Thursday, 17 December 2009

Home to Rome?


I recently posted the quote below over at ‘What Sasse Said’. It is taken from a lecture Sasse gave to an evangelical student organization, the Inter-Varsity Fellowship, in my hometown of Brisbane, Queensland in 1967. Writing just two years after the conclusion of Vatican II, Sasse is reflecting on what Rome’s entry into the ecumenical movement, signalled at Vatican II, means for Christendom. At the present time, when the currency of ecumenism has been devalued, it is helpful to place Sasse’s comments in context, and note that at the time of this lecture the movement still held some promise, particularly with Rome’s entry, albeit on its own terms.
Sasse, like many confessional Lutherans, remained ambivalent about the movement. On the one hand, history and politics had determined that the Lutherans had always been engaged with the Reformed on one side and Rome on the other, particularly in Germany, but the advent of the ecumenical movement meant that now this engagement could take place through dialogue rather than polemics, a refreshing development for many. On the other hand, especially from his visit to the US in the early 1920s and his familiarity with Anglicanism, Sasse knew the danger to the Gospel from a ‘lowest common denominator’ attitude towards doctrine. Rome at least took doctrine seriously, unlike the Anglicans, for whom it often appeared to be nothing more than a troublesome hindrance to unity under an episcopacy in the apostolic succession, something to be agreed upon speedily in the broadest possible terms so that the real business of church polity could be discussed.

Here’s the quote, followed by my take on the interesting recent developments vis a vis Rome and ecumenism:

“[The] entry of Rome into the Ecumenical Movement of our time has completely changed the ecumenical situation. We are all now no longer confronted only with the Anglican concept of a future Re-united Church, based on that minimum of doctrine which East and West, Catholicism and Protestantism have in common, and with the concept of church unity that underlies the World Council of Churches. These concepts presuppose that Rome would eventually give up her claims and cease to be Roman. We are now confronted with a plan for reunion in an ecumenical church in which all churches, without giving up any of the treasures each of them possesses, but spiritually and theologically renewed and enriched by what they can mutually accept, would come together under the renewed office of the supreme shepherd of all Christians, who would rule the Universal Church together with the universal college of bishops. The advantage of the Roman plan over those of Canterbury-Lambeth and Geneva is its feasibility. It would include Rome in the process of reunion which could never reach its goal as long as the largest church of Christendom remained outside.”

From Holy Church or Holy Writ? The 1967 Inter-Varsity Fellowship Annual Lecture in Queensland.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since Sasse uttered those words from a lecture podium in Brisbane, casting his mind and those of his hearers across the world (and across the Tiber!) to Rome. Sasse was speaking amidst the first flush of optimism that the entry of Rome into the ecumenical movement at Vatican II brought. To put this quote and this lecture into perspective, it should be remembered that this attitude of openness to the possibility of rapprochement between the churches was a complete reversal of the isolationism that Rome maintained for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. It can reasonably be said that much of the promise that this development contained has failed to come to fruition. While dialogue has contributed to the removal of caricatures and increased mutual understanding, the actual goal of reunion presently seems as far off as ever.

Indeed, it might be observed that there is presently an intra-Roman struggle to define Rome's stance towards ecumenical engagement, with Cardinal Kasper representing the optimism of Vatican II and Pope Benedict XVI representing a repristination of the Roman conservatism of the past, albeit with a radical face: witness the special provisions for Traditional Anglicans announced in 2009, which seems like a new, Western 'uniatism' parallel to Rome's Eastern uniate churches.

To what extent does this now represent Rome's future approach to ecumenical engagement, that is, not to seek communion with, so much as absorption of the orthodox remnants of Protestantism? (Who shall be victorious in this struggle, Kasper or Ratzinger? I suggest we shall not know the outcome until the election of the next Pope.)
Which brings us to the observation that it is the moral and doctrinal disarray of Anglicanism and much of Protestantism which explains Rome's shift; it can now position itself as a 'rock' (petra!) of stability in comparison with the shifting sands of Protestantism, and turn its eyes towards reunion with the Orthodox East, recently liberated from the shackles of communism (yes, I realise this liberation happened twenty years ago this year, but twenty years is but the blink of an eye in ecclesiastical history).

What is the confessional Lutheran answer to the questions these developments propose to us today, forty years after Sasse delivered this lecture? Some Lutherans are open to the 'uniate' option offered to Traditional Anglicans, seeing it as a lifeboat in which to escape the sinking ship of Protestantism. Where once the cry of Lutherans was ‘Away from Rome!’ (the German Lutheran equivalent to English Protestantism’s ‘No Popery!’), now the cry on the lips of some of the Lutheran Church’s best and brightest seems to be ‘Home to Rome!’ (In fact, Sasse’s own son, Hans, who studied for the Lutheran ministry, later converted to Rome, being led in that direction through reading the journal of the American Lutheran liturgical movement, Una Sancta ).

