Anglican, Book of Concord, confessional lutheran, Confessions, Council of Trent, First Vatican Council, Lutheran, roman catholic, Second Vatican Council, Tradition, Vatican I, Vatican II
Some time ago my friend Churl began a series of posts here on A Christian Thing discussing his frustration at the Evangelical tradition in which he was raised and his attraction to Roman Catholicism. Of course, Churl has always recognized these are not the only options: there is Orthodoxy, of course; and on the Protestant side, there are options like Anglicanism and Lutheranism. Alongside Churl’s posts, Chinglican has been chiming in with his defence of Anglicanism, but the Lutheran on this blog has been remarkably silent. That’s not to say I haven’t any opinions on the subject. I do. In fact, Churl and I have discussed the topic on a number of occasions outside of the blog (you know, in real life). But while I have many opinions, I have much less time in which to write them down.
Part of what has delayed an online response from me has also been the recognition that it would necessarily mean examining Catholic doctrine in detail. Indeed, talking about joining any church must, by definition, include a very real hashing out of doctrine, because it is doctrine that distinguishes one church from another. Such discussions can be very confusing to many people. They also, by definition, tend to make people angry, because if you say you believe X, you must also say you reject Y.
But I have told Churl I would write a response for the blog. So I will. And this is my response: I’m too damn Catholic to be Catholic.
That might sound flippant or even nonsensical. It isn’t intended to be. “But what does it even mean?” you ask. I’ll explain, but before I do, let me explain what I do not mean: I do not mean to say that I think Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism are similar enough that I can simply “act” Catholic while remaining Lutheran.
To be sure, Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism share many things in common. I would even argue that, of all Protestants, Lutherans have the most in common theologically with Roman Catholics. We both confess the efficacy of God’s grace poured out in the Sacraments. We both believe Baptism is for infants (that cuts out most Evangelicals). We both believe in the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion (that cuts out everyone else). Sure, some “high church” Anglicans believe in Transubstantiation, but it’s hardly representative of the church at large; in Anglicanism you can also find lowest of the “low church” symbolists, and consubstantiationists, and subscribers to Calvin’s “mystery” language (with its mysterious “spiritual (but not physical) real presence”). It’s notoriously difficult to talk about what Anglicans believe because there seems to be no authoritative voice in the church. Who speaks for Anglicans? No one and everyone. Is it Thomas Cranmer? Shelby Spong? J.I. Packer? Or perhaps it is Katharine Jefferts Schori or Justin Welby?
This kind of anything-goes theology doesn’t jive with Catholic or Lutheran sensibilities; we instead assert that there are authoritative voices who determine what doctrinal teachings are and are not allowed (by now it should be clear that by “Lutheran,” I mean “confessional Lutheran”). Lutherans and Catholics both accept that the Scriptures are God’s very Word and are therefore authoritative for faith and practice. Likewise, Lutherans and Roman Catholics both recognize the witness of the Church historic as normative for the interpretation of these Scriptures: we each assert, for example, the primacy of the three ancient creeds (The Apostle’s, the Nicene, and the Athanasian). If you deny these texts, you can be neither Catholic nor Lutheran.
Indeed, the first Lutherans saw no disagreement between their faith and the faith of the Catholic Church down through the ages. They write, “This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers” (AC 21:5). They believed themselves to be faithful to the historic Church’s teachings even as they rejected theologically errant innovation that had arisen in their own time. “Our churches dissent in no article of the faith from the Church Catholic,” they write, “but only omit some abuses which are new, and which have been erroneously accepted by the corruption of the times, contrary to the intent of the Canons” (AC 21:10).
To be sure, Catholics and Lutherans still disagree which of them truly remained faithful to the historic Church’s witness. But we both agree that this historic witness (whatever it is) is normative for the Church up to and including the present day. From the Lutheran perspective, The Book of Concord represents an attempt at codifying a normative, indeed, authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures and the Christian faith, based on biblical exegesis and informed by appeals to the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils. Roman Catholics, for their part, define a much larger authoritative tradition, including not only the seven ancient councils but also fourteen others in later times, as well as a number of other assorted works like the Catechism and ex-cathedra pronouncements such as Munificentissimus Deus (which, in 1950, made the Assumption of Mary binding dogma for all Catholics).
