Thursday, October 31, 2013

From Conflict to Communion

Read the news and the whole report:

News Report:  National Catholic Register
Document:  From Conflict to Communion

Apparently the International Lutheran-Roman Catholic Communion on Unity has put together a report on the Lutherans and Roman Catholics might "jointly" observe the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, Luther's posting of the 95 Theses.  It is no small report -- 100 pages long!  Anyway, the document carries a foreword that suggests that the doctrine of justification be the guiding rule of such observances and acknowledges the guilt of both parties before Christ for damaging the unity of the church.  The challenges are both purification and healing of the memories and restoration of Christian unity.  Now that is a tall order.

The documents encourage a new approach (as opposed to the old observances which heralded Luther's role as liberator from the Roman yoke or German national hero.  Our ecumenical era begs that such oppositional perspectives give way to the acknowledgement that more unites us than divides us.  The document surveys the changes in perspectives initiated by new research and interpretations of Luther.  There is a chapter reviewing the pertinent history of reformation and response.  A chapter on the basic themes of Luther's theology also touches on the dialogue themes between Wittenberg and Rome so far.  This chapter acknowledges that differences have not fully been bridged and that disputes are substantive (but with a positive spin on the whole).  The document ends with the basis for a common observance and five ecumenical imperatives:

  • That Roman Catholics and Lutherans always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division....
  • That Lutherans and Roman Catholics must let themselves be continuously transformed by their encounters with each other...
  • That they should again commit themselves to seek visible unity in concrete steps...
  • That they jointly rediscover the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ...
  • That they witness together the mercy of God in proclamation and service... 
 All nice enough, mind you, but couched in the language of dialogue more than in the language of confession.  The problem here being that the document presumes that the Lutherans know what it means to be Lutheran and the Roman Catholics know what it means to be Roman Catholic.  Now there might be a hitch.  For the Lutherans the Roman Catholics talk to are not necessarily the Lutherans who express the highest fidelity to the Lutheran Confessions which norms Lutheranism. 

We have representatives from Finland, Brazil, Latvia, Norway, Tanzania, Germany, Japan and the USA.  As far as I can see, all of those representatives are from Lutheran Churches that ordain women.  How, for example, does this breach with catholic faith and practice impinge upon the joint observances of the Reformation's 500th Anniversary?  I might be wrong but I see no one representing those Lutherans not in the Lutheran World Federation, specifically the LCMS.

The report was printed on FSC certified paper so I am sure it is good.  There is nothing earth shatteringly wrong about it.  It is well and good to be responsible and not triumphalistic in this observance since we Lutherans have our problems, to be sure.  But there is nothing terribly great about glossing over the things that still and truly divide us.  In the end, though, I fear the greatest impediment to any possibility of meeting Rome on more common ground will be the result of which Lutherans they are talking with as opposed to simply what these Lutherans and Roman Catholics say jointly.  Talk to the wrong Lutherans and you meet people you have little in common with if you are Roman Catholic.  Talk to the right Lutherans and you might find them hard to deal with but serious about the things that divided and still divide us. 

My greatest fear in the 500th anniversary observances is that the Lutherans will get it wrong and end up painting Luther into someone less than an authentic voice of reform raised up by God to bring the voice of the Gospel back to His Church.  Instead we may have hero worship of Luther or Luther the cultural icon or Luther the progenitor of the social justice movement or Luther the voice for reconciled diversity or Luther the child of his age... but none of that will explain the Reformation nor deal with the credible issues of authority, justification, and grace alone.  Rome is not the problem in these anniversary (dare I say it) celebrations.  We are.  Rome may provide convenient cover for us to avoid dealing with who we are (at least confessionally) but it will be our failure, our mistake, and our lost opportunity.

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