Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Not everything can be settled by a friendly discussion. . .

I will admit that I like to believe that if everyone simply listens to me, they will agree with me.  Ask my children how that worked as a parenting skill.  Ask the folks in my parish how it works as a modus operendi there.

Yet that is exactly the way we think of the ecumenical endeavor -- sit down and talk and everything will be resolved.  Now I am all for talking but I am sure that, as Sasse once said, not everything can be settled by a friendly discussion.  Sasse complained that we had surrendered an infallible pope for the infallibility of a friendly discussion.

I am not at all sure that the problem with Arius could have been resolved over coffee and biscuits or even beer and pretzels.  I am not at all sure that Luther and Zwingli would have succeeded with a bit more friendliness or perhaps a great deal more discussion.  I will go so far as to suggest that too much friendly discussion can often blunt the sharp edge of truth as we try to adjust it so that it fits everyone's categories and preferences.

Part of the problem with the friendly discussion is that we do not listen well.  By this I do not simply mean we do not listen to those across the table.  If Lutherans had been listening better when we first sat down with the Roman Catholics in ecumenical dialog, we would have learned much about ourselves from the wisdom of one of those who knew our Confessions like one who wrote them -- Arthur Carl Piepkorn.  The truth is that perhaps the chief reason to have ecumenical conversations is it forces us to think about who we are, what we confess, and how to lay it out clearly and concisely.  But we need to listen to ourselves as well as listening to those across the table.

Part of the problem is that we are not listening to Scripture.  Everyone who sits down for such a friendly discussion ought to be talking about and listening to Scripture.  This means that we trade not on mere opinions or thoughts but the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  When we talk about the Word it is more likely we will find answers in common.

The other part of the problem is that too many churches are either ignorant of their own history and confession or that they have choosen to be disconnected from their past and their faith once confessed.  This is certainly a problem with Protestants and with Lutherans.  Now we are seeing the same kind of problem almost institutionalized within the Roman Catholic Church (despite the hermeneutic of continuity spoken of by Benedict XVI).  It is hard to have a friendly discussion when churches are unfriendly toward their own historic confession and stance yet that is exactly the state of affairs with modern day ecumenism.  Instead of looking at the Word of the Lord that endures forever and searching their own confessions in search of faithfulness to that Word, we find an ecumenism in which nothing is true or certain and the ecumenical conversation is more about opinions and feelings than anything else.  Little is to be gained by such feel good conversations.

No, not everything can be settled by friendly discussion and perhaps not much can be gained by it at the present moment.  As I have said before, the first step toward any real ecumenical progress lies not around the table with others but searching our own confessions and practices to make sure that they are faithful to the Word that endures forever.  Where this happens in earnest, progress might be made.  So for the LCMS this has meant shifting attention from the ELCA where our stance toward Scripture itself is the conflict and spending more time where we share a common confession in Word that does not lie, the truth that does not change, and the Word of the Lord that accomplishes what it promises.  With these and others who are willing to converse from a more solid starting point, fruits will be borne (thinking here of the preliminary dialogues with NALC and ACNA.  But Sasse is correct, conversation for the sake of talking will not bear the fruits we seek.

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