Friday, September 01, 2006

Lutheran Ecclesiology -- Part 1

I intend a couple of posts that will pick up on my earlier post, "Theological Exegesis: Part I," in which I tried to argue that the Bible is the Church's book. In order to make some sense of that for myself, I've had to look at my problems with the assertion. It makes perfect sense to me on an intellectual level, but I've discovered some inner-hidden-deeper-secret discomfort with it. And after some reflection I realize that it's not all my fault: I'm a Lutheran, and we don't have much of a base for dealing with "the Church" in any concrete way.

That realization intersects with my other complaint about the Lutheran tradition -- viz., that we don't really have a good way to talk about living out the life of faith in ways consistent with God's will. Here, the problems are two-fold: First, as I suggest above, we have a heritage built on an inadequate ecclesiology. Second, we have an almost rabid fear of calls to "holiness." It has become clear to me over the last few months just how interdependent these two weaknesses are.

I propose to vent a little on both of these issues, my venting's being prompted by my reading L. Gregory Jones' book Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis (Eerdmans, 1995). In that book, Jones convinces me that he speaks the truth. In fact, of course, I have long held the main principles he advances. But he does so in an almost systematic way that lays out the logic in a pleasing way. In addition, some nosing around in Liberation Theology has my mind swirling -- as does a quite challenging book barchbishop-future Archbiship of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (Pilgrim Press, 1984).

First, let's talk about the Church. Then, when work permits me some time to think, I'll pick up holiness. (That sentence is a study in potential misreading.) And then I'll try to pin the two together. Ultimately, I hope that this line of writing will help me to spell out some issues I have with "salvation." But we'll have to see whether I can get more specific than that!

The official documents of Lutheran identity, the "Lutheran Confessions" contained in the Book of Concord, say very little about the Church. Oh, with the creed, we confess that there is a Church and that she has been summoned into existence by God and that she is something of some importance and that for one "ecclesial body" (to use a modern term) to recognize another as "church," it is sufficient that the preaching be orthodox Gospel and that the celebration of sacraments be a faithful witness to (or a visible acting out of) the Gospel.

But while we Lutherans claim that "The Church" exists and we seem to claim that we know it when we see it, we never have set out just what that "thing" called "church" is. Oh, we sort of joke about Jesus' promise (taken, in my view, out of context) that "whenever two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them." (The context deals with discipline, not a worshipping disciple community, doesn't it?) And we play with the "metaphors" -- e.g., the Church as the "Body of Christ." (Not all of us believe that that is a metaphor, incidentally, in case you haven't picked it up!) And at least some of us will talk about her characteristics -- e.g., the Church's "synchronic" and "diachronic" character. And finally, some of us (lamentably, some of them have now gone to other churchly traditions) have wrestled with the so-called "marks of the Church." (There's a good CCET book available from Eerdmans on that.) But on a day-to-day basis, the identity and even existence of "the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" make very little practical difference for most Lutherans.

Now I know next to nothing about history and even less about the history of Reformation theology. But I suspect that the reason that the confessions donÂ' make more of the Church is that there wasn't much to perorate about: The Reformers pretty much agreed with the Romans, or at least operated within the same thought sphere, about the nature and mission of the Church, and so they spilled little ink on that. They spent their time and resources on the disputed questions. Oh, that indulgence thing was an obvious insult to the nature of the Church and the Gospel she is intended to announce. (I'm going to get my friend Jim to recount the later Lutheran practice, however, of selling absolution.) Then, those nasty little Anabaptists and Schwaermerei caused some problems from within the ranks of the Reformation, and that required the mainstream Reformers to draw some lines (not always in such pretty tones, I'm afraid -- and not always fairly, either). But, again, those lines were inspired by challenge to the taken-for-grantedness of an understanding of the Church. Over all, there was disagreement over how to live in the Church and what to say about that living, not over the fact or nature or divine institution of the Church. (Just check out the placement of articles dealing with the Church in the Confessio Augustana: You'll see how early they are dealt with -- a clear indication that there was not much disagreement there. It's only abuses that get the ink later on in the confession.)

