Monday, October 20, 2008

Some thoughts on Lutheranism

This is about the sum of our teaching. As can be seen, there is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church or the church of Rome, in so far as the ancient church is known to us from its writers.[1]

Nothing has here been said or related for the purpose of injuring anybody. 5 Only those things have been recounted which it seemed necessary to say in order that it may be understood that nothing has been received among us, in doctrine or in ceremonies, that is contrary to Scripture or to the church catholic. For it is manifest that we have guarded diligently against the introduction into our churches of any new and ungodly doctrines.[2]

There are many who when they think of the Lutheran church as a whole see it as a “new” church. They see it as a creation of Martin Luther and his followers. They believe that what the Lutherans believed, taught, and confessed was “new” or “innovative.” Many believe that the Lutheran doctrine introduced something unknown to the Church. This conception of the Lutheran church is entirely mistaken.

I have had conversations where laypeople and pastors in the Lutheran church exhibit this kind of thinking. I have had laypeople and pastors express this sentiment: “Well Martin Luther tried something new so we can too!” Or, “Luther changed everything – so can we!” This line of thinking is quite contrary to the thinking of Luther and the Reformers. This line of thinking is contrary to the Lutheran Church and indeed to the catholic Church as a whole. This kind of thinking is dangerous and is ultimately arrogant and prideful.

As Charles Porterfield Krauth termed it – the Lutheran Reformation was a “Conservative Reformation.” As he writes: “It is vastly more important, then, to know what the Reformation retained than what it overthrew; for the overthrow of error, though often an indispensable prerequisite to the establishment of the truth, is not truth itself; it may clear the foundation, simply to substitute one error for another, perhaps a greater for a less”[3]

When one reads the Lutheran Confessions it is made clear that the Confessors’ intention was not to formulate new doctrines but to keep what had always been taught. It was not so much an attempt to introduce something new but a plea to return to something old! The Confessions, and perhaps no more clearly than in the Augsburg Confession and the Apology, are presenting the case that what is being taught therein is simply in line with what the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church has always taught. The Confessions are simply pointing out where the Roman church of the day had strayed from those teachings and the Confessors’ desire was to call the Church back to its historic teachings.

As one reads through the Confessions, and again most apparently the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, one is struck by the constant references to the Church Fathers. St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom prove to be the two most frequently quoted among the Fathers. The Catalogue of Testimonies, often overlooked or entirely forgotten, was appended to the early editions of the Book of Concord “to show that the Lutheran teaching about the two natures of Christ is thoroughly in line with the historic and universal faith of the Christian Church.”[4] The Catalogue is itself a collection of both Holy Scripture and quotations from the Church Fathers supporting various teaching touching upon the nature of Christ. This gives insight into the way the Reformers both viewed their theological positions and also into their method of theology itself.

It seems to me that many of our people as well as many of our clergy, indeed we ourselves, have drifted from “doing” theology in the way of the Reformers. We have uncritically adopted a North American protestant approach to “doing” theology rather than the method of the “Conservative Reformation.” We trust ourselves and our individualistic notions above those who have gone before us. We are intellectually arrogant rather than humble. We judge those who have gone before us as ignorant and only trust in what is “new” and “relevant.” We do not hesitate to discard a long held teaching of the Church if it does not meet our “rational” expectations.

This was not the way of the Reformers. This is not the way of the Church. We might ask ourselves in our day, “What do we know now that makes us better students of the Bible than St. Augustine, Ignatius, Cyril, Ambrose, and others?” We must not isolate ourselves from those who have gone before us in the Faith. We must listen to them so that we do not become blinded by our own Age. We must ask, before we choose to discard a teaching of the Ancient Church, “Why?”

To be sure, the Church Fathers can be held in too high esteem and begin serving almost as a “norming norm.” This is dangerous and is certainly not the way of the Reformers. Chrysostom himself wrote:

Let us not therefore carry about the notions of the many, but examine into the facts. For how is it not absurd that in respect to money, indeed, we do not trust to others, but refer this to figures and calculation; but in calculating upon facts we are lightly drawn aside by the notions of others; and that too, though we possess an exact balance, and square and rules for all things, the declaration of the divine laws? Wherefore I exhort and entreat you all, disregard what this man and that man thinks about these things, and inquire from the Scriptures all these things.[5]

The Confessions also state:

But our papists make use of such human opinions to make men believe their shameful, blasphemous, accursed traffic in Masses which are offered for souls in purgatory, etc. They can never demonstrate these things from Augustine. Only when they have abolished their traffic in purgatorial Masses (which St. Augustine never dreamed of) shall we be ready to discuss with them whether statements of St. Augustine are to be accepted when they are without the support of the Scriptures and whether the dead are to be commemorated in the sacrament. It will not do to make articles of faith out of the holy Fathers’ words or works. Otherwise what they ate, how they dressed, and what kind of houses they lived in would have to become articles of faith — as has happened in the case of relics. This means that the Word of God shall establish articles of faith and no one else, not even an angel.[6]

So, it seems, we need to strike a “middle road.” We, in our day, must reacquaint ourselves with our Confessions and the Church Fathers upon which much of the Confessions are based. We must be willing to listen to the Fathers and allow their influence in our theology today. We must critically examine our presently held ideas and positions and if they differ from that of the Church Fathers we must wrestle with why we differ. What is it we know now that the Fathers did not? Have we gained some exegetical insight or have we changed our position because of our present context? Is it a valid change? We must resist the modern and present day arrogance among us that assumes we have greater insight than those who have gone before us. However, we must not view the Fathers as an inerrant source. We must also use our critical skills when reading them. We must always hold to the Word alone as our “norming norm.” It is only the Word of God that is above and beyond the present Age.

[1]Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The Augsburg confession : Translated from the Latin (The Confession of Faith: 2, XXI, 4). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
[2]Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The Augsburg confession : Translated from the Latin (The Confession of Faith: 3, VIII, 4-5). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
[3] Charles Porterfirld Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology (repr. St. Louis: CPH, 2007), 202.
[4] Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, p.651.
[5] St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Second Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinithians, Homily XIII,
(Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers First Series), Volume 12, p. 346.
[6] Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The book of concord : The confessions of the evangelical Lutheran church (The Smalcald Articles: 2, II, 13-15). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

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