Saturday, December 3, 2022

The Problem of Authority. . .

The root of the problem that resulted in the Reformation was not quite justification as some might assume.  The question of how the sinner is justified before God is a question that hinges upon another question more at the core and center of the Reformation than even justification itself.  That is the question of authority.  It is a question that has come back to haunt both Rome and Lutheranism and that is now at the core and center of the present and future of these churches.

Rome did not deposit the full authority of the Church upon Scripture.  Instead, Scripture is one of three legs upon which Rome is built -- Scripture, Tradition, and a third leg that has variously been identified over the years.  For a time it was reason and the great philosopher theologians of the Roman tradition utilized logic and reason to both explain Scripture, defend the faith, and add to the faith things that were never explicitly or even hinted at within Scripture.  After Trent and especially after Vatican I, this leg shifted to the authority of the papacy.  The modern era brought with it a pope who was a player on the world stage and through the media of the day the popes became visible figures who were seen and heard by most of the faithful as the papacy had never been before.  The cult of the papacy was surely enhanced by the decisions of Vatican I but it has also been encouraged by the occupants of the office.  In this age of an imperial papacy, the only real power has been the power of the pope and not simply the authority of his office but also of his personality.

Rome's weakness has been that Luther was correct.  Councils and popes have erred.  Tradition has had its own internal conflicts, not in the least of which is the whole question of what falls within that Tradition and what is aberrant of on its fringes.  Without Scripture as the final authority and arbiter of truth, there are often competing claims to orthodoxy among the voices of Scripture, Tradition, and magisterium.  Further, while no one would suggest that the Rome of today is the same Rome of Aquinas, reason has not relinquished its role and primacy especially when it comes to Scripture.  Rome has been quick to find accommodation with the changing conclusions of science over the origins of man, the historicity of the people and stories of Scripture, and the veracity of the text itself.  That is coming to roost now as their leaders look for ways to make peace with feminism, homosexuality, trans identities, and current avenues of reproductive technology.  The split in Rome may actually come over authority -- council or papal or synodal (whatever that means) or Scripture.  It seems that the Germans seem to be pitting one against another in their view of what Rome ought to look like and say to the world.

Protestantism is another story.  For all its history of fundamentalism and its official adherence to the inerrancy of Scripture, the reality is that Protestantism has been broken on the rock of reason over and over again.  People say they believe the Bible until you talk about baptism or the Real Presence and then there is the ever present but that deviates from what the Word says.  From Calvinism to Arminianism to the every present issues of sex and gender, every side insists that its point of view rests upon Scripture and they alone are correct.  But Scripture cannot say one thing to some and something else to others?  Without any magisterium to decide (like James in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts), the whole gamut of Protestantism from Bible thumping fundamentalism to smooth and hip evangelicalism can say what it wants, insist that it is what Scripture says, and no one can challenge this (at least credibly so that orthodoxy is maintained).  For this reason, Protestantism is beginning to reflect the individualized faith in which doctrine does not really matter but feelings do -- a movement without a real sense or need for church at all (except for those who like it).  Online can replace the in person versions of this church and without any understanding of sacramentality (even of Scripture), Jesus is where they want Him to be saying what they want Him to say.

Lutheranism seems clear to those inside her but even that is rather a mess.  Confessional subscription is claimed by all Lutherans but the shape of that subscription varies.  Every Lutheran body insists that it is standing in the line of the confessors and reformers but those bodies are radically divided over doctrine and practice and not in communion with each other (or, if they are, insist that one does not have to agree with what the Sacrament is or what it conveys to receive it side by side).  There is no way to figure out the conundrum between those who claim a Lutheranism that embraces all the isms of the moment with those who insist it does not.  There is no way to end the debate and so the world looks at Lutherans wondering which kind of Lutheran is the real one.  To those outside Lutheranism, it is a fruitcake of choice fruit and a few nuts held together by a sweet dough.  I would be hard pressed to disagree even as one who would insist it is still the best option around.