Let me refer to just one of these authorities: The Council of Trent. To be Roman Catholic means to accept these extraordinary dogmata (ie, doctrines declared necessary by the church to be believed by all); failure to accept even one such dogma places one outside the Church (for such is the Magisterium of Roman Catholicism). To Trent then:
“If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified… let him be anathema” (Session 6: Canon 9). And again: “If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins… let him be anathema” (Session 6: Canon 11). And once more: “If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake… let him be anathema” (Session 6: Canon 12).
These anathemata apply to me, for I believe that “men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4” (AC 6). Indeed, it seems doubtful that one could read these passages as anything but a deliberate condemnation of Lutherans.
And this is a key point: it is the people they condemn. “Let him be anathema.” In the Lutheran Confessions, we condemn errant teachings frequently enough; for example, “We condemn quite a number of other errors of the Anabaptists [ie, other errors in addition to errant views on baptism]” (AP 9:51). But we do not focus our condemnations on the errant. We draw our doctrines narrow in accordance with the Scriptures; but, equally in accordance with the Scriptures we draw our theology of the Church, the Body of Christ, wide. The visible church on earth is a manifestation of the Body of Christ; but it is not synonymous with the Church Catholic. I repeat, no church body stands in a one-to-one correlation with the invisible Body of Christ.
For, as Roman Catholics and Lutherans both teach, the visible church is made up of Christians as well as “evil men” who do not truly believe. If the visible church were, then, synonymous with the Body of Christ, we would have to say that both the believers and the unbelievers in this earthly fellowship were members of Christ’s Body. As a Lutheran, this seems to me obvious error. Only believers are truly members of the Body of Christ; only believers constitute Christ’s Bride, the Church.
And that goes for all believers, regardless of denominational affiliation. Lutherans do not believe one need hold membership in a Lutheran church in order to be a member of the Body of Christ. That doesn’t mean we diminish Lutheran distinctives; we believe our Lutheran doctrine to be true and that, consequently, the doctrine of others is wrong. But one such doctrine we uphold is the idea of the Universal Church—the belief that the Christ’s Bride is the invisible fellowship of all believers in Christ. “The Church is not only the fellowship of outward objects and rites,” we confess, “but it is originally a fellowship of faith and of the Holy ghost in hearts” (AP 7:4).
By contrast, Roman Catholics threaten non-catholics with damnation over topics like the primacy of the Pope’s authority [“This is the teaching of catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation” (Vatican I, Session 4 Chapter 3:4)]. There are too many things in Catholicism declared necessary unto salvation, too many things upon which membership in Christ’s Body has been made contingent. John Donne lamented this piling on of dogmata well: “All things are growen deare in our times,” he wrote, “for they have made Salvation deare; Threescore yeares agoe, he might have been saved for beleeving the Apostles Creed; now it will cost him the Trent Creed too” (Sermons Vol. 6, No. 12).
Roman Catholics have long been committed to affirming St. Cyprian of Carthage’s words in a very narrow way: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus—“outside the Church there is no salvation.” And by “Church” they have historically meant the visible Roman church. Indeed, as late as the 20th century, Pope Pius XI could write his in encyclical Mortalium Animos: “The Catholic Church alone is keeping the true worship. This is the font of truth, this is the house of faith, this is the temple of God; if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation.”
It is in this sense that I say I am too damn Catholic to be Catholic. I believe too strongly in the invisible Church, the “Universal”—which is what “Catholic” means—Church to believe Roman claims that their church is the only true Church. I cannot believe that lack of membership in any particular visible church body makes one “a stranger to the hope of life and salvation,” as Pius XI wrote. No, it is not our membership in visible churches that is necessary for salvation, but rather our membership in the invisible Church—in Christ’s Body, the fellowship of all believers. This is something Lutherans believe, teach, and confess; I cannot say Roman Catholics teach the same—or at least they didn’t until very recently (more on that in a second).
It will not do to simply suggest we reinterpret these condemnations, or to say that our understanding of the Councils’ words have evolved over time. Indeed, Vatican I strictly condemns such reinterpretation of accepted doctrine: “The meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy Mother Church and there must never be abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding” (Vatican 1, Session 3 Chapter 4:14). Saying we understand better (ie, have a “more profound understanding” of) the dogma than its framers is thus forbidden. And more forcefully: “If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands, let him be anathema” (Vatican I, Session 3 Canon 4:3).
