Tuesday, June 3, 2014
No Consensus from the Fathers. . .
Conflict, controversy, and challenge certainly sharpen the doctrinal pencil. I would hesitate to say that doctrine evolves, I do not believe it does, but certainly how we speak of the changeless truth is different when debate and denial force us to be more clear than we were. The Church sharpens her pencil often over history -- sometimes in response to heresy from within and sometimes in response to challenge from outside her walls. That is a good thing. The Reformation certainly sharpened the pen when it comes to the subject of justification. Now to say that none of the church fathers agree with Luther is certainly wrong. It is equally wrong to say that the church fathers approached justification exactly the way Luther did (speaking here both personally and doctrinally). Where once there was no need to delineate the fine lines of truth, there may be need later to do just that.
The Augsburg Confession, for example, speaks rather sparsely about the subject of call and ordination. Rite vocatus is the crux of the affirmation given by those who wrote what they believed, confessed, and taught. It is language that now requires a sharper pencil -- in the face of deacons doing Word and Sacrament ministry sans ordination or pastors going through a somewhat different call process and procedure than Luther did. It is not that the doctrine evolves or changes from one time to another. But it is true that this was not necessarily an area of great disagreement with Rome (though it turned out to be one of more consequence). So the sparse language of the Augustana subsumes the Reformers' affirmation of the practice of the Church to that point (training, examination, ordination, and local assignment or call).
In the same way one might be hard pressed to find justification expressed with the same nuance, detail, or vocabulary in the early church as we Lutherans might express now. That does not mean, however, that justification was in disarray or that there was no consensus among the fathers. What it means is that the pencil was not as sharp then so that broader language was not in opposition to one framework of how the sinner stands before God as much as it is spoken of in a host of ways, imaged differently from father to father and from age to age.
It is my conviction that we needlessly impute to the fathers a modern day diversity shaped by the truth that there is no truth when, in reality, they would look upon such divergent ideas with shock and horror. That one may speak of a common truth with different images or vocabulary is not the same as speaking different truth. The fathers were not hesitant to be adamant about their insistence upon specific words or formulations when these were required (think homoousios). But they were also comfortable with a variety of ways of speaking dogmatically when the mystery of the faith is being described in words that labor to hold the fullness of the truth in a succinct formulary. We have lost some of that. We confessional Lutherans sometimes parse the words of enemies and friends alike insisting that unless they match perfectly with our own, they are deficient. Maybe they are and maybe they are not. We must be careful about rushing to judge as defective that which does not intend to contradict the truth. In the same way, we must be careful about presuming the early Christian fathers approached things as we do and that they found unanimity as impossible as it might seem in our modern era.