But does not the return to Rome necessitate the sacrifice of conscience? Even if one may, for argument's sake, judge that the church divisive issue of justification, the central question of the reformation, has been resolved by the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, what of the doctrines Rome has promulgated since the Reformation? How do Lutheran pastors and theologians who rightly question the role of private revelations in Pentecostalism subscribe so readily to the new revelations granted to the Papacy?

What is a confessional Lutheran to do if his own church, adrift on the sea of post-modernity without ballast or anchor, begins to sink? Go home to Rome? Check ‘What Sasse Said’ for Sasse's answer to these questions, as the remainder of the lecture, in edited form, is posted there (link in sidebar) over the coming weeks.

10 comments:

christl242 said...

What is a confessional Lutheran to do if his own church, adrift on the sea of post-modernity without ballast or anchor, begins to sink? Go home to Rome?

Well, that's what I thought when I swam the Tiber for ten years before reverting to my Lutheran roots.

People, especially those who have never experienced Rome from the inside, are way too impressed (and to be clear, I am not referring to anyone on this blog) by the externals that Rome claims.

A "baptized" membership of billions, even though many are practically unevangelized pagans.

The very "roomy" tent of Roman Catholicism in which one can believe just about anything as long as one adheres to the "unity" of the Chair of Peter.

That vaunted unity is internally riven with strife between "traditional" and "progressive" Catholics and the novus ordo in many parishes leaves much to be desired.

The fact that the Catholic Church is still grounded in the sacraments more than Scripture, which too many Catholics still don't know in spite of Vatican II.

I remember those heady early days of the ecumenical movement. It has played out rather differently than anticipated.

As for Lutherans, we, too are part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and need not bear the burden that Rome does in claiming to be the fullness of the church that Christ founded.

If any particular Lutheran synod or body fails, the evangelical catholic Lutheran Church will rise up again elsewhere.

Christine

Matthias said...

if one does not wish to cross the Tiber ,i would believe that there is only three options

1/ Work within the denomination to return it ot Confessional lutheranism per se

2/ Join with other Protestants ,who stand by the HISTORIC faith ,the Confessions of the Reformation and trusting in God ,and build a new denomination.Appeal to those of us in Non Conformist denominations who do not wantto go Romeward,but who are not eniterly happy with the lack of a Confessional approach,nor the 'freefor all"
that sometimes marks our services as being different ,the singing of hymns awful and mournful ,a cabaret atmosphere not to mention triumphalism of how good we are!! Gee i know about crossing the Tiber but how about travelling to wittenberg or crossing to geneva. No Wittenberg sounds easier.

matthias said...

The third aspect was the appeal to Non Conformists . Got carried away

acroamaticus said...

"Well, that's what I thought when I swam the Tiber for ten years before reverting to my Lutheran roots."
Your comments are informed by your experience Christine, which is why I value them.

"People, especially those who have never experienced Rome from the inside, are way too impressed (and to be clear, I am not referring to anyone on this blog) by the externals that Rome claims."
I agree, Rome looks good ‘on paper’, but the reality is different. I’ve gained the impression from my discussions with some Lutherans who have swum the Tiber that they have made up their minds before even attending their first Mass.

"A "baptized" membership of billions, even though many are practically unevangelized pagans."
See below on sacraments.

"The very "roomy" tent of Roman Catholicism in which one can believe just about anything as long as one adheres to the "unity" of the Chair of Peter."
Mmm…anything but the justification of the ungodly by grace alone through faith alone? My judgment is that differences on justification still havn’t been resolved sufficiently to say that the differences are still not church divisive. Then there is the question of being in communion with people who believe some very strange things…

"That vaunted unity is internally riven with strife between "traditional" and "progressive" Catholics and the novus ordo in many parishes leaves much to be desired.
Yes and yes! The internecine strife amongst Catholics, even at the highest levels, often seems to reach much higher levels of acrimony than in Lutheranism. A subjective impression, to be sure, but there you have it.

"The fact that the Catholic Church is still grounded in the sacraments more than Scripture, which too many Catholics still don't know in spite of Vatican II."
This is a problem – while Rome preserves the objective content of the dominical sacraments, do they neglect the subjective side?The sacraments require faith for a beneficial reception, an ex opere operato position, to use theological shorthand, is dangerous and leads to nominalism.
Just out of interest, if you look under ‘Eastern Orthodoxy’ in my archives you will see a post entitled ‘Evangelised or sacramentalised’ which addresses this question in regard to the Orthodox and points to a resource by one of their own, Bradley Nassif. The book, ‘Three Views on Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism’ also touches on this problem from both sides.

tbc.

acroamaticus said...

cont...

