Thursday, June 13, 2019

What we cannot do. . .

I read a long article in The Atlantic suggesting that the best way to deal with the sex abuse scandal in Roman Catholicism is to eliminate the priesthood.  Interesting.  Perhaps some Protestants would agree.  Apparently some Roman Catholics do.  But his answer is goofy on a variety of fronts.  Yet he is not the first.  Some Lutherans are screwing up on such things as well.  We often take the things of God as mere suggestions rather than God telling us this is how He works.

We have the Word and Sacraments and the Pastoral Office because God ordained us to have them and so they are not optional.  These do not belong the bene esse of the Church but of its esse.  We cannot eliminate them because they are not ours.  They belong to the Lord.  Because they are His, we cannot tinker with them either.  They belong to the Lord.  He gives them to us not as possessions to do with as we please but as the means of grace through which He does what He has promised to do.

A former priest and liberal Roman Catholic is absurd to suggest this as a fix for Rome's problems and Lutherans who feel sympathy are just as absurd in their pursuit of a church in which the means of grace play a peripheral role instead of the central role within the life of the church and God's people.  Yet that is exactly what is happening in some Lutheran congregations.  Holy Communion is moved from its central place to a non-Sunday spot which says to everyone this is not important.  In place of the Lord's Supper, entertainment and extended so-called sermons or teaching is made the center of everything.  I say so-called because these sermons focus not on sin and forgiveness or Christ's death and resurrection, but on tips for daily living, for achieving your goals, for finding happiness, and for improving your lot in life.

Baptism must compete with decisions for Jesus as the place where Christian life begins.  Instead of God acting to connect the sinner to the death and resurrection of Jesus, the focus is on an emotional commitment or decision to be God's and to live as His child.  Confession and absolution are nowhere to be found or are transformed from the concrete words of sin and thought, word, and deed, to failing to be true to self or living an authentic life.  The minister becomes equipper of those who actually do the ministry.  You must have seen those church bulletins in which the members are listed ministers of the congregation.

The liturgy is nowhere to be found and the appeal to adiaphora justifies ignoring all that we have been bequeathed by those who went before us.  Even hymns are replaced with songs with a short shelf life and designed less for people to sing than for a few singers to serenade the audience.  In all of these instances the means God appointed have been cast aside for the inventions of man.  In the end, what is really surrendered is the church.  We forget that the Church has absolutely no authority to depart from the Word or Sacraments or abandon the pastoral office for apart from these there is no Church.  The Church does not make the means of grace but the means of grace bring the Church into being

I obviously have an opinion about requiring celibacy but I cannot imagine how you abolish the priesthood in Roman Catholicism.  I do think it is convenient and easy to forget that the sex abuse scandal was primarily not about men who preyed on women or girls but men who preyed on boys and young men.  In any other world except the one in which we live today the suggestion might be made that homosexuality in the priesthood is part of the problem.. Even then, it must be said that there are priests who are gay but celibate, single, and chaste.  It is a dead end hunt to blame clericalism or the inability to marry as the reason for the scandal.  That does not mean that clericalism is not bad or that obligatory celibacy for the priesthood is as to be as it is; it only means that neither of these are primary, secondary, or even tertiary contributors to the scandal of abuse.  We need to stop blaming the things we don't like for the things that go wrong and begin looking honestly both for causes and solutions.  Clericalism and celibacy did not cause the sex abuse scandal.  The liturgy is not the reason people are not flocking to the church.  The church is not free to move the means of grace to the sideline in favor of something they think more relevant or effective.  Let us begin the discussion by at least admitting these truths.


Anonymous said...

Lutherans may find interesting this description of the first Lutheran house of worship, constructed and dedicated at Torgau in 1544, when ruminating over what is and isn't, or what should be or shouldn't be considered authentic Lutheran worship today:

"The first item condemned by Martin Luther in Article 15 of the Smalcald Articles is the dedication of churches. Yet in 1544, Luther was asked to dedicate the first church building specifically built as a Lutheran church, the chapel at Hartenfels Castle in Torgau. This meant no less than recasting a new theologically and practically appropriate liturgical form for putting a new Lutheran church building to use.

No rite of consecration (in the traditional Catholic sense) took place at Torgau, with no holy water, holy oil, or incense. The inaugural service featured a morning and afternoon sermon, with no sacrament of holy communion observed at either. Luther's sermon was titled, "Dedication of a new House to the office of preaching God's Word, built in the Torgau Castle of the Sovereign Elector." Luther curiously avoided the terms "church" and "chapel" and emphasized that the new house was intended for the "Predigtamt."

The body of the sermon revealed Luther's thoughts on places of worship; specifically, that any "place" was open for religious worship. As the Annunciation had not happened under a church roof, so "any place under heaven with enough room" is appropriate for a sermon to be preached to an "orderly, communal, honest assembly." Luther was thus emphasizing the centrality of the public congregational worship service, at a site whose sacralization came solely through the preaching of the Gospel and faith of the congregation. Luther's Gemeindetheologie mandated the presence of the faithful to effect the sacrality of the church building...yet this was always temporally, not spatially, inherently, or ecclesiastically."

