Monday, 28 April 2014

When Is a Church Council Not Infallible?

"In many places, [the Fathers at Vatican II] had to find compromise formulas, in which, often, the positions of the majority are located immediately next to those of the minority, designed to delimit them. Thus, the conciliar texts themselves have a huge potential for conflict and open the door to a selective reception in either direction."
Cardinal Walter Kasper,  L'Osservatore Romano, April 12, 2013.

When is a church council not infallible? This is not a question that keeps Lutherans awake at night, since we hold that church councils may indeed err and have done so in the past - it is not the church that is infallible but God and his Word. Lutherans would rather say the church is indefectible - it will last until the Last Day - in accordance with Christ's promise in Matthew 16:18b: "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (a belief given expression in Grundtvig's well known hymn). But thoughtful Roman Catholics might be troubled by the admission last year of Cardinal Walter Kasper (former head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) that compromise statements were written into the documents of the Second Vatican Council (hereafter Vatican II) in order to placate otherwise irreconcilable camps in the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

"So what?" you might ask, "isn't that a mark of human deliberations?" Indeed, but here's the problem: according to Roman Catholic teaching the bishops of the church meeting in council with the pope at their head constitute an extraordinary level of the church's magisterium or teaching office whose teachings on faith and morals, once promulgated by the pope, are infallible and therefore require the full assent of the faithful.*

But how can the teaching of a document be infallible if the bishops themselves disagreed on its content to the extent that compromises which reflected not just ambiguities but different doctrinal positions had to be written into it? In the Bible, God's prophets and apostles did not speak out of both sides of their mouths - why would their supposed successors do so? How can the faithful give their full assent to the teaching contained therein if the bishops themselves could not and if the documents actually contain contradictory positions, as the cardinal implies?

It is no wonder that, according to the cardinal, these compromises opened the door to the conflict and division - not to mention the outright crisis of the precipitous decline in priestly and religious vocations and participation in the sacramental life of lay Catholics - that has racked the Roman church ever since (which, it is lately hoped, Pope Francis can heal, although in attempting to do so he seems to be adding to the confusion). It is also no wonder that traditionalist Roman Catholics, according to their lights, regard Vatican II as indeed not infallible and thus by definition a false council...nay, even a robber council through which a strange spirit has taken hold of their church. The times are indeed strange when confessional Lutherans and traditionalist Roman Catholics find themselves in agreement!

Now, to answer our question: when is a church council not infallible? Well, there are several things a Lutheran would offer in response, but apropos the cardinal's remarks I will just say that self-evidently a council cannot be infallible if the bishops do not speak with one heart (concordia!). So much for the oft vaunted magisterium of the Roman church, which has more than once been proposed to me as the solution to what ails Lutheranism and a panacea for those seeking religious certainty.

* Someone contacted me overnight to query if this was correct. The definition of the authority of the magisterium meeting in an ecumenical council can be found in the Roman canon law [Canon 749.2]. It is true that there are many educated Catholics, even priests and religious and perhaps also bishops for all I know, who opine that Vatican II was a pastoral council, not a dogmatic one, and that therefore its documents "only" speak with the authority of the ordinary magisterium, or indeed even less authority - presumably something akin to the magisterium cathedrae magistralis of the theology professors of the middle ages whose proposals could be debated and dissented from in good conscience (this second, more liberal interpretation is certainly erroneous). The origin of this somewhat artificial distinction, which has not been applied to any previous ecumenical council recognised by Roman Catholics, appears to be a personal statement by Pope Paul VI the exact meaning of which is debated. The main problem, as I see it, with designating Vatican II as a "pastoral council" is what exactly does this innovative designation mean? Sound pastoral counsel rests on the dogmatic foundation of the faith and includes doctrinal instruction - Catholics and Lutherans can agree on that. Furthermore, the most important document of Vatican II is Lumen Gentium - the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church and the next in importance is Dei Verbum - the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation; are we to regard these as "pastoral documents" and not authoritaive promulgations of Roman dogma?

It is true the other 14 documents of the council - the most notable of which are Sacrosanctum Concilium (liturgy)Unitatis Redintegratio (ecumenism) , Nostra Aetate (non-Christian religions) and Gaudium et Spes (pastoral constitution of the church), focus on more practical questions of church life, but these documents also are informed by and inform their readers of the Roman church's doctrinal teachings. No, the "pastoral council" designation, while it may reflect the spirit which supposedly animated Vatican II, is too inexact for what was, according to both John XXIII who opened it and Paul VI who closed it, the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church. But let us give the final word on the Roman view of the authority of ecumenical councils to noted Roman Catholic philosopher Ralph McInerny:

