Monday, March 22, 2010

The Curse of the General Against the Specific

When we do not like the specifics, we often tend to find some general perspective or principle we can take away.  With respect to the Confessions, I think it is abundantly clear that the presumption is that the Church of the Augsburg Confession (hey there's a new name for Missouri) will continue the Mass (in slightly revised or altered form - about which there is ample commentary within the Confessions themselves).  None of the authors of the Lutheran Confessions could envision a time when the people of God would not gather on the Lord's Day for the recognizable form of the Mass.  Sure, there were things dropped (like the Canon) but most of these things were not things immediately recognizable to the people in the pew.  The Canon was prayed quietly at the altar, the language was Latin, and the priest often separated from the congregation either by distance or other clergy.

Some suggest that the Confessions do not prescribe a liturgical format, and, to a certain extent that is true, since they do not contain the text or form within their documents.  However, they describe what is going on among the churches that confess the Augustana.  When they say, "this is what we are doing" (or We are falsely accused of having abolished the Mass), they are not saying "This is what we are doing now but that might change soon" or "This is what some of us are doing" or even "This is the first stage in the reform of the Mass which is ongoing among us...."  Their descriptive language is in itself prescriptive since nowhere in the Confessions is their any signal of an intent to vary or deviate from this fundamental statement that is put in confessional form.

Now, whether bells are used or not... whether or how the elevation takes place... the chanting or speaking of the Mass... the inclusion of hymns by the congregation... the vestments worn by the priest... the number or lack of assistants in various roles... whether music or not... whether genuflection or bowing or not... these practices may and did vary from place to place without the violation of the unity expressed in that Augustana.  Why?  Because the form was there.

Luther had opinions about the liturgy but resisted the idea that he should make the model.  He did not feel this was a strictly congregational choice but a reflection of the Christian liberty inherent to the Gospel (even though he did understand that regional choices might be different enough that some would find it straining upon the fabric of unity) but as long as the mass form was there, an evangelical church would find accommodation.  The 16th century church orders indicate that these were not congregational but regional jurisdictional choices.

Today it is as if Lutherans think that the Confessions only say "we have not abolished Holy Communion."  It is as if it were the Sacrament that was being retained, with full and complete freedom to determine how that Sacrament would be celebrated or how often.  It is as if people read the specifics of the Confessions, did not like them, and changed them into general directions -- with the requisite nod to the desirability of uniformity of order and similarity of ceremonies.

This is a great tactic but it deals with the Confessions falsely.  We do not subscribe to a bunch of general or generic statements that we can apply as we see fit.  The Confessions are remarkably specific and tie the practices to specific affirmations of faith (as in this case the false accusation of abolishing the Mass becomes the assertion that we celebrate the Mass with more fervor, faith, and faithfulness than our opponents.

So those who might make this a worship war unseemly fought over things about which the Confessions are silent or offer wide latitude are mistaken.  These worship wars are battles over very specific things, and very specific things in our Confessions.

Now the Lutheran Church has been extremely averse to mandates or requirements (all that Law stuff we feel so uncomfortable about) and this has led to great abuses (more chief among them the infrequent celebration of the Sacrament even more so than contemporary Christian worship) but that does not mean our hesitance to insist upon what we have said means we did not really say it.  We did.  And someday we will have to face up to it...


NBeethe said...

Great post! I think this would be a very interesting article to bring up in our District discussions. I have a feeling they might not go over so well, even though what you say is right in line with the Confessions. Thank you for writing this.

Scott Diekmann said...

"When we do not like the specifics, we often tend to find some general perspective or principle we can take away." You must have read "This We Believe" - it follows your suggestion Pastor Peters.

Rev. Thomas C. Messer said...

Most excellently stated, Fr. Peters - as usual.

Martin Diers said...

Your opening sentence reminds me of Pr. Wolfmueller's "Heresy Two-step": 1) Begin by standing in the Scriptures (the specifics). 2) Step back into abstraction (a general principle). 3) Slide into heresy (abandon the objective means of grace). Step three is happening right under our noses.