That does not mean the Roman Catholic Church has not, in fact, attempted at times to “clarify” (or, more honestly, reinterpret) some of these older doctrines. Indeed, Vatican II provided a very welcome new understanding of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. Roman Catholics no longer condemn Christians outside the Roman church; instead, they declare that all the baptized have the “right to be called Christian” (though those outside Rome miss some of the benefits given solely to Christ’s Church, which is still defined as the Roman Catholic Church). So too Roman Catholics have in recent years softened their anathemata against the Lutheran understanding of justification by faith. While these things are to be applauded, there nevertheless appears to be a disconnect (to my mind, at least) between the original intent of The Council of Trent—and other texts which drew the definition of Church so narrowly—and Vatican II’s more recent pronouncements. Indeed, this reinterpretation of authoritative texts seems to directly ignore Vatican I’s warning about assigning to established dogma “a sense… different from that which the church has understood.”
And therein lies the problem: either the Roman Catholic Church was right when it narrowly restricted assurance of salvation to being a member of the visible church and accepting all Catholic doctrine (including the primacy/infallibility of the Pope, the assumption of Mary, the condemnation of Protestants at Trent, etc.); or it is right now when it grants the possibility of true Christians existing outside the visible church. If one attempts to fix the problem by saying our understanding of the dogmata in question has simply evolved—that we understand them better now than their own formulators did—we come up against Vatican I’s condemnation: none are to interpret accepted dogma in a way contrary to the Church’s historic understanding. So if we say we can, through new methods of interpretation, make Trent and Vatican II speak with one voice, then we must still reject Vatican I’s condemnation of such reinterpretation. The Tradition to which the Roman Catholic Church attaches authority, then, contradict itself; and if this Tradition—this Magisterium—is the grounds which support the Roman church’s declaration to be the one true Church on earth, I for one therefore find the foundation less than firm.
I agree that one must seek the Church in order to find Christ. She is His Mother, and through her we are brought into communion with Him. But do I believe the Church is to be equated with the visible Roman Catholic Church? No. Instead, I must agree with Martin Luther:
“Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his believers are? And he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people; one must hold to them, and see how they believe, live and teach; they surely have Christ in their midst. For outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation” (LW 52:39-40).
This is the Catholic Church. This is the Universal Church—the company of believers. I will not abide any visible church drawing the broad boundaries of the invisible Church more tightly than does God. The dogmata of the Roman Church do just that, and so I reject them; I’m too damn Catholic to be Catholic.
I apologize if anyone found the above reading difficult or insulting. I do not mean to hurt feelings, nor do I question the sincerity of my Christian brothers and sisters’ faiths. But there can be no honest ecumenical agreement where there is not also honest recognition of disagreement.
Do I think I am in the right, theologically speaking? Yes. And I therefore necessarily think that others’ opinions are wrong. But I will forever count upon the mercy of Christ as the means of salvation, not my intellectual capabilities nor anyone else’s (whether used rightly or wrongly). “It does not depend therefore on man’s desire or effort [or, we might add, man’s denominational affiliation], but upon God who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). I count Roman Catholics and Anglicans and Baptists and all manner of other Christians fellow members with me in the Body of Christ. Wherever the Good News of Christ is preached and believed, wherever the Holy Spirit enters into the hearts of the faithful, there the Catholic Church is. There my sisters and brothers are.
 The early Lutherans, while asserting the primacy of Scripture, never suggested that we may approach Scripture in a vacuum, apart from the witness of the Church throughout history. Indeed, as John R. Stephenson writes, the “authors of the Formula of Concord sharply forbid any unbridled exegesis of the inspired text;” Christians are bound by the ancient Church’s witness. For more on this, see Stephenson’s article “Some Thoughts on Why and How Creeds and Confessions Exercise Authority over Lutheran Christendom” (originally delivered at LCC/LCMS/ACNA dialogues, recently published in Lutheran Theological Review 25 (2013):60-73 here).
 To be sure, encyclicals do not have the same authoritative status as some other texts in Roman Catholicism. But Pius XI’s words demonstrate a long-standing Roman interpretation of what St. Cyprian’s ancient words mean.
 “All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church. Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church… Nevertheless, our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those to whom He has given new birth into one body… For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained” (Unitatis Redintegratio 3).
 The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification affirms that Lutherans and Catholics have a much closer “consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification” now than in the past, and that “the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations” (5).