"The Catechism of the Catholic Church spells out the infallibility of an ecumenical council:
"The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the Faith - he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to Faith or morals.... The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium," above all in an ecumenical council.
Consequently, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council are the official teachings of the Church. That is why the more than thirty years that have passed since the close of the council are evaluated by the Church in the light of the council. That is why Paul VI and John Paul II have regarded their papacies as dedicated to the implementation of what was decided during those fateful three years of the council. That is why rejecting the council is simply not an option for Catholics."
Ralph McInerny, What Went Wrong with Vatican II? (Sophia, Manchester, NH, 1998)


Next month, God willing, we'll continue to focus on issues that stem from Roman claims to infallibility, considering another logical contradiction from the pages of recent church history and also the doctrine's relation to religious certainty.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Raised for Our Justification

Used with permission.
“For before three days have passed, our dear Lord Christ brings another, beautiful, healthy, friendly, joyous picture with Him, in order that we might learn the consolation that not only are our sins destroyed and strangled through the passion of Christ, but that we should be made righteous and eternally blessed through His resurrection, as St. Paul says…” (Rom. 4:25 follows). A little later Luther continues: “For as we see in the first picture on Good Friday, how our sin, our curse and death are put upon Christ, so we see on Easter Day another picture, where there is no sin, no curse, no displeasure, no death but only life, grace, bliss and righteousness on Him. With such a picture we should establish our hearts. Then it is shown and given to us that we should receive Him in no other way than as if God has raised us today with Christ. For as little as you see sin, death and curse on Christ, you should so strongly believe that God wants to see as little (of sin) on you for the sake of Christ, if you accept this resurrection of Christ for your consolation.“
Martin Luther, House Postil, 1531

Luther's House Postils were sermons delivered to his household, which included his family and domestic staff, resident theological students and visitors from near and far. Free editions, in various electronic formats, of a 19th C. American English translation can be downloaded by following the link. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

How We Should Believe in Christ's Descent Into Hell

"And since even in the ancient Christian teachers of the Church, as well as in some among our teachers, dissimilar explanations of the article concerning the descent of Christ to hell are found, we abide in like manner by the simplicity of our Christian faith [comprised in the Creed], to which Dr. Luther in his sermon, which was delivered in the castle at Torgau in the year 1533, concerning the descent of Christ to hell, has pointed us, where we confess: I believe in the Lord Christ, God's Son, our Lord, dead, buried, and descended into hell. For in this [Confession] the burial and descent of Christ to hell are distinguished as different articles; and we simply believe that the entire person, God and man, after the burial descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his might. We should not, however, trouble ourselves with high and acute thoughts as to how this occurred; for with our reason and our five senses this article can be comprehended as little as the preceding one, how Christ is placed at the right hand of the almighty power and majesty of God; but we are simply to believe it and adhere to the Word [in such mysteries of faith]. Thus we retain the substance [sound doctrine] and [true] consolation that neither hell nor the devil can take captive or injure us and all who believe in Christ."

Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art. IX Christ’s Descent To Hell


