Saturday, October 31, 2015
The work of the Spirit. . .
For Lutherans it is Reformation Day so why on earth would a Lutheran begin the day with a quote from the First Vatican Council? The reason is simple. We live in an age of invention. The Spirit is doing all sorts of new things (it is claimed). Unfortunately, many of these new things are in direct conflict with the Word of God and with apostolic teaching. From dogma to morality, the Spirit (it is claims) is busy like a bee spreading all sorts of new pollen to bring forth the bud of a radically different church and a new face of Christianity. From the Synod in Rome that has only recently concluded its work on marriage and family to the purveyors of the new ethic that welcomes GLBT with open arms to family, church, and the office of the ministry, we hear claims of the Spirit and His new work all the time. Heirs of the Reformation often describe that great movement as a breath of fresh air into a stale, old, sick church.
Few would discount the dismal condition of Christianity at the time of Luther. Even Rome was compelled to shore things up and called the Council of Trent to counter the Reformation. Yet the claim of the Reformation reads much like the statement that began this post. The Spirit is not given to disclose new teaching but so that by His assistance the revelation handed down through the Apostles, the Deposit of Faith, might be guarded, defended, and promoted. In this respect, there was too much fresh air entering the church at the time of Luther and what the church needed most was not to breathe in more of the air of the moment but the so-called stale air of Scripture and apostolic tradition.
As we Lutherans begin our Reformation Day, we find ourselves rather sad heirs of the great Reformation tradition. Some Lutherans have discarded the faith of our fathers and the clear voice of Scripture in order to embrace new teaching under the guise of the Spirit doing new things or the Gospel trumping even the explicit Word of Scripture. Some Lutherans have lost confidence in the Word and Sacraments and have embraced a marketing style perspective on church and worship, giving the religious consumer what appeals to his or her ever changing preferences and taste. Some Lutherans have turn the Reformation into the repudiation of all that went before and look and act and sound more like Radical Reformers than the heirs of the conservation reformation of Luther.
Most troublesome to me is the Lutheran tendency to breathe in the air of the moment. There was a time when we we became strangers to the vibrant Eucharistic tradition and life that our Confessions insisted was the hallmark of Lutheran identity and teaching. There was a time when the Sacrament was an add on to the Word (and a largely unnecessary one in the view of most Lutherans) and a day when we had a high sacramental theology that only occasionally was practiced (quarterly or at best monthly). There was a time when we became embarrassed by our liturgical identity and shaped our churches and our worship more like the Protestant landscape of America. There was a time when we were strangers to our choral tradition and hymnody (choosing the songs of the revival or the camp meeting over the great witnesses of Gerhardt or Bach). There was a time when we decided that numbers spoke more profoundly than faithfulness and we began to explore how much we could borrow from others and still be worthy of the name Lutheran. Of course, that time continues and we wrestle with the same things over and over again.
As we prepare to celebrate the date of the Reformation, it would be good for Lutherans of all stripes to read again at least the seminal document of history (the Augsburg Confession) and look at ourselves again to make sure we bear any resemblance to the church and the faith so boldly attested there by the fathers of our church. We do not need those who think they have swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all and can now discern the new things God is doing to replace what He said in His Word. Neither do we need to rehash the leftover liturgical, evangelistic, and doctrinal trash of others who have no confessional history or identity and who move from program to program as if nothing were true or certain except the need to change. What we need are people intent upon being the church our forefathers lived and died for -- one renewed not by what is new but by what is faithful, apostolic, catholic, and Scriptural. What we need are people not guided by personal preferences but by the Word of God and our Lutheran Confessions (even when that might lead us where we loathe to go and force us to live distinct from the cultural winds of the moment). What we need is a renewed confidence that if the Word of God is taught and proclaimed faithfully and forcefully and the Sacraments administered faithfully as Christ intended, the church will not only endure but she will grow (by God's own promise). What we need is a renewed Lutheran identity rooted and formed by catholic doctrine and practice and not be evangelical fervor.
The Reformation was no breath of fresh air but the release of the ancient air of Scripture and faithful catholic tradition at a time when invention had all but buried the voice of the Gospel. We may not face the same problems today but we are in need of the same remedy -- the stale and ancient air of Scripture and faithful catholic tradition and practice. What we will find is that this old, stale air is neither old nor stale but fresh with hope, life, and promise. That is the Lutheranism I hope for and that is the Reformation celebration I long to see.