But that got us Lutherans into trouble when we had to come to grips with a world in which "Church" could not be taken for granted. Especially since the Enlightenment, with its meteoric elevation of the "individual" over against the collective, the nature of the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic" has become a major problem. And Lutherans, who look first to the Confessions (well, the good Lutherans do, I suppose, anyway) to find counsel (at least when the Bible seems unclear -- although there are those who look to the Confessions to figure out precisely what the Bible means), could find nothing to help. So with typically fallacious reasoning, they decided that the issue was not all that critical. It's a kind of odd argument from silence.

We Lutherans -- and other Protestants, I think -- tend to do that. We did that with the mass, too: We overlook or ignore the fact that the reason Luther and his heirs didn't carry on constantly about the centrality of the mass in Christian life is that that wasn't in issue; it was abuses relating to what happened and how it happened that required attention. We have come to the conclusion, to the contrary of Reformers' intent, however, that what matters is preaching and singing; the mass itself is sort of a nice exercise in historical memory. I know of a major so-called "Lutheran" congregation in the Twin Cities where the eucharist is celebrated as a congregation once or twice a year -- and one of those events is Good Friday. If one "feels the need" for it more frequently, I guess you can go to a chapel for an after-the-fact add-on. It was like that when I worshipped at Duke University this spring, too: communion was an additional service after the "main service" -- which in that case, irony of ironies, included baptism and confirmation! (There, the new dean of the chapel is an Anglican, so perhaps he'll bring some sense to the project. But the chapel is Methodist, and so, even though the Methodist statement on the means of grace is remarkably clear and orthodox, the sacramental practices look to be on the loose side. Thus, I won't hold my breath.)

Back the to point: If Lutherans followed our own claims, we would look first to Scripture -- and as I have indicated earlier on this blog, that would mean reading the Bible with the eyes, ears, and commitments of the Church through history, not as a literary document that can be deconstructed in 21st century style, using "modern" philosophical inquiry as the critical apparatus to learn about the Church. And we would learn that "Church" (or in other synonyms, "the body," fellowship, community) is central to what it means to Christian. Looking at Corinthians, for example, highlights that the Christians there were not being Christian because they were broken up into little cliques. In the Ephesians segment for a recent Sunday (13 August) liturgy reminded the Ephesians that they were "one with each other." And deeper study reveals that the Church (oh, how like Hauerwas and Willimon this will sound) of Biblical times was its own culture -- not merely a convenient gathering of like-minded people, but an organism (to uses Paul's image, a "body").

Paul claims that failure to discern "the body" during the eucharist is a step toward eating and drinking damnation unto oneself. And I think that that's the situation we're in now. We Lutherans (especially of the Norwegian stripe in which I was raised) get all uptight about challenges to our congregationalism; we have little respect for and no little suspicion of a wider definition of "church." Lutherans more generally may acknowledge some wider reality than the congregation, but its title will be prefaced with the adjective "Lutheran." But, in defense of my fellows in the faith, we Lutherans are not alone: Roman Catholics, for example, will argue that they are the true church to which the other traditions may return at any time -- but in the meantime those traditions are of questionable merit. (Yes: I am accusing Roman Catholics in general, with their long and detailed history of ecclesiological study, of having an inadequate ecclesiology, too. That's one of the reasons that I both lament and question the recent rush to Rome by some of America's brightest Lutheran minds.)

Until we correct our ecclesiology -- repent and believe the Gospel as it applies to the Church -- we will have no success in developing a "theological exegesis" or gaining insight in to "holy living" or, in the final analysis, professing Christ faithfully. And I am not all that hopeful -- except that the Gospel requires me to hope. Thus, even though the new ELCA "worship resource" (with its TEN settings -- or supposed settings -- of the mass) is designed to sell to a pluralistic culture, so that every congregation can develop its own "style" and "sing with its own voice" (comments I've heard about the book), I remain skeptically -- even desperately -- hope-filled that the Spirit will not allow that further to diminish the low ecclesiology of the ELCA.

Part 2 awaits, but for today I fear I've made another long diatribe. I hope that doesn't prevent someone from clarifying what I'm trying to say or taking issue with what I do manage to get out.

1 comment:

Dwight P. said...

I apologize. Something went very wrong when I published this post, and I didn't see the results of that going wrong until today. I hope it's at least legible now. Once again, I prove that I shouldn't be trusted with technology.