Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What do we do with history?

Every now and then it makes the news that the Lutherans said/say that the papacy is the anti-Christ.  Immediately people point to good and honorable people like John Paul II or Benedict XVI or Francis and say "how can you say that about these men?"  But, of course, this is not a personal judgement but a statement about the Church, about faith, and about salvation.

Good Pastor Charles McClean put it very well when he wroteas long as the papacy insists on the last seventeen words of Boniface VIII’s bull Unam Sanctam – that it is “absolutely necessary to salvation that every creature be subject to the Roman pontiff” – the papacy is Antichrist.  To be sure Vatican II has allowed for salvation outside those subject to the Roman Pontiff, calling us separated brethren "ecclesial communities" if not churches.  We can all admit that the papacy of today is not quite the same as the one to whom the Lutherans were responding in the sixteenth century.  But I think the real issue here is not so much about what the Lutherans said or say as much as it is about what we do with our history.

A Roman Catholic priest once said to me that Rome is like a train.  It keeps adding on cars century after century and it slows the whole train down but no one is willing to or inclined to unhook any of those cars.  What Rome once said, it may not still say, but Rome is not about to renounce what was once said.  Now the truth is that almost all churches are like this -- not just those in communion with the Roman pontiff.  We have trouble both personally and institutionally repenting of our errors.  But this remains one of the great problems in ecumenism.  The only honest ecumenism is one which takes history seriously and does not gloss over what was once said and confessed only because it has been affirmed recently.

If Lutherans have said (confessed) error, it needs to be pointed out, confessed, rebuked, and corrected.  If Rome has confessed error, it needs to be pointed out, confessed, rebuked, and corrected. Before the ecumenical endeavor can be successful, we must surely get our own house in order.  Now, this does not mean we have to silence every crack pot (in this case, blogger, like me) or fix every Pastor or every parish not all they should be.  What it does mean is that those things that have gone forth from the Church in the name of the Church must be subject to the highest of standards.  Rome has many boxcars full of things to deal with (and I am not speaking here only or even primarily of the sexual abuse issue that everyone immediately thinks of).  There are official pronouncements and teaching and liturgical expressions that do not pass muster as catholic or evangelical, in the best sense of those terms.  For Lutherans, we have fewer cars on our train but we also have some things to own up to (here I think of Missouri's recension of the Augsburg Confession by its confusing and wrong action with regard to lay ministry).

What are we to do with history?  As long as we ignore it or presume that things are not as they once were, we have left ourselves open to the kind of relativism in which words mean, as we heard in Alice in Wonderland, what I want them to mean and nothing more or less.  Those who look at Lutheranism askance because of the condemnation of the papacy as the anti-Christ might also want to pay attention to what documents has the seal of the papacy on them.  We have to deal with this history.  We cannot explain it away as if the words do not mean what they say nor can we simply choose to conveniently forget that we ever said what we said.  That is true for Wittenberg, for Geneva, for Rome and for all Christian traditions...

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