"I remember those heady early days of the ecumenical movement. It has played out rather differently than anticipated."
There was much promise, and good work has been done, especially in the international L-RC dialogue (which the LC-MS participated in, let us not forget!), but since then a ‘different spirit’ seems to have entered in, especially in the wcc (no capitals, suddenly my shift tab stopped working!).

"As for Lutherans, we, too are part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and need not bear the burden that Rome does in claiming to be the fullness of the church that Christ founded."
I would put it like this: the one, holy catholic and apostolic church, which is an article of faith, subsists in the Lutheran Church, or, for that matter, wherever the Gospel is preached in its purity and the sacraments are rightly administered, for God’s Word never returns to him empty – wherever it goes forth you will find Christians, and hence the church.
And yes, as one who is conscious of history, it seems that it must be a terrible burden to live with the contradictions between Rome’s history and its claims.

"If any particular Lutheran synod or body fails, the evangelical catholic Lutheran Church will rise up again elsewhere."
This we have every right to believe, refer what I said above re God’s Word. At least the issues that beset world Lutheranism are clearly drawn! And the state of the confessional churches is, at least in my judgment, much better than that of Rome; our issues are mainly to do with the application of doctrine, but in Rome false doctrine is declared to be truth.

acroamaticus said...

I agree, Matthias, but I would put all my eggs in basket number one, in the hope that number two might then happen! What can we Lutherans learn from the high profile evangelicals who have gone to Rome or Constantinople? Including the ‘Evangelical Orthodox’ who came out of the Campus Crusade for Christ and ended up in the Antiochian Orthodox Church in the US. Why was not Wittenberg considered an option for them? As an Anglican who ‘left Canterbury for Wittenberg’, here are the strengths of the Lutheran Church as I see them: it is evangelical (the Gospel is preached clearly and doctrine is clearly related to the Gospel), yet also catholic (creeds, confessions, historical continuity and liturgical worship), not liberal (it knows what it believes, the Bible still has authority), but not fundamentalist either (not cranky, politically driven or isolationist).
That’s not so say we’re perfect, in fact, the lack of triumphalism in Lutheranism has an appeal all its own: “Proud to be Lutheran, but not too proud!!” The challenge is to renew our congregational life through these strengths.

matthias said...

I think that in regards to the Evangelical orthodox becomming Antiochan,it wasthe appeal to something culturally different .Turning lutheran would be too much common sense. Francis Scaheffer the Prebyterian apologist of the 50s to the early 80's ,has a son who has turned Greek orthodox. Must have been a "tradition" of the protestant of the protestants turning orthodox.

acroamaticus said...

I've met a few ex-Protestant converts to Orthodoxy in my time and many of them seemed to be ex-hippies also. Is it that Orthodoxy is Christianity in an Eastern garb that attracts them? I don't mean to belittle the theological reasons they put forward for conversion, not at all, but it is a strange thing to do to adopt an alien culture as part of a religious conversion and sometimes I think the phenonemon parallels the Westerners who become Hindu/Hare Krishna, a certain rejection of 'Westernism' and a longing for immersion in a strange and 'other' culture is involved.

Schütz said...

My time for making comments tonight is fast coming to an end, but this is an important topic. FWIW, I think on this one, Sasse was actually more prophetic than on his prophecy that the Catholic Church would decline in size.

Also, in the ecumenical movement today, Rome remains the only one committed to full, visible unity of all Christians. This is Rome's "model", as it was for the early ecumenical movement, but it has largely been abandoned by Protestant ecumenism. And, of course, if all Christians are to be visibly one, one of those Christians must be the Pope of Rome!

You are wrong to call the new arrangements for receiving estranged Anglicans as a "Uniate" situation. The Apostolic Constitution was not about establishing an Anglican Rite Church within the communion of Catholic Churches.

I actually think "the Anglican solution" is a very good example of how Rome envisages the future of Roman-Protestant ecumenism. Essentially, Protestants are Latin/Western Christians, and therefore not a separate "church" or "rite" to the Latin Church. What Benedict has done is acknowledge that many of the Protestant traditions have preserved and even developed valuable gifts that would benefit the Catholic Church. The price of full communion is full acceptance of Catholic doctrine. But the gift of full communion is the diversity of rich practices and spiritualities that the separated brethren and sistern can bring into the Catholic fold.

I recently read something that Karl Barth wrote about the "unity in diversity" idea. He stress that in the NT, Unity always has priority over diversity, and the diversity is only valid where there is true unity. True and valid diversity in the Church only rises out of true and valid unity.

But I will expand on comments in the near future.

christl242 said...

The price of full communion is full acceptance of Catholic doctrine.

Hmmm. Forgive me for being cheeky, but perhaps the Catholic Church ought to work on that premise for her own before requiring it of others :)

Christine