(from Andrew Spicer, "Lutheran Churches in Early Modern Europe," 2017, pp. 22-3)

"The prominent pulpit is the obvious center of the room’s attention, visible from every place in the chapel, both from the ground floor and from the Duke’s place in the gallery, which opened off his personal quarters. It is mounted at the level of the first gallery and centered on the wall opposite. This conforms to Luther’s own comments at the dedication that the room was intended for the proclamation of God’s word.

"The barrel of the pulpit is adorned with three scenes from the Gospels, each illustrating one of the Reformation’s three signature “solas.” From left to right, these images are: Jesus forgiving the sin of the woman caught in adultery (Sola Gratia); the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple teaching by pointing to the Scriptures (Sola Scriptura); and Jesus driving the money changers from the temple (illustrating Sola Fide through the Lutheran rejection of the sale of indulgences and the practice of pilgrimages).

"At the end of the room, to the preacher’s right, on the main floor but elevated on two steps, stands a stone table: the altar for the Sacrament of the Altar. The corners of the mensa (the top) rest on four angelic beings. There is room behind the table for the presiding pastor to face the congregation, as Luther recommended in his commentary of 1526 on the liturgy for his suggested, vernacular, German Mass.

"There is no railing or barrier that would limit access from the common space. Luther did not recognize a hierarchy of holiness within the church space or outside of it. In his dedicatory sermon, he remarked that the community could be meeting just as well outside by the fountain, but that the room had been set aside as a mark of orderliness and neighborly service."

Also from Luther's sermon:

“It is the intention of this building that nothing else shall happen inside it except that our dear Lord shall speak to us through His Holy Word, and we in turn talk to Him through prayer and praise.”

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Anonymous said...


The better source for understanding how Lutherans worshipped, at least in Germany, is by reviewing the various Church Orders and paintings of Lutheran worship throughout Germany.

It will give the low-church pietists a case of the heebie-jeebies.


James Kellerman said...

The church in Torgau was a royal chapel, not a typical parish church. As Luther makes clear in his dedication sermon (LW 51:331ff), this was a place for members of the royal court to come--and anyone else who happened to visit. Thus, Luther spent much of his sermon talking about the vocation of the nobility: how they should not think of themselves as superior, but also not give up their rank as if that would render them more holy. Instead they should ply their God-given vocation in humility.

Thus, this building doesn't really offer a new model for parish churches, even if it did end up doing that to some degree. Instead, its main significance is that it reformed the devotional life of godly rulers. In pre-Reformation times, a royal palace would have been the place where priests said private mass after private mass for the welfare of the ruler and his family, with no one from the family communing or necessarily even being present. Now that that flummery had been put aside, what was to take its place in a godly ruler's life? Prayer and the Word of God. Instead of a hired priest doing his priestcraft on behalf of but apart from the royal family, now a court chaplain would preach God's Word and lead the family in prayer. That is why Luther's sermon belabors the point that truly evangelical worship is nothing like the works-righteous endeavors of monks and mass-priests.

Thus, Luther's sermon (and the corresponding activities at the dedication) is not a critique of the role of the Sacrament of the Altar in the life of the church and should not be read as such.

James Kellerman said...

Instead of "royal palace" in the second paragraph, read "royal chapel."

Anonymous said...

Hi Anonymous and James,

The court chapel was for Matins, Vespers, and Hauptgottesdienst for the entire court and those employed by it: an entire small city, if you will. This is why the Duke had his own gallery to separate himself from the hoi polloi. This is no critique of the Sacrament of the Altar, but simply an observation that preaching the Word was always at the center of Lutheran worship. To assert otherwise is to misunderstand what Lutherans think preaching does: it is a means of grace through which the Holy Spirit creates and sustains faith. It is by believing (and being baptized into Christ) that we are saved.

Anonymous said...

I'm all for looking at paintings and giving Pietists heebie-jeebies. Let's look at the two best-known paintings, the altarpieces (which the Gnesio-Lutherans abhorred), Wittenberg and Torslunda. Preachers are dressed in black preaching robes. Do we do that today? No? Oh, well. Pastors distributing communion are dressed in black cassocks with shorter white surplices. Do we do that today? No? Oh, well. Melanchthon is baptizing! Do we let lay people do stuff like that today? No? Oh, never mind...

James Kellerman said...

I fully agree with the comments of Anonymous 6/14 @ 6:30 pm. I'll go one step further and say that good, solid preaching understood as a means of grace leads one to appreciate the other means of grace (including the Lord's Supper). But a high view of the sacrament doesn't necessarily lead to a high view of preaching. Just ask Rome.

Meanwhile, I've noticed that there is a squabble between two (other?) anonymous individuals over 16th century haberdashery. Let me see if I can shed some light rather than heat. The one anonymous thinks that the church orders and paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries offer us a uniformly Lutheran version of Anglo-Catholicism. They don't. Some Lutherans for good reasons retained all liturgical vestments and some for good reasons rejected many of them. The question was far more complex than most people today allow.

