Monday, 13 December 2010

Abscondita est ecclesia...

Abscondita est ecclesia, latent sancti
(The church is hidden, the holy ones are kept from sight)
Martin Luther, De servo arbitrio, 1525, WA 18652 holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.
The Augsburg Confession, 1530

Erstwhile Lutheran brother come Ignatian Roman Catholic David Schütz (pictured) has responded to my recent post "Heretics, Sectarians and 'The Lutheran Difference'" over at his blog Sentire Cum Ecclesia (click on post title to view). I've advised David that present duties preclude an extended, point by point response from me at the moment (it is, after all, Advent, and fast heading towards Christmas), and I have noted that he has explicated quite a bit from what was ostensibly a plug for a book.

However, were an extended discussion possible, I think it is likely that the nub of the matter would soon be found to be the Lutheran understanding of the church as hidden but revealed through Word and Sacrament, as opposed to the Roman understanding of it as a visible, hierarchical, and therefore unequivocably recognisable institution. So let's not beat about the bush. David, I have no doubt, rejects the "hidden yet revealed" Lutheran ecclesiology. But I suspect he does so because he reads it along the lines of a Reformed view of a division between the "visible" and "invisible" churches (that terminology has indeed been used by Lutherans, but never with the implications that either the Reformed or David ascribe to it).

In fact, and I know this is a big call - I don't know that David has ever really grasped the Lutheran ecclesiology, and I think this explains much about his conversion to Rome (before I continue let me say that David has, to use a cricketing analogy, bowled quite a few bouncers down the pitch at me since I started blogging, which I have mostly let go through to the keeper; so I feel entitled to bowl the occasional one back at him!). One can find evidence in support of my assertion in a document David wrote almost 10 years ago, which he has placed in the public domain...
...In ecumenical theology, two ecclesiologies are possible: 1) The true Church of Christ on earth is a visible reality which is manifested and recognised by certain “marks” and is to be identified with a particular denomination to the extent that it preserves these “marks” in their fullness/purity; or 2) the true Church of Christ is an invisible reality that consists of the spiritual communion of true believers who are known only to God, and who may be found in any denomination, or indeed, even beyond the bounds of organised Christianity. I do not believe the second option to be valid: the church is the body of Christ, and Christ is incarnate (he is not “the invisible man”). It is my understanding that historically the Lutheran Church (and even more specifically, the LCA) has held the former definition, and has regarded itself to be the true church because it alone has perfectly preserved the true Word and Sacraments. For this reason, we have been wary of entering into communion other churches, because of a perceived lack of purity in the preservation of these marks. If so, is the Lutheran Church not claiming to be the one holy catholic church, and, if so, how is this claim to be justified?
From David Schuetz, For the Summit at St Paul's, Box Hill, 9th March 2001; italics mine.

I distinctly remember when I first read this document. I was at seminary in North Adelaide and the documents relating to this summit had been obtained by a member of the student body and distributed to those who might be interested. It must have been the Easter break of 2001, and I remember sitting in my attic study at 217a Archer Street and nearly falling off my chair and tumbling down the stairs when I read David's words as quoted above. "How could he get it so wrong!?" I exclaimed..."Has he never read the LCA's Theses of Agreement V, Theses on the Church, with its copious scripture and confessional references and its crystal clear Affirmativa and Negativa?" (These theses - try saying or typing that 10 times - were adopted at a joint meeting of the intersynodical committees of the two Australian Lutheran synods of the time in February 1950, and are available here:

The Theses, which state the public doctrine of the LCA, clearly reject both of David's "ecumenical... ecclesiologies", by which I think he means the two main types of ecclesiologies which have undoubtedly had historical and theological primacy. If I could boil the theses down for my purposes here (and I do suggest you read them for yourself), we find that they teach that the una sancta is not to be identified with a particular visible denomination (contra David's 1st ecclesiology), but neither is it a Platonic or imaginary state (contra David's 2nd ecclesiology; note how "spiritual" for David seems to imply unreal). Rather, it is a spiritual, but nonetheless real (how could it not be real for a Lutheran!), fellowship which is more or less hidden in the world but which has been called into being and is preserved by God through the Gospel purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered - these works of God then constitute the marks of the church: where the Lord is, there, most certainly, is his church (Is 55:11). The church is, most importantly, an article of faith,a truth which no Roman theologian worth his salt would deny, I'm sure.

It is this last aspect of the Lutheran doctrine, that the church is an article of faith, which I believe David has had most trouble. If one believes that the una sancta is unqualifiedly visible and incarnate, as David appears to believe already at this stage as a Lutheran pastor, then it is no surprise that one will be attracted to Rome, the visible church par excellence! Note his comment above that "the church is the body of Christ, and Christ is incarnate (he is not “the invisible man”)". Indeed, Christ was not invisible during the time of his earthly incarnation, but his Godhood was only "visible" to the eyes of those who looked upon him with faith! Just the same, the church, which is his body on earth, is only visible to the eyes of faith. That does not make her any the less real, though. She will most certainly one day be revealed to the whole world as the one, holy, and glorified church, along with her Lord. Until that time, however, she exists only under the Cross, which seems to be foolishness to men (1 Cor 1:18-2:16). Rome's attempts to pre-empt the "already but not yet" eschatological unity, holiness and glory of the church appear to this writer to be catering to the natural man, who craves "signs and wonders" and without them is resigned to scepticism. The righteous, however, live by faith.