Sorry, Captain Thin, I actually kinda like this. Including your description of Anglicanism. More later. I’ll probably include a reference to this post when I discuss the Anglican charism. I will say, however, that I may have to depart from you in your pre-Vatican II sourcing, as I wonder what the impact of nouvelle théologie has been in reshaping the understanding of the anathemata (e.g. de Lubac’s Surnaturel, Catholisme, Corpus Mysticum; Congar’s Tradition and Traditions; Kung’s Justification). I understand, of course, that nouvelle théologie does not itself speak with one voice, and I like that you point out that reading Vatican II with a hermeneutic of continuity does present some problems for ecumenical dialogue.
Hi Chinglican. I’m glad (surprised?) you liked the post. I look forward to seeing what your response on the blog ends up being 🙂
I felt extremely well-represented! And I felt that your description of Anglicanism as an absolute magisterial mess was right on target. Yes, I will respond in due course.
Thank you for this engaging post on a topic of great interest to me!
I was wondering if you could tell me where your Catholicity ends? What are the boundaries outside of which one cannot be considered Christian? Was Schleiermacher Christian, despite rejecting the trinity? Was Schweitzer Christian? Was Bultmann Christian, despite not believing in the resurrection? Or to turn to contemporary Evangelical polemics, is one inhabiting the ancient faith if (or insofar as) one affirms women bishops or homosexual unions?
In short, what is the underlying standard by which one separates the wheat from the tares in your opinion? One of the strengths of the Catholic church has always seemed to me to be its uncompromising nature towards liberalism. As an Evangelical myself, I struggle to find a consistent authoritative standard to both include and exclude the right doctrinal teachings.
I think the easy answer here would be to appeal to the Apostle’s Creed as the litmus text for orthodox Christianity (or at least the Old Roman Creed which predates it). This has been for centuries accepted by the Church as the Rule of Faith, and it would be dangerous to reject it. As it professes belief in the three Persons of the Trinity and the resurrection of Christ from the dead (and our own future resurrections), I do not think the Church could call the theologies of Schleiermacher, Schweitzer, or Bultmann truly Christian. As to the persons themselves, I leave it to God to judge; but if they had been members of my church, and failed to recant, I would expect to see them excommunicated.
Your question as to how Evangelicals can find a consistent authoritative standard is a good one. The problem of course is that most Evangelical traditions do not have a good answer; they say “sola Scriptura” (borrowing from the Lutherans), but have never agreed on which interpretation of Scripture is accurate. On this point, I do think Lutherans and Catholics have an advantage, in that they can point back to specific texts to say, “We have chosen as a church to bind ourselves to this interpretation.”
[Of course, the reasons why Catholics and Lutherans accept this or that text as authoritative differ between the two church bodies. Lutherans accept the Book of Concord as authoritative because it is believed to be a faithful interpretation of the Scriptures; but as a consequence we refuse to be dogmatic on theological concerns which are not addressed (either explicitly or analogically) in the Scriptures. These things are adiaphora. Catholics, by contrast, say Tradition and Scripture are equal (but not contradicting) sources of Authority; and so their dogmatic pronouncements can include things not addressed by the Scriptures (for example, the Assumption of Mary).
For Evangelicals, however, the problem is much starker: there are, generally speaking, no Authorities to approach. And without Authorities, who can say this or that interpretation is wrong?
Great answer, and well thought through!
It does raise some further questions for me, though.
Luther began by critiquing the existing tradition in favour of his own view of what the Scriptures really say. In doing so, he launched a tradition of private-judgment-over-tradition which has continued throughout the rest of Protestantism. It could be argued, then, that to hold to Lutheran tradition is to miss the essential thing that made Luther what he was, and his ideas what they were. Why is “confessional Lutheranism” necessarily more in line with Luther than something which adopts his *sola scriptura* spirit (or claims to) and comes to different conclusions? Alternatively, if one insists on the value of holding to tradition for right interpretation, it seems that Lutheranism doesn’t have as strong a claim to continuity, or as long a pedigree, as does Catholicism/Orthodoxy? In this sense does being a “confessional Lutheran” not fall between two opposing ideologies?
‘This kind of anything-goes theology doesn’t jive with Catholic or Lutheran sensibilities; we instead assert that there are authoritative voices who determine what doctrinal teachings are and are not allowed (by now it should be clear that by “Lutheran,” I mean “confessional Lutheran”).’
Another question, if you will allow: who gets to say who the real Lutherans are?
I hate to come to a Lutheran’s defence, but it strikes me that things like the Book of Concord, Luther’s Catechisms, and the Augsburg Confession seem more binding on Lutherans than the Book of Common Prayer, the 39 Articles, and and the Book of Homilies are on Anglicans.