Lutheranism says Scripture alone, though not the naked Scripture stripped out of the believing community (tradition) which has believed, confessed, and lived its truth over time.  Yet we cannot agree over what Scripture says either.  So the conservatives end up proof-texting their way through Scripture and the mighty Lutheran orthodox theologians to arrive as justification for why their position is the only correct position.  Moreover, some have regarded the claim at the end of the Augustana as merely a perfunctory platitude for the moment and not the claim to be catholic in doctrine and practice.  In that respect, some Lutherans are quite comfortable being sectarian if it suits their mood and purpose.  On the one hand, progressives seem quite comfortable with disagreement as long as there is tolerance while the conservatives seem intent upon making the requirements for agreement larger and larger and, in effect, upon making the circle of the church smaller -- bettesr a small orthodox church where we all agree (for now) than a larger church where the rules are bent.  Some are left looking in the rear view mirror when Lutheran seemed more united in theology and liturgy and the numbers were on our side and pine away for that day, having somewhat given up on the future except to order the decline and stave it off where possible.

Lutheranism writes better than it reads and lives better in the imagination than it does in reality.  I say this not because I have given up but because the confessional and theological writing is grand and the problem lies not with what is written but those who read it through the lens of their own preoccupation.  So the catholic claims of the Augustana have been replaced by the life of Lutherans who no longer want to be bound by those claims and who think that Lutheranism can be summed up by a mainstream of Lutheran faith and practice, an average of the practices that fits under the generic beliefs.  This is a surrender not only to defeat but to the very essence of the Lutheran claim for an efficacious and living Word that bounds even as it gives life.  While those on the liberal fringe of Lutheranism keep the rites to look the part, they have long ago surrendered the content of what is believed and confessed.  Those on the conservative side insist that they have kept the faith but view a minimalism of rites and ceremonies as necessary to preserve what is confessed.  If the Lutheranism we claim is true to Scripture and tradition as the Augustana claims, why would we not practice it rigorously?  Is there a fault for being excessive in a piety that expresses in life what we say we believe?  The answer to Lutheranism's problem lies within our own confessional identity -- be those who insist that we have not departed from catholic doctrine and practice.  Do it without qualification or embarrassment.  Do it without muddying up what the words say and mean.  If the authority rests upon a living Word that does what it says because it is the voice of Him who speaks, then live out that authority to its fullest.

Rome is not only broken but is continuing to break up under a council some say had to be and others say killed the church and a pope who is a muddled witness at best or undermining the faith at worst.  Without Scripture as authority, who is there to say which is Roman and which is not?  Protestantism imploded under the weight of its own emptiness and now it seems nobody cares about truth or doctrine anymore -- only about making people feel better about themselves.  Lutheran has allowed its once clear voice to be corrupted by those who make the claim but have abandoned the substance or by those who have chosen a point in time as our pristine moment and would like to revisit that moment forever.  Rome probably cannot be rescued from itself and will end up being a loose confederation of national churches around the imagined authority of a Roman Pontiff.  Evangelicalism will soon become a religious voice of culture and conservative Protestantism will schism itself into obscurity.  It seems to me that Lutheranism has the easiest path to renewal if we are willing.  And that is where Lutheran's weakness lies -- are we willing to be who we say we are?


Janis Williams said...

Excellent but sad truth. It appears we are living in a time when we are being called back to what Christ has promised us: Sacrifice. We as Lutherans (and I speak as one who came from the emptiness of Evangelicalism) will have to pull up our big boy pants and live as true Christians. We must live with Piety that will be sneered at by all sides. We must have the Faith and practice that will possibly result in financial and/or physical punishment. Lutherans have stood for Scripture alone, and we must return to that. Far too many Lutherans are as ignorant of Scripture as the average teenage Evangelical. That is a rough indictment. We no longer know our confessions; we don’t even try to remember the Catechism. I condemn myself in this as well. I don’t read my Bible often enough; I have failed at committing the Confessions to mind, and the Catechism to memory. If we do not become Lutherans who are Scripture soaked, we will fade into the oblivion the churches in general Pastor Peters has mentioned.

Chris said...

Funnies thing I read on the internet today. What garbage. Lutheranism is also guided by its own traditions that are NEVER found in Scripture and continues to play into this ridiculous dichotomy of Scripture v. Tradition rather than Tradition in Scripture. The two are not opposed to one another. I find it beyond funny that if Lutherans really believed their own b.s. how could there possibly be a different Lutheranism for every person out there. Go and continue to believe your own crap.