Indeed, Dominus Iesus (August 6, 2000) notwithstanding, it could be said that Rome's contemporary difficulties in establishing exactly where the limits of her own communion are to be drawn perhaps indicate a slow drifting away from her classical ecclesiology ("There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved" Fourth Lateran Council, 1215), which has proven impossible to maintain either before the scrutiny of history or the realities of contemporary Christendom. If the Eastern Orthodox can be regarded by Rome as existing in a "profound communion" with her (Paul VI, Papal Discourse, December 14, 1975), and even baptised and believing "Protestants" can be acknowedged as fratres seiuncti who exist in "a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church" (Unitatis redintegratio, November 21, 1964), then is not Rome de facto working with a version - its own version, to be sure - of the Lutheran ecclesiology? Could Rome even implicitly be acknowledging the truth of the Lutheran teaching that Christians (and hence the church) are found wherever the Word and Sacraments exist?

I will leave that to you, the reader, to ponder. I have done no more than sketch an outline of how I would respond to David, for that is all I have time to do at present. Perhaps we can best conclude by saying that the church is paradoxically a mystery which eludes the grasp of man, even while it is at the same time an indisputable reality to those who belong to it. Such are the ways of God on this side of the great Day of the Lord.

[Pic courtesy Tim Kuehn;]


Schütz said...

Dear Pastor,

I was somewhat limited in that 2001 document - I had 10 points to make and had to make them on one a4 piece of paper! - and so necessarily nuance was not possible. The discussion that followed however (it was for the Summit meeting of pastors) brought to light some of what you say. Also, I have since learned a great deal more about both Lutheran and Catholic ecclesiology, and recognise the inadequacy of the way in which I termed the ecclesiological differences in my 10 points.

So please cut me some slack on that matter!

That having been said, I think you miss my point about the "invisible man" comparison. Yes, the divinity of Christ was hidden, but his humanity was not. You could point to Jesus (if you were a Chalcedonian Christian standing there at that time - a bit anachronistic) and say: There is God-in-the-flesh. St John does as much in his gospel and first letter.

One ought to be able to do the same with the Church. Yes, the divine nature of the Church is indeed hidden and invisible - that is very obvious given the fallen nature of its members. But the human Body of Christ itself should be visible, rather than hidden.

As for the "limits of her own communion", these are established, as you say, by the elements of the true Church that really do exist outside her visible communion, by Word and Sacrament, as you would say. In preserving that insight, Lutheran ecclesiology is quite correct. It is not untrue to say that elements of the Church is to be found wherever the Word is preached purely and the sacraments administered rightly. Thus, the Catholic Church recognises that in those communities where there is true baptism, there is a real (if imperfect) communion with the Catholic Church. Same goes for the true Eucharist and true Holy Orders (also regarded as sacrament by the Catholic Church). Same goes for those who have, use and uphold the Christian Scriptures.

The problem is with the definition of those "true" elements.

Let me pose you a question. How, in Lutheran theology, does the Church authoritatively teach Christian doctrine? In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says that if there is a dispute it should be taken to "the Church". Which "Church"? Who is this Church that decides such a dispute? Lutheran ecclesiology is "weak" because it does not have a teaching Church. If the Lutheran Church of Australia teaches this or that doctrine to be true, is this "the Church" teaching? Or only the LCA? (This relates, you see, to your original post on the problem about "mere Christianity").

This goes to the heart of the problem of Lutheran ecclesiology. It is a fine and praiseworthy thing to say that the Church is wherever the Gospel is taught purely and the Sacraments administered rightly, but if the Church is not an objective visible human society upon earth that teaches what "purely" and "rightly" mean in this context, how can this have any meaning ecclesiologically?

Pr Mark Henderson said...

I'm more than happy to cut you some slack, David.

I'll ruminate on your response for a while before responding myself.

One thing I will say and I think we would both acknowledge is that Lutheran ecclesiology was drawn up to meet an emergency situation which then became the norm for several hundred years, and unfortunately it was not re-visited in that time because of other more pressing issues.

Schütz said...

Yes, I allow for that. It was much easier for the definition of the church as the "community of saints who preaches the gospel purely and celebrates the sacraments rightly" to work when there was already a functioning understanding of what the Church was by the mere fact of its existence in every village. A little harder now today in the context of the plethora of "denominations" and religions. I am rather hoping that the Lutheran community will see the spelling out of a more robust ecclesiology (which need by no means simply be an imitation of our ecclesiology) as an urgent task for the sake of the dialogue. You can't speak of the unity of hte Church if you don't agree on what the church is!

Pr Mark Henderson said...

"A little harder now in the context of a plethora of denominations".
Yes. Strangely, Wilhelm Loehe provides a greta deal of help here in his little Three Books on the Church - I say strangely because he certainly wasn't writing out of a context that was plagued with denominations and sects, but his thinking is crystal clear and fully informed by the Lutheran Confessions. The result, I gather, of much thinking about this issue.

Death Bredon said...

Surely, the Church militant has both visible and invisible aspects.