Thursday, October 15, 2009

An Orthodox Theologian Looks at Luther's Catholicity

Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff on Luther's catholicity:

“Luther’s main intention was to go back to the New Testament, to revive the sense of the God of the Bible, the living God, the Creator and the Sovereign. He recovers the primitive concept of salvation as a drama, a battle between God and the evil powers of sin and death which have usurped God’s sovereignty over the world... Lutheran theology was indeed a re-establishment of the basic Biblical and Patristic elements in this drama. His concern for the catholic tradition of the church was obvious, and the Augsburg Confession itself claims to be nothing else than a reestablishment of the ancient apostolic faith liberated from all human philosophical systems.

That quote by a premier Orthodox theologian is a powerful recognition of the purpose and desire of Lutheranism. For those of you interested in looking deeper in the tie between Wittenberg and Constantinople, you might check out a book called Augsburg and Constantinople. I don't know if it is still available or not. It is interesting.

My point is this. Could what Meyendorff said about the Augustana still be said of Lutherans? My fear is that the answer to that question is "no." We are not the church that the Augsburg Confession said we were. There are multiple reasons for this -- not in the least of which is nearly 500 years of history. There is also a more pointed reasons for this -- look at most Lutheran denominations and you find that most do not WANT to be the same church the Augsburg Confession said we were.

The drift between what we were and who we claimed to be and what we have become and who we want to be today has come slowly but surely. It is my conviction that the Lutheran struggle today is not between us and Protestants or Evangelicals or Roman Catholics. Our struggle is internal. We have become uncomfortable with our own skin. We have looked over the fence into the yards of other traditions because we no long like our own. It is not that we ditched all the history, we have reasons for what we do. Mission, outreach, evangelism, marketing, fitting in, becoming more American, science and technology... the list goes on. We have reasons for this and yet we also have a little guilt about the drift. This guilt is kept alive by those within every Lutheran church body who keep alive the confessional identity.

For the ELCA the Augsburg Confession has become a historical document. It was descriptive and can still be informative when needed but as soon as a church body begins to talk about the spirit of a document instead of the actual words you know what that says. The ELCA like to think of itself as a host bringing together divergent groups in a grand ecumenical and social quest for unity. So far only the Mainline Protestants have heard its call and most of them are dying out in size and influence. The real success has been keeping diversity alive as an agenda while at the same time clinging, ever so gently, to Lutheran identity.

For Missouri the Augsburg Confession has become less important to our history than Walther and democracy and congregationalism. When some in Missouri felt threatened by liberals in control, this became the means to maintaining orthodoxy. When some in Missouri felt threatened by conservatives, this became the means to maintaining their moderation. In the end it has crippled our church body and our style of governance looks like a bruised and battered body held together with splints, tape and bandaids. What Augustana spoke about has been filtered through the democracy of America and the urgency of Walther and a few ship loads of people who needed to justify the voyage. So the conservatives are out conservativing each other and the moderates are insisting that we are dying unless we change enough to make Jesus our first concern... all the while everyone pays lip service to a inerrancy... and confessionals speak a language about liturgy, sacramental theology, and life that flows from them as well as the efficacy of Scripture (that God's Word does what it says) and is attacked by both sides.

I for one believe that Lutheranism's core document, the Augsburg Confession, must be the pivotal confession in our self understanding, our raison d'etre, or we have no real reason for being... the ELCA can simply become the Evangelical Church in America and Missouri can become several churches (the Evangelical Church of Missouri and other States and the Fundamentalist Church of Missouri and Other States). The Confessionals in both can leave and either join to become what Augsburg envisioned or find a home in one of the existing bodies where they can continue Augsburg's identity with another name.

When I say this I am not neglecting the other confessional documents in our Concordia, I am suggesting that this first and pivotal confession is the one from which they flow... not as many streams but as one river of faith, confession, and identity.

Meyedorff paid us a mighty compliment... I only wish we were comfortable with what he said...

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Could this be why there is an apparent interest in Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism among confessional Lutherans?

Sounds like another unfortunate split in Lutheranism is inevitable.

James Donnelly

Anonymous said...

One of the ironies about the life of the Rev. John Meyendorff, a scholar of extraordinary erudition, and a very kind and gracious individual, is that his grandfather was a Lutheran. He converted to orthodoxy because Russian law required any aristocrat who was not Russian Orthodox to convert if they married an aristocrat. He then had a statue of Martin Luther erected at the entrance to his estate in Estonia. Apparently it survived even during most of the Soviet period, but collapsed from old age sometime in the nineteen fifties.
Peace and Joy,
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

I had met Meyendorff about 35 years ago and have known those who have known him, but never heard that story before... how very interesting... Pastor Peters

christl242 said...

I've wondered, too, about Father Alexander Schmemann, born in Estonia but if there was a German or Lutheran connection from Russia.

Catherine the Great, of course, was born into a German Lutheran family.

