Sunday, January 29, 2017

Where indeed?

One of the great issues with Protestantism in general has been its disconnect with the ancient church.  I am not the source of this great insight, it has been and remains the issue that has left Protestantism both divided and confused as to the nature of the Church.  Peter Leithart, always a good read, The End of Protestantism, has recently brought up this disconnect -- as one of many who have noted that this remains the Achilles' heel of those churches born of the Reformation (especially the Radical Reformation).

As Lutherans we do not quite fit under the modern style label of Protestant but we feel the pain of this as well -- not in our Confessions which are thoroughly catholic in doctrine but certainly in our practice which is so often at odds with what we say.  Lutherans are not immune from the dangers of disunity and, strangely enough, often those with a liberal view of the faith have tended toward a more catholic worship life than those who are orthodox in doctrine.  It is much more likely that you will enter an LCMS or WELS congregation and find the Sacrament absent and the liturgy either truncated or missing entirely than is true of the ELCA (which generally follows the book).

It leads to an impossible question that is nonetheless worthy of our consideration.  Where would Luther go to church if he were alive today?  Would he recognize the sound of faithfulness from those conservative Lutheran voices and put up with worship so foreign to his own catholic experience and practice?  Or would he tolerate a faith often vacuous and trendy in order to find liturgical practice more in keeping with that of the Reformation and early Post-Reformation churches?  Or would he abandon Lutheran congregations and Protestantism in general to find a home in the Latin Mass of Rome so familiar to him or the Novus Ordo (perhaps with a more evangelical canon)?  This is no mere academic question or fanciful conjecture.  It goes to the heart and core of what the Augustana claims is the very hallmark of Lutheranism -- we have not departed from catholic doctrine or practice!

Even more modern day voices of Protestantism have wondered about this question.  "The great Athanasius, now in London or New York, would be found worshipping only at Catholic altars.  Augustine would not be acknowledged by any evangelical sect.  Chrysostom would feel the Puritanism of New England more inhospitable and dry than the Egyptian desert (p. 271, John Nevin's Early Christianity).  Where would the saints of old find their worship home?  You know their names, these giants of early Christianity, and you identify with their fight for orthodox confession, but where would you meet them on Sunday morning?  How do we reconcile the disconnect between orthodoxy in theory and practice which is all over the page?

To be sure, no Lutheran is at ease with Leithart's resolution of this disconnect or with the future orientation of the unity of the church as an evolutionary unity to come, born of the ruins of confessions (with their "shibboleths") and the renewed and reformed shape of creed and liturgy.  It is a dream to think that unity is worth anything if it comes at the cost of doctrinal specificity and, as scandalous as the divisions of Christianity are, no less scandalous is the doctrinal fuzziness and heresy that are daily encountered both on the level of national jurisdiction and local parish (in the broader view of Christianity in America). 

Protestantism remains in search of a suitable replacement for sacramental realism.  Some have replaced the sacraments with prayer as a means of grace and others have turned the moment of conversion with its requisite decision into the moment of greatest sacramental reality and unity with Christ.  Others have sought this assurance of God's presence in the spiritual gifts of a charismatic movement (on the wane but it has certainly left much in its wake) while still others have simply made feelings into that which validates faith, grace, and the presence of God.  Lutherans have the answer but seem to be forever forgetful of their own identity and sacramental vitality -- preferring too often to mirror the Evangelicals than to mine the riches of their own confessional, liturgical, and theological history and identity.

Let me say one thing with apology or equivocation -- if Luther would not walk into your church today and feel at home, you are not quite Lutheran!  If Athanasius or Augustine or Chrysostom would feel a stranger to the liturgy and preaching of your place, then there is a problem.  For the real issue with Protestantism in general has always been this -- they have disowned their fathers in the ancient church!  And the real issue for Lutherans is that we remember them in our hearts but that memory seems unlikely to inform who we are in practice (both the fathers and the Confessions!).  That is not to say Rome is in great shape or that Orthodoxy offers a panacea church without problem.  Both of those traditions face their own issues (Francis being a big one for Rome and jurisdiction and ethnicity being the twin peaks for Orthodoxy). 

As a Lutheran let me say this.  If we Lutherans spent half as much time knowing our own confession and ordering our practice to reflect that confession as we do peering over the fence to see what other churches are doing (especially Evangelicals), we would be in pretty decent shape.  As you can see around you, this does not appear to be something that will quickly resolve to the favor of our heritage and legacy anytime soon.  So, the battle for Lutheran identity will continue.  Lutherans, be who you are!


Chris Jones said...

To me, there is little doubt of the answer to your hypothetical: Athanasius, Augustine, Chrysostom, and the other early Fathers would worship with the Orthodox (despite the ethnic/jurisdictional problems, of which I am a veteran); and I am not sure that Luther wouldn't do the same. It's the only form of worship that they would all recognize immediately as traditional and Catholic. I suppose that, in the abstract, Augustine, Ambrose, and Luther would be more comfortable with the Latin Rite; but I am not sure that any of them would recognize what goes on in a typical Novus Ordo parish as a Catholic liturgy.

John Joseph Flanagan said...

The comment about Luther going back to the Roman Catholic Church due to the author's negative feelings about the state of today's collective modern Protestantism is surely tongue in cheek. Luther's opinions and teachings, and his brashness, do not give evidence of he being of the sort to return to Catholicism and its unchanging traditional heresies, which he disdained without apology. I think we need to all read church history more diligently, plumbing the depths of truth from various perspectives of reputable historians. There are numerous sources available. Some books are out of print but can still be found. The entire history of the Christian church, beginning in the Acts of the Apostles, and delving into secular historical writings, shows that the church of Christ on this fallen earth has always been at war within and without, with the rise and fall of heretics, all the bloody wars between Catholics against Catholics, Catholics against Lutherans, Lutherans persecuting Anabaptists, Anglicans and others....denominations struggling over theological differences, and sometimes rather minor points, and blood has flown freely over the centuries. Unlike Europe in the early centuries, where the wrong point of view could get one beheaded or burned at the stake, at least Christian denominations in America at least arrived at a sort of peaceful coexistence. What we see today in the collective Protestant camp is mild in comparison to past interreligious conflict, and we can at least see hope that God is in control, and will come again to purge and clean His house.

William Tighe said...

Luther - and most 16th-Century Lutherans - were very clear about one thing, to which many contemporary Lutherans have become oblivious or indifferent: that the Reformed Protestants (not to mention the Anabaptists and other groups of radical Schwaermer) were just as erroneous as the "papists" and in some respects even more so; and that it was gross an act for Lutherans to participate in the Reformed "Lord's Supper" as in the Catholic Mass.

David Gray said...

I have great respect for Dr. Tighe but there is evidence that Luther distinguished between men like Bucer and Calvin versus men like Zwingli. The split widened in the wake of Luther's death.