For one thing, the pre-Reformation liturgy was not uniformly a high papal mass. Monks and friars often conducted the mass sans Eucharistic vestments. Some orders eschewed all adornment other than a crucifix. Small country churches had a much plainer service than the city churches did. Let's not romanticize current papal or Lutheran practice back to those days.

But the other anonymous has erred in reading too much into the Wittenberg altarpiece. Melanchthon is depicted as baptizing; therefore, lay people (or is it just lay classicists?) can baptize publicly too! By that logic, we ought to conclude that Martin Luther was at the Last Supper. After all, he is depicted as being there. (Maybe that explains why Luther was so insistent on holding to the words of institution: He. Was. There.) But art should not always be read at a literal level. The point of the altarpiece is that Melanchthon, Luther, and Bugenhagen collectively transformed our understanding of baptism, the Lord's Supper, and preaching. Besides, Melanchthon explicitly rejected any right to administer sacraments: see the first full paragraph of column 313 at

James Kellerman said...

In case you can't read Melanchthon's Latin: "A teacher is a person called to teach the gospel, not govern the church. He has the authority to teach, but does not have ecclesiastical oversight [administratio]. Also, he does not administer the sacraments, just as I do not have administration of the sacraments. Teachers are below the rank of pastors, unless some are called pastors and teachers at the same time."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your good humor, James. I never realized that Luther's presence at the original Last Supper gave him the keen insight to hold fast to the plain meaning of our Lord's words. Luther did in fact ask Melanchthon to preach after the Divine Service in Wittenberg during his absence at the Wartburg to help settle the reformatory unrest there. This was not unusual, being standard practice for preaching orders of monks even in Catholicism. Philipp demurred because, depending on the historian, he either didn't want to or felt that he didn't have a call to do so. I'd personally go with the former reason. Lutherans defended against the Calvinists the right of the laity to baptize. Your point that Melanchthon would have not done so publicly is taken for granted, but the Wittenberg altarpiece itself highlights this Lutheran doctrinal distinctive. It's rooted in what Lutherans called in the old days "the priesthood of believers." I believe the CTCR has kindly asked CPH to perhaps consider publishing a book on what is one of the central tenets of the Reformation. Perhaps it will begin with this quote from Luther:

"We firmly maintain there is no other Word of God than the one all Christians are told to preach; there is no other Baptism than the one all Christians may administer; there is no other remembrance of the Lord's Supper than the one any Christian may celebrate; also there is no other sin than the one every Christian may bind or loose..."

This of course does not overthrow the preaching office in the least, but does serve to locate the authority for preaching and administering the sacraments from God himself, who holds ultimate authority in working through the word, sacraments, and absolution, to all individual Christians, an assembly of which gathers and calls a fellow "priest" to be their pastor who preaches and administers the sacraments on their behalf publicly.

As to the question of haberdashery, the mania for "Anglo Catholicism" is indeed one that is rampant at all levels today, and relies on a simplistic historical revisionism. Lutherans worshiped lots of different ways, from elaborate to plain. What's being promoted with an incessant drumbeat today is that "elaborate" equals "authentic." This blog is no exception. For example, let's say your congregation wants to buy a processional cross. Everybody likes a good, festive processional cross! But if you go to CPH and click on "Processional Cross," you will find your options are limited to three processional crucifixes. Because that's more authentic. CPH is making that decision as to what "authentic" Lutheranism really is for you. I think somewhere in the Augsburg Confession it says something like, "Diversity in practice does not destroy unity in faith." Or something.

James Kellerman said...

I wouldn't make CPH the arbiter of what is good Lutheran taste. Buying ecclesiastical art from them has long been like buying your groceries at 7-11: the selection is lousy, and what you do find is overpriced. If I took their selection personally, I'd have to conclude that CPH literally wants to defrock me: they don't sell clerical shirts to lanky guys like myself.

I don't think it is quite fair to characterize this blog or most of us higher church Lutherans as saying "'elaborate' equals 'authentic.'" Most of us love to cite the Piepkorn rule that there is only rubric: be reverent; everything else is commentary. We do think that there are good reasons why a more elaborate style of worship is better for a post-modern, post-Christian world, and we are not shy about stating those reasons. But we acknowledge that there are good Lutherans who would argue otherwise.

If Peters and others sound cranky at times, it is because we have long heard that "plain" equals "authentic." If there are people on our side who are now romanticizing the 16th century, they are reacting in an unhelpful manner to an equally romantic view that we have long been told: the Reformation abolished Latin, vestments, and practically anything liturgical; what liturgical trappings did survive were on sufferance until such times as those more ignorant Lutherans could get with the program and adopt a plainer style; anyone who goes toward a higher style of worship is a traitor to the Lutheran Reformation, since one should always go the opposite way.

Neither "elaborate" nor "plain" equals "authentic." There are arguments to be made for both. But since this thread is probably winding down, we'll talk about that further sometime down the road. Feel free to post again and I'll read it, but I think this about says all that I need to say now. Pax.