Christine

Anonymous said...

Catherine the Great was indeed born into a poor, noble, German, Lutheran family. But before she married the grand duke, who was to become Peter III, she converted to Russian Orthodoxy. She became so enamored of all things Russian, that once, when she was being bled, a common practice for lowering blood pressure in those days, she said something like,“I hope that is the last of my German blood.” Nonetheless, besides her, I cannot find a single Russian ruler, either from the Romanovs or the Rjuriks, who genuinely had her subjects’ best interests at heart. I am sure that was due to the Lutheran values she learned as a child.

As to Fr. Alexander Schmeman, he was obviously of German origins on his father’s side, but I do not know exactly when the family converted to Russian Orthodoxy. I met his son, Serge, several times, but it never occurred to me to ask that question.
Peace and Joy
George A. Marquart

Pastor Peters said...

I too met Schmemann about 35 years ago. I drove him around Ft. Wayne when he spoke on campus and also to the Orthodox community there. I spent a Lenten Vespers with him and the congregation of St. Nikolas Orthodox Church with Father Nedelkoff. I wish I would have known about his German origins to ask him as well...

Anonymous said...

The National Geographic published an article about the Russian church last April. It was written by Serge Schmemann, and, as I recall, he writes about his maternal ancestry, which was through a Russian, aristocratic family, the Osorguines. Therefore, I suspect that the reason for the Schmemanns’ conversion from Lutheranism is the same as that of the Meyendorffs.

You may not have known that if the late Rev. Kurt Marquart’s stepfather had been his father, John Meyendorff and he would have been first cousins.

Peace and Joy,
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

Oops, my bad. Ossorguine was the maiden name of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s wife. It must have been his father or grandfather who converted to Russian Orthodoxy.
George A. Marquart

Chris said...

Back to the original post, it seems that the EDK in Germany recently announced that the Augusburg Confession was not worth anything as a theological document for their own church, upon which it was founded in the first place!

Drew said...

Charles Porterfield Krauth:

When error is admitted into the Church, it will be found that the stages of its progress are always three. It begins by asking toleration. Its friends say to the majority: You need not be afraid of us; we are few, and weak; only let us alone; we shall not disturb the faith of others. The church has her standards of doctrine; of course we shall never interfere with them; we ask only for ourselves to be spared interference with our private opinions. Indulged in this for a time, error goes on to assert equal rights. Truth and error are two balancing forces. The Church shall do nothing which looks like deciding between them; that would be partiality. It is bigotry to assert any superior right for the truth. We are to agree to differ, and any favoring of the truth, because it is truth, is partisanship. What the friends of truth and error hold in common is fundamental. Anything on which they differ is ipso facto non-essential. Anybody who makes account of such a thing is a disturber of the peace of the church. Truth and error are two co-ordinate powers and the great secret of church-statesmanship is to preserve the balance between them. From this point error soon goes on to its natural end, which is to assert supremacy. Truth started with tolerating, it comes to be merely tolerated, and that only for a time. Error claims a preference for its judgments on all disputed points. It puts men into positions, not as at first in spite of their departure from the Church’s faith, but in consequence of it. Their recommendation is that they repudiate that faith, and poistion is given them to teach others to repudiate it, and to make them skilful in combating it.

Krauth doesn't mention it for obvious reasons, but it seems to me that the some sort of doctrine of ecclesial infallibility is needed to safeguard orthodoxy. Otherwise -- as history has so often played out within Protestant church bodies both Lutheran and non-Lutheran -- orthodoxy sooner or later becomes proscribed.

How long the venerable Missouri Synod has before it falls prey to this (if it hasn't already, which is arguable), I do not know.

Pastor Peters said...

Drew... that is a great quote from Krauth... I had forgotten it... I will have to re-read him again...

When it comes to Missouri, our congregationalism is both our weakness and our strength -- in other words, being centered on the congregation means that congregational practice and confession and less at risk from pronouncements or actions on high (such as in the ELCA) but it is our weakness in that we cannot easily challenge or conclude the erring confessions and practices of our congregations...

Anonymous said...

"some sort of doctrine of ecclesial infallibility is needed to safeguard orthodoxy"

Like the eastern orthodox and roman catholics have... both of whom teach all kinds of heresy? The only thing their ecclesial infallibility has safeguarded them from is the call of the Holy Spirit to return to the infallible Word of God as the source and norm of their teaching.

christl242 said...

It is so romantic to think that having bishops has been a safeguard against heresy and error.

The Arians had bishops too.

Nor can all these bishops in the various ecclesial communions even agree with each other as to who is or isn't a bishop.

And it sure hasn't helped the ELCA or the Anglican Communion.


Christine

Anonymous said...

Who made the actual painting? PLEASE TELL ME>>>> I AM DOING A NHD PROJECT

Pastor Peters said...

Sorry I do not know the particulars...