Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Communion of Saints

Consider this a reflection in line with my self-designation as a Lutheran-rite Orthodox (since so many of you find this an oxymoron!).

The Newsletter for the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology is out, and if features the banquet speech from the Center's last conference. (At our conferences, you get wonderful and inspiring scholarship not just in the talks, but over food, too!) This year's speaker was the Center Board's Chair, Robert Wilken, the highly respected and esteemed patristics and early Church history prof at the University of Virginia. He spoke on the communion of saints -- "Communion cum Santis," he entitled it.

It is Robert's contention (I never ever believed that I'd be in a position to call Robert Wilken by his first name!) that the "communio sanctorum" of the Creed ought to be more accurately translated as "communion with the saints" than as "communion of saints." He says:

That seems to have been the original sense. In the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, the author, possibly Tertullian, says that he has written an account of their martyrdom so that those who were not eyewitness can learn of them and "have fellowship with the holy martyrs (cum sanctis martyribus) and through them with the Lord Jesus Christ."

For Tertullian the martyrs were the saints -- extraordinary witnesses to Christ. The oiriginal sense of the phrase in the creed is not the fellowship of the living but the company of the departed. The saints are the honored dead in Christ.
If you listen with half an ear, you can hear Robert's complaint against the common Lutheran reading of the creed, which puts "holy catholic Church" is apposition to "the communion of saints." One grammar-noting professor of mine once pointed out that, in the Apostles' Creed, there should be semi-colons separating most of the items on the list in the Third Article, but that those two phrases ought be connected by a comma so that their identity is graphically displayed. But if Robert's reading is correct, and I find that he usually is (except when, in The Spirit of Early Christianity, he overlooked Ephrem to name Prudentius as the first Christian poet to be self-consciously a poet), then serial commas can separate/connect all phrases in the Apostles' Creed.

Here's Robert again:

We affirm with all Christians the close bond that exists between the Church of the present and the holy men and women of past generations, a bond that link[s] us to the apostles. The continuity of the Church over time is sustained not so much by theology [oh dear, say good Lutherans] as by persons [is he going sub rosa for apostolic succession of persons?] as the Church is built, according to St. Paul in Ephesians, not on the apostles' doctrine but on the "foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. . ." (Eph. 2.20).
There's lots more that I won't quote, and I encourage you to get on the Center's mailing list to get your own copy. (I can probably dig up a precious few if someone wants one, but why not sign up for all our mailings? We won't tax your patience or mailbox with scads of paper.) It was a really lovely talk, meditation, lecture, and homily all in one.

And it highlights one aspect of the Faith that calls for a reformation in the Reformation tradition. Lamentably two of the most prominent Lutheran promoters of such reasonable and faithful respect for those-who-have-confessed-before did not remain Lutheran: Jaroslav Pelikan (of blessed memory, who put Robert onto this) went to the OCA and Robert is a serious and devout Roman Catholic. It is important for us Lutherans and Protestants to re-learn and re-claim what we have lost. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is not just universal in the sense of "synchronic" unity; it is also universal in the sense of "diachronic" unity -- that is, communion through time.

This Advent is a time to reflect seriously on what "coming" we await: It is the final, for-all return of him whose birth we shortly hymn. But it is also the final coming of that which has also already appeared -- viz., the communion with all the saints of God; the reunion face-to-face that we celebrate in spirit and in fact now. Just as Christ will come in bodily form to fulfill the promise of his 1st Century body, so the Body of Christ will be granted its fullness.

Thank you Robert for helping to make that clear.


-C said...

It is indeed time for Lutherans and Protestants to reclaim what has been lost. But how can one do this with with so many things "alone?" (Word, Grace, Faith).

The faith simply can't be anything *alone.*

Fine post, Dwight!

Brian Bennett said...

I wonder why as a subscriber to Pro Ecclesia I am not on the CCET's mailing list... Having been there at that conference, I would like to revisit his remarks.


Dwight P. said...

Brian, the Center is not a brain trust of technophiles, I will grant. But we try to work with people who can at least keep our friends in our communications loop.

If you contact me, I'll see that you get a copy. I will then also see that you get (back) on our mailing list. We don't win friends by ignoring our friends! I know that much about the philosophy of the Center.