Sounds like a fair explanation to me. I think if you reject the authority of the books which initially defined Lutheranism (ie, the books contained in The Book of Concord), it’s hard to argue you’re actually Lutheran. At any event, such self-declared Lutherans would end up with the same problem as the rest of Evangelicalism: no Authority which defines what is/isn’t true doctrine (see my response to Barney’s question above).
My apologies for my brevity — I certainly don’t want to put anyone in a position of having to defend (which is my fault for leaving such a short response!).
Part of my reason for asking the question is my own experience in having recently taken a course on modern Protestant theologians. A few years ago, I would have imagined figures from this period (Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Feuerbach, von Harnack, Bultmann, etc.) as seeing themselves as direct reactionaries against Luther, and one of the most striking things from the course was the degree to which the opposite was true. I was not prepared for the level of appreciation that these figures had for Luther, nor for how often they appealed to him as setting the blueprint for their own work. From a personal standpoint, the claim to be Luther’s true progeny seemed to be made more persuasively by some than others (for example, I found von Harnack’s case to be remarkably compelling, while Bultmann’s seemed less so), but the more relevant point is that the claims to be the true “Lutherans” are indeed made by so many, which I can’t simply dismiss out of hand.
In this sense, it does seem like there is some analogy with the underlying issue Chinglican brought up regarding the Anglican communion: while one test measures orthodoxy with the presupposition that the 39 Articles (or Book of Concord) forms a static measuring stick, another test understands orthodoxy as being in continuity with some set of original underlying principles, regardless of whether this aligns with the original “letter”, à la Bishop Spong (or von Harnack). I’m not sure how we avoid this set of issues within a Lutheran framework vis à vis an Anglican one, although I’m certainly willing to listen!
(On an only-slightly-related note, I’ve found this Rob Koons piece on his views of Catholicism from a Lutheran perspective to be helpful; perhaps you guys have seen it? http://www.robkoons.net/media/69b0dd04a9d2fc6dffff80b7ffffd524.pdf)
I like the post as a whole, but I would take issue with the assertion “… because it is doctrine that distinguishes one church from another.”
Doctrine does distinguish, but the liturgy does as well, and a good case can be made that the creation of doctrine is the working out of what happens in the liturgy. So I would want to say that because liturgy is prior to doctrine, it is liturgy that distinguishes first, and then the differences are explained in doctrine.
Hi Bryan. That’s an interesting idea. I would have imagined things the other way around (that doctrine dictates the form of the liturgy). I think, for example, one could argue convincingly that changes to the Mass introduced by Lutherans (centrality of the sermon, the translation of parts of it into the common language) were outworkings of the new focus on the Word that had arisen among the Reformers. Likewise, the continued doctrinal emphasis on the salvific nature of the Sacraments assured a continued place of prominence in the liturgy for the Eucharist. (Compare this to churches which denied the Real Presence and, subsequently, diminished the frequency by which the Lord’s Supper was celebrated).
That said, I’m happy to hear arguments that go the other way. What makes you think that liturgy directs doctrine?
I had in mind Lex orandi, lew credendi.
I think people will do in action what they have not yet formulated in an intentional way in their mind. For the people in the pews, the church, it is the act of going through the liturgy week after week that shapes their doctrine. Yes, there is teaching that accompanies the liturgy and helps to give more shape to what they are absorbing through the liturgy, but that teaching is secondary to their understanding. Aidan Kavanagh speaks of theologia prima as what comes out of the liturgy, the worshiper in the liturgy is changed by the experience of meeting God in it, and that continual change is worked out as doctrine.
It is somewhat a chicken and the egg though. Your point about Luther and the changes made to the mass is a good example. The initial changes were made on doctrine, but the maintaining of that doctrine and the understanding of it among the people in the pews is there because that is what they do each Sunday.I would think a child who grows up in a Lutheran church today understands through the liturgy first what is happening, and then has the doctrine hashed out for them?
This understanding is something I have seen in the Anglican church both in it’s history and my own churches liturgy. As was pointed out in another comment, we don’t have a confession to hold the communion together, we have instead a prayer book. It is the common understanding of Christ and the world that comes from performing it that has kept the communion together (Of course that isn”t always working now). In my own church, which modifies the liturgy from the Book of Alternative Services, where our liturgy puts emphasis is the areas that come out in discussions on doctrine when I talk with other people in the church.
Louis Thomas said:
Thanks for writing. I really appreciate the tone and depth (at least for the internet anyway) with which the writers at “A Christian Thing” approach issues.
