Saturday, October 27, 2012

Neither anomaly defines it...

How much error can creep into the Church before the Church loses its catholicity?  How much catholicity can you find outside the Church before it makes it the Church?  How many calories can you steal away from potato chips and they remain potato chips?  These things are the subject of endless debate -- well, maybe not the potato chip question although I am certainly interested in it!

There are those who stand before the Church like the Israeli PM before the UN Assembly drawing red lines.  This far and no further.  But, of course, it is never as easy as a red line and the definition of how far is too far depends upon a great deal of things.

Augustine is helpful here.  "There may be something catholic outside the Church catholic.  The name of Christ could exist outside the congregation of Christ, as in the case of the man casting out devils in Christ's name.  There may by contrast exist pretenses within the church catholic, as is unquestionably the case of those "who renounce the world in words and not in deeds," and yet the pretense is not catholic.  So as there may be found in the church catholic something which is not catholic, so there may be found something which is catholic outside the church catholic."  -- Against the Donatists

Augustine is essentially saying that there are things catholic outside the Church catholic -- such as the prospect of finding catholic statements and practices in churches that in no way, shape, or form intend to be catholic.  You can find, for example, Trinitarian belief where the creed is not only refused but its very existence seen as error.  We would all agree that absent the creeds the Trinity is more likely to be confused or abandoned as the identity of God but I also think we would agree that it is possible to find thoroughly Trinitarian belief in places where the creed is omitted by intent.  That does not make these churches catholic.  The presence of truth among the erring does not erase or vindicate the error.  It is, rather, the felicitous inconsistency that the error you might expect is missing and the truth, surprisingly, is present.

On the other hand, there also exist errors within the Church catholic without the error being catholic or the existence of that error vitiating claim and truth of the Church's catholicity.  Where error exists as an anomaly, in the same was as the presence of catholic identity within the erring, this does not define the whole -- as long as the error is not embraced as truth and becomes part of the confession.  We all know that there is no perfect Church this side of glory -- in which the faith that is rightly and purely confessed is also practiced rightly and purely.  It is most often in the practice that error is found.  So, for example, that there are Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregations whose practice violates the catholic principle of close(d) communion does not in itself taint the LCMS -- unless and until that aberration becomes the norm and is confessed as such.

What we do not need is a witch hunt or, better analogy, an inquisition to find error.  What we need is to work to make our practice conform to our catholic confession (Book of Concord).  Now, to be sure, there are public pronouncements of our church body which are, indeed, in conflict with our confession.  Take the whole issue of lay ministry and deacons and the authorization of laity for Word and Sacrament ministry.  There is no way possible for this to be consistent with the clear and objective teaching of the Lutheran Confessions.  Yet this error is not yet established teaching as long as it remains disputed and the good offices of the Church work to undo the wrong.  The Church may not need to repent but we certainly need to reverse this wrongful practice so inconsistent with our Confessions and the example of catholic practice by Lutherans in history.

There is a distinct difference between catholic confession where the practice of it fails or even its definition from time to time may be faulty and where there is no intent to retain the catholic confession and where error is embraced as truth and the catholic truth rejected.  Missouri's muddy waters with respect to the ministry of Word and Sacrament represent an error which the congregations and clergy have worked to undo from the get to.  In addition, this error was never embraced by all the districts of the LCMS nor was it forced upon those who refused it.  In contrast, when the ELCA adopted and embraced gays and lesbians as legitimate Christian expression and changed the visions and expectations of clergy to conform to this, it did so knowing full well and admitting publicly that this represented a radical change and shift.  It was not only allowing error (an error which had been unofficial for some time) but it also used the full forces of its authority to impose this error on congregations and clergy who disagreed.  The conscience clause soon became merely a personal right to dispute and not the allowance that there were other conclusions and other opinions equally valid in this matter.  In other words, the truth was replaced with error not only tolerated but promulgated.  It was this that effectively violated the claim of catholicity for the ELCA.

As Cyprian says, "Nor yet because men once have erred must there be always error."  Charity and patience can be shown to those who are captive to the Word and who are willing to be taught the truth in place of their error while no charity and patience can be shown to those who insist that the error is truth and the truth is error.  That is why neither Missouri nor the ELCA is without error and yet they are very different.  In one the error is at least acknowledged and remains disputed while in the other the error is publicly taught and enforced as the only acceptable truth.  Let me point it another way.  Missouri has sins in its own back yard which remain contested while the ELCA allows, for now, a conscience bound truth to exist in their back yard while error has become its public teaching and identity.  That there exists error in both is certainly true while the nature and extent of that error and its consequences are far different for each church body.


Janis Williams said...

Charity and patience with error, yes. We all embrace errors to one extent or another. Mea culpa. Where and how do we draw the line between error and heresy? We have such a fractured catholicity. No ability to hold councils and come to conclusions or consensus remains with us, seemingly.

Ben said...

Why do you consider the LCMS practice of closed communion (closed even to believers in other catholic churches) catholic?

Does LCMS see themselves as the one, true Church, rather than as a way of being the Church? Wouldn't that involve denying the catholicity of, for example, the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican confessions, to say nothing of their fellow Lutherans?

Anonymous said...

While I do not presume to speak for Fr Peters, Rome and the Orthodox practice closed communion as well, as, Werner Elert in Eucharist & Fellowship 1st 4 Centuries, has demonstrated was the practice of the early church. The issue here is not the condemnation or exclusion of others as much as it is the promotion of full doctrinal unity. Besides which many of the LCMS congregations practicing open communion do not even speak to the communicants before welcoming but issue a blanket invitation not unlike the folks in the ELCA. A Lutheran Lurker