Thursday, January 2, 2020

What confidence. . .

I have a friend (I know this surprises some of you) who is Roman Catholic.  He is a very traditional sort of Roman Catholic and is in a constant state of consternation over Pope Francis.  Yet he gives no thought to leaving the Roman Catholic Church and allows no possibility that, despite appearances, the Roman Catholic Church could ever be wrong.  Popes can err.  Even councils can go astray.  Mighty teachers may be faulted.  Bishops may fail to act episcopally.  Priests may act terribly.  But his confidence that Rome is the one and only Church does not waver.  He is very friendly and cordial to me and appreciative of the LCMS from time to time but, though he does not like to admit it, believes me to be outside the Church.  If I am saved, it is accidental and due to God's largess but I have not the Mass and am not part of the Church.  It does not seem to matter that his Pope embarrasses and confounds him or that the priestly abuse scandal shocks him or that bishops and cardinals espouse things that offends him.  His confidence is that the Roman Catholic Church is the one and only Church and that as a member of that Church he will receive the full fruit and benefit of God's presence and favor now and in the life to come.

Our friendship shares many things but we live in different worlds when it comes to the Church.  He has utter and seemingly unshakable confidence in the Church, meaning particularly the Roman Catholic Church.  Obviously, I do not.  That kind of unshakable confidence is reserved for the Scriptures alone.  Christianity is the religion that flows from the dynamic Word of God, spoken first through patriarchs and prophets and lived out within the presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple until it became flesh of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.  He fulfilled the Law of Moses and the promise of the Prophets, giving the fullest revelation of God's saving will and redemptive love by offering Himself for us on the cross, enduring its suffering, bearing the full weight of our sin, and atoning for that sin as the Lamb of God alone can do.  He rose so that death would not have the last word, marching through hell itself as the Living One whom death could not contain, and showed Himself risen so that we might have hope and confidence that we too shall rise again.  This resurrection also served to vindicate His promises and show that He was who He claimed to be and is the God who saves His people.  This is what was taught by the Apostles and this is the faith confirmed by the early ecumenical councils.

My friend, by his own admission, has placed his confidence in the Church (here Roman Catholic) to determine what the Scriptures are, what they say, and how they are applied.  For him, Tradition is not a witness to the Scriptures but the Scriptures part of the Tradition.  The Church (again Roman) is itself an authority, perhaps even the authority greater than the Scriptures or the Tradition, since the Church is more than mere custodian of the Word and guardian of the faith but the voice to determine what that faith is.  The Pope has not only the ultimate authority to infallibly add to the doctrinal corpus or define it but the practical authority to shape that communion by those whom he selects as bishops (and cardinals).

It appears to me that the Reformation may not have been simply about justification at all but is principally about authority -- the authority of the Scriptures, the authority of the Church, and the authority of the Pope.  In this way, the Reformation was first about this authority in order to preserve the Gospel of Christ's work and not our works that save us.  Certainly we Lutherans make much of the many attestations from the early fathers to support the Reformers' position.  We point to the significance of the later development of the papacy that reached its pinnacle in the medieval period as evidence of departure rather than development.  It was for this reason the Reformers thought they would find a friendlier view from the East where the Reformation was viewed more as an internal matter of the West than anything else.

In the end what I am saying is that my friend and I are at an impasse theologically.  We cannot reconcile what he has deposited in the Church (Roman Catholic) and I have deposited in the Scriptures.  Now, I am not at all sure that every Roman Catholic or every Lutheran sees things through these two lenses but it has helped me greatly as two people who should find convergence must deal with disparity in the common search for authority and the voice that speaks "thus saith the Lord" in an age in which truth has become almost obsolete.

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