"While according to medieval theologians the descent into hell was regarded as an act by which Christ, with His soul only, entered the abode of the dead; and while according to Calvin and the Reformed generally the descent into hell is but a figurative expression for the sufferings of Christ, particularly of His soul, on the cross, Luther, especially in a sermon delivered 1533 at Torgau, taught in accordance with the Scriptures that Christ the God-man,body and soul, descended into hell as Victor over Satan and his host.With special reference to Ps. 16, 10 and Acts 2, 24. 27, Luther explained: After His burial the whole person of Christ, the God-man, descended into hell, conquered the devil, and destroyed the power of hell and Satan. The mode and manner, however, in which this was done can no more be comprehended by human reason than His sitting at the right hand of the Father, and must therefore not be investigated, but believed and accepted in simple faith. It is sufficient if we retain the consolation that neither hell nor devil are any longer able to harm us. Accordingly, Luther did not regard the descent into hell as an act belonging to the state of humiliation, by which He paid the penalty for our sins, but as an act of exaltation, in which Christ, as it were, plucked for us the fruits of His sufferings which were finished when He died upon the cross.
Luther's sermon at Torgau graphically describes the descent as a triumphant march of our victorious Savior into the stronghold of the dismayed infernal hosts. From it we quote the following: "Before Christ arose and ascended into heaven, and while yet Iying in the grave, He also descended into hell in order to deliver also us from it, who were to be held in it as prisoners ... However I shall not discuss this article in a profound and subtle manner, as to how it was done or what it means to 'descend into hell,' but adhere to the simplest meaning conveyed by these words, as we must represent it to children and uneducated people.""Therefore whoever would not go wrong or stumble had best adhere to the words and understand them in a simple way as well as he can. Accordingly, it is customary to represent Christ in paintings on walls, as He descends, appears before hell, clad in a priestly robe and with a banner in His hand, with which He beats the devil and puts him to flight, takes hell by storm, and rescues those that are His. Thus it was also acted the night before Easter as a play for children. And I am well pleased with the fact that it is painted, played, sung and said in this manner for the benefit of simple people.We, too, should let it go at that, and not trouble ourselves with profound and subtle thoughts as to how it may have happened, since it surely did not occur bodily inasmuch as He remained in the grave three days."
Luther continues: "However since we cannot but conceive thoughts and images of what is presented to us in words, and unable to think of or understand anything without such images, it is appropriate and right that we view it literally, just as it is painted, that He descends with the banner, shattering and destroying the gates of hell; and we should put aside thoughts that are too deep and incomprehensible for us." "But we ought ... simply to fix and fasten our hearts and thoughts on the words of the Creed,which says:'I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God,dead,buried, and descended into hell,' that is, in the entire person,God and man, with body and soul, undivided, 'born of the Virgin, suffered died, and buried'; in like manner I must not divide it here either, but believe and say that the same Christ, God and man in one person, descended into hell but did not remain in it; as Ps. 16, 10 says ofHim: 'Thou wilt not leave My soul in hell nor suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption.' By the word 'soul,' He, in accordance with the language of the Scripture, does not mean, as we do, a being separated from the body, but the entire man, the Holy One of God, as He here calls Himself. But how it may have occurred that the man lies there in the grave, and yet descends into hell-that, indeed, we shall and must leave unexplained and uncomprehended; for it certainly did not take place in a bodily and tangible manner although we can only paint and conceive it in a coarse and bodily way and speak of it in pictures." "Such, therefore is the plainest manner to speak of this article, that we may adhere to the words and cling to this main point, that for us, through Christ, hell has been torn to pieces and the devil's kingdom and power utterly destroyed, for which purpose He died, was buried, and descended,-so that it should no longer harm or overwhelm us, as He Himself says, Matt. 16, 18 ... "
F. Bente, Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions (CPH, St Louis, 1965)

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Church: Neither a Gospel-Free Outrage Machine nor a Gospel-Free Affirmation Machine

In days gone by it used to be said, partly in jest, that Lutherans worshipped like Catholics but preached like Baptists. These days, alas, it's just as likely to be the other way around...(think about it for a while). Be that as it may, an evangelical Baptist who subscribes to the formal and material principles of the Lutheran Reformation - namely that scripture alone is the sole infallible authority in the church and that the justification of the sinner before God is by faith alone and on account of Christ alone - is, unlike a Roman Catholic, at least on the same page as a confessional Lutheran on those basic pillars of the Faith, even if they don't yet understand that Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper are Gospel sacraments and not mere symbolic "ordinances". The Lutheran is compelled to observe that evangelical Baptist persistence in that error is a result of a failure to thoroughly apply those Reformation principles to their theology, which is, to modify Lutheran theologian Francis Pieper's famous phrase, an infelicitous inconsistency.

But, those doctrinal errors notwithstanding, Baptists who have tapped into the mother lode of Lutheranism can exhibit a passion for the Gospel that Lutherans can recognise as authentic and be encouraged by. Take a recent address by Southern Baptist preacher and theologian, Russell Moore, delivered at The King's College, an upmarket evangelical Christian college (i.e. university in British and Commonwealth terms) in New York City, upon the occasion of the installation of a friend and colleague of his as president there, an excerpt of which follows. Acutely sensitive to the dangers posed to a college in such a setting of elitism and the twin follies of cultural warfare and/or cultural accommodation, Moore said this to them, including the sage counsel that while the church - an by extension its schools - doesn't exist to fight culture wars, neither does it exist to bless pagan culture (hence the post title):

"Evangelicalism always faces the temptation to listen to the call of that old zombie Harry Emerson Fosdick, who never stays long in his crypt and often walks forward with Mr. Rockefeller’s money brimming from his pockets. Fosdick’s temple stands across the city from where we are tonight, a monument to what some would tell us that we need. The temptation is to barter away what the world around us finds embarrassing about the faith we have received. In a previous era, that was the miraculous—virgin births and empty tombs. In our era, it is usually a Christian sexual ethic. This never works, which is why, despite Mr. Jefferson’s predictions of the future, the Unitarians have not inherited the earth.

But, more importantly, this impulse is an act of violence. It leaves people in sin and death. If there is no Judgment Seat, or if Jesus and his apostles are inaccurate in what we will give an account for there, then why concern ourselves with Christianity at all, much less Christian higher education? But if there is a Judgment Seat, a Lake of Fire, a New Jerusalem, then those that would mute the hard truths of the call to repentance are worse than merely unfaithful. They are the spiritual equivalent of human traffickers, promising guilty souls safe passage over the River Jordan, but leaving them to die in the desert.

