complete with historic episcopate and in some cases even papalism as a kind of guarantee against heresy. But wouldn't Luther say (and don't the confessions in fact say) that Gospel preaching and sacraments are all that can legitimately be demanded for the unity of the church? Or am I misunderstanding the tradition here?