Monday, 20 December 2010

The Primacy of the Gospel over the Church; or, Why Inverting the World's Lies Does Not Necessarily Lead to Biblical Truth

"The renaissance of the idea of the Church in modern theology seems unfortunately to bring semi-Roman ideas in its train, so that the Church comes to be looked on as something superior to the natural life, something that has come down to earth, which is now a sort of overlay on the natural sphere. All such ideas of an overnature lead us away from the Early Christian idea of the church as the new humanity. In a world where evil destroys God's creation, humanity as it was destined to be by the Creator comes to clear focus in one place, in the congregation whose head is Christ, the conqueror of the enemy of man. The practice of setting the Church over against man has little foundation in the New Testament, and just as little in the Reformation. That, nevertheless, this way of looking at things is so common today - that the question of the church's authority is more important than the question of the content of the message - must be due to the fact that an anti-liberal reaction is going on. The idea that man is opposed by the Church, and flourishes when freed from its clutches is rejected - but is then simply inverted. But there is hardly any matter in which we can arrive at the truth by inverting a lie."
Gustaf Wingren,The Living Word, SCM Press, London 1964, p34 (Swedish original: Predikan, 1949).

I read Wingren's book* a number of years ago, and I was actually looking for another passage I had underlined to quote in a post when I came across this one. Here, I'm convinced, Wingren puts his finger on what is behind much of the current fascination with the question of the Church that often leads to conversions to Rome - i.e. it is essentially an anti-liberal reactionary movement**.

I've been thinking about the question of the Church in response to some comments by my 'erstwhile Lutheran come Roman Catholic' interlocutor, David Schuetz. While I concede David's point, made recently in a comment here, that Lutheran thinking on the Church needs further explication, my basic approach to the question remains as follows: Whenever the nature and character of the Church, and the question of its authority, become the primary items on the theological agenda, rather than the Gospel the Church is called by God to proclaim, then I think we have passed over from Reformation patterns of theologising to what Wingren terms "semi-Roman" patterns of thought. The inevitable destination of this way of thinking, it seems to me, is to come to regard the Church as the ultimate "sacrament", and I suspect this is one thing Wingren was getting at by speaking of how in contemporary theology the Church is being "overlayed" on the natural sphere. Of course, there is an implied criticism here of Roman Catholic nature-grace dualism.

Interestingly, the same thought that Wingren expresses here can also be found in Wilhelm Loehe (see his Three Books on the Church). Loehe, like certain other 19th century German Lutheran figures, was much concerned with the Church, but he remained Lutheran in his thinking by always according the Gospel primacy over the Church. For Loehe, like Wingren, in accord with the pattern established by the Lutheran confessions, it is the Gospel that precedes the Church and not the other way around - in the Augsburg Confession the Church has to wait until Art VII, after the Gospel has been outlined in the preceding articles.

It should be clearly stated, however, that the primacy of the Gospel over the Church is a theological notion, not necessarily a historical one (i.e. in some historical instances the Church has preceded the Gospel - we think of some missions, for example), and the notion should not be taken to such an extreme as to suggest that the Gospel can be separated from the life of the Church. The Church is inseparably related to the Gospel and draws its life from it, because the proclamation of the Gospel creates and sustains the Church (Is 55:11).

* Wingren needs to read with caution; he has many valuable insights, but tends, imo, towards Gospel reductionism.

** The problem is not in being anti-liberal, but in allowing the question of the Church to be framed by the reaction to liberalism - Wingren's "inversion of a lie". Imo, Rome fell into this trap with the Syllabus of Errors, and although its thought on the question has become considerably more sophisticated since then, it hasn't yet managed to extricate itself from this position. A current example is the present Pope's obsession with preserving the Roman Catholic foundations of the European Union.

For an interesting study in how an anti-liberal reactionary outlook can lead directly and almost inevitably to Rome, consider the case of John Henry Newman, as told by himself in his self-absorbed spiritual autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Newman's journey has been cited by many converts to Rome as a map for their own journeys. How telling, one can only say.


Stephen K said...

Pastor Mark, I agree with your conclusion that when the Church becomes the focus it rather supplants the Gospel. I guess this is a danger for all church communities, but I have no doubt it is a particular problem amongst anti-liberal Catholics. They would say something like 'the Gospel is guaranteed by and must be seen through the filter of the Church', but the practical effect is that valuable mindspace gets cluttered with the institution and its corollaries rather than filled with reflections on Jesus. You only have to read many Catholic blog sites to see how that translates amongst those with opinions. Catholicism instils, unfortunately, a kind of superiority complex and institutional narcissism that many Catholics no doubt have to learn to discard and overcome in the course of their spiritual development. It's no wonder that some seek the fresh air, not within their native Catholicism, but in Buddhism or various forms of individualist mysticism.

Acroamaticus said...

"Institutional narcissism"...yes, that's a good term for it Stephen. One can see this in spades in the Pope's recent Christmas Address to the Roman Curia. I hope to blog about that in a further reflection. Should be up on Monday. Thanks for dropping by the old manse.