…Our response to the challenges around us should not be a dour, curmudgeonly evangelicalism. The gloominess and fretfulness so many evidence is more than defeatism, it is a sign of wavering belief in the promises of Jesus himself. Carl Henry reminded Greg Thornbury and me of that truth. We were lamenting the current state of evangelicalism, two young doctoral students to the greatest evangelical theologian of the twentieth century. We lamented the pragmatism, the hucksterism, the liberalizing tendencies, and we asked, “Does evangelical Christianity have a future at all.” Dr. Henry looked at us as though we were crazy.  “Of course gospel Christianity has a future,” Dr. Henry said. “But the gospel Christians who will lead it may well still be pagans right now.”

Dr. Henry told us that we were acting as though Christian leadership were a genetic dynasty, complete with ruling families. And yet, he told us, God never built his church that way. Saul of Tarsus was a murderer. Augustine of Hippo was a player. C.S. Lewis was an atheist. Chuck Colson was a hatchet man. The gospel not only saved these leaders, but God put them in the leadership of his church. They seemed to come out of nowhere, with shady pasts and uncertain futures. And none of us would be here, apart from their labors. We had forgotten what Jesus told the chief priests. “Truly I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” And why? It is because in the preaching of John, ‘the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.” The difference is the gospel as the power of God unto salvation. This is the burden of The King’s College, in a world of uneasy consciences. This college must exist to preserve and to engage a gospel for the sake of those who are not yet aware of it, or not yet interested in it, or perhaps even as of yet openly hostile to it.

The answer is not what some would prescribe, the sort of selective universalism that refuses to call to repentance in those areas of sin deemed untouchable by the ambient culture. The answer is not the angry warrior spirit that seeks to humiliate our opponents. The church of Christ Jesus cannot be a gospel-free outrage machine. And the church of Christ Jesus cannot be a gospel-free affirmation machine.

That’s why The King’s College should never be merely a finishing school for the evangelical elite. Every classroom and every lecture should serve as a reminder that the next Augustine might be wasting away on heroin right now on the streets of Manhattan. The next Corrie Ten Boom might be a sex-worker in a darkened alley right now. The gospel can change, not just for their sake but also for ours. The King’s College must exist for them. That’s why The King’s College must fight for doctrinal orthodoxy. An almost gospel won’t do. And that’s why The King’s College must ever struggle to retain intellectual rigor. This academic prowess is an act of love, equipping these brilliant students to push back the arguments behind which guilt consciences hide, in order that they may hear the voice that calls “Adam, where are you?”

Yes, we face difficult times, every generation of the church does. But we also face unprecedented opportunities. People walking past on the streets outside us, many of them will be burned over by the unkept promises of the utopianism of the Sexual Revolution and of Faustian libertarianism. You must study, you must labor, to preserve something old, something ever new, not just for us, and not just for our children, but for our future brothers and sisters in Christ, many of whom may hate us right now. But many of them may one day lead us, by the power of the Spirit that calls to life that which was dead.”

This is the majority of the text (slightly re-formatted for ease of reading); if you want to read the entire thing go to Dr Moore's blog.

Well said, Dr Moore. You give Lutherans much to think about in regard to the purpose of the church and of a Christian education, which is an area that, at least in Australia, we need to re-think. One can only hope and pray that similar things might be heard at the commencement services of Lutheran schools and colleges.

Now, Russell, about baptism...

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Journal of Lutheran Mission

I'm always on the lookout for free resources that poor Lutheran pastors (and all the poor people of God!) can make use of (see free resources links to the right), so I'm happy to recommend the new Journal of Lutheran Mission. Tolle lege - take up and read! And don't forget for bookmark the site for future issues of what promises to be a very stimulating journal applying Lutheran confessional theology to the much discussed but misunderstood topic of "mission".

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Slaughter of Innocents

"It is what doesn’t shock us that is now so shocking. Not all that long ago, news that aborted babies were being burned in furnaces to heat hospitals would have caused a major national storm. But in our callous, distracted and unimaginative society, it passed by like a momentary gust of cold wind on a warm day, faintly disturbing but swiftly forgotten...We’re told it’s been stopped. But the supply of human fuel has not halted.
What has happened to us that we no longer really care, either about the massacre of the innocents that goes on day and night in our midst, or about the disposal of human remains as if they were rubbish? Lots of people must have known, and found it convenient. But in this matter we are really a bit like the respectable inhabitants of Hitler’s Germany, who vaguely noticed that people were loaded on to eastbound trains and didn’t come back, were concerned for a moment and then returned to their normal lives."  Read it all here at Peter Hitchens's blog.