That being said, I believe you miss the mark. Or rather the claim you articulate, which is standard Protestant fare and not uniquely Lutheran, does. Unsurprising that a Catholic should take exception, I know.
“The primacy of the three ancient creeds…”
When you affirm “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” what is it do you believe to be affirming? If we can drill to bedrock here, I think much would be resolved. The positions outlined in this post, especially with regard to catholicity and apostolicity, are foreign to the historic meaning of these terms. They may be affirmed in some sense by Protestants but not in their original sense. Only Catholic/Orthodox ecclesiology captures their total meaning. In fact, the phrase is an expression of that very ecclesiology.
One way this can be demonstrated is that, within the system you propose, formal schism is no longer possible. Yet, schism was of utmost concern to the Church Fathers. This is because you offer no principled way to distinguish the content of divine revelation from mere human theological opinion. Sure you appeal to an “interpretation of the Scriptures and the Christian faith, based on biblical exegesis and informed by appeals to the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils.” But this appeal could never be said to bind the consciences of men in matters of faith and morals. Even if systematized beautifully in the AC.
“To be sure, Catholics and Lutherans still disagree which of them truly remained faithful to the historic Church’s witness.”
This statement, while understandable from your position really begs the question.
You’ve reduced the Catholic Church to a denomination—because within your paradigm all churches are denominations. You assume there could be no Church proper.
Thus you note with some measure of mild disbelief when the Catholic Church acts like the Church and not a denomination in calling ecumenical councils for instance: “Roman Catholics, for their part, define a much larger authoritative tradition, including not only the seven ancient councils but also fourteen others in later times.”
The heart of the disagreement is not appropriate outcome of a deductive process which considers the data of history, theology and scripture but where to locate Church Christ established to authoritatively mediate grace and teach right doctrine. The Gospels bear witness to Christ’s intention to establish such a Church. Luther alludes to such a Church in your quote. Such a Church must necessarily be visible/incarnate because God’s people are visible/incarnate and Son of God became flesh. There is a mystical/invisible dimension to be sure. In this way, the Church mirrors the union of body and soul in Christ’s humanity. But this mystical dimension (including the church triumphant and the church suffering) does not somehow disrupt or negate the visible fixedness.
If you believe your small corner of Lutheranism is that Church then I’m willing to listen. If Luther reformed that Church, then by what authority?
I had a lot to say. Thanks for the opportunity. It was a helpful exercise to think through these issues more.
This article may be of interest to you:
This on anathemas too:
When a Lutheran affirms “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” we would be asserting (as I suggest in my post above) belief in the the entire universal (ie, catholic) Body of Christ throughout all time and space, the entire (invisible) Church which holds fast to the teachings of the Apostles. The main question here, of course, is what the definition of the Church is. Roman Catholicism says one thing; Lutheranism says another. But you beg the question by asserting “only catholic/orthodox ecclesiology captures their total meaning.”
I will point out, however, that shortly before calling the council to insert the word “Catholic” into the Nicene Creed, Emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, which defined “Catholic” as subscribing to the teachings of the First Council of Nicea (as contrasted against the Arians). It reads: “According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches.” That’s the history behind the introduction of the word “Catholic” to the Creed, and it goes along way to explaining what the term means: believers in the Trinity.
As for the subject of anathemata, I appreciate your link: it does a good job of explaining what today’s Catholics believe on the subject. While I am full ready and willing to admit that Catholics today are clear that that they make no statement on the eternal destiny of non-Catholics (or the excommunicated), I’m not sure that meaning can be fairly imputed to the anathemata of Trent (or other anathemata for that matter). Indeed, the very grammar of the anathemata is meant to imitate St. Paul’s famous anathemata in 1 Corinthians and Galatians: “If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be anathema!” (1 Corinthians 16:22); and “If anyone preaches to you a Gospel other than the one that you received, let him be anathema!” (Galatians 1:9). [Compare this sentence structure with Trent: “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified… let him be anathema.”]
In this construction, the Greek “anathema” is widely accepted to mean “accursed” (which it why nearly every translation that bothers to translate “anathema” into English here uses the word “cursed” or “accursed”). While I’m well aware that “anathema” has other meanings in Greek, it is clear that the anathemata of Trent are patterned after Paul’s use of the term as a curse. [If you think St. Paul meant anything other than condemnation to those who steadfastly refuse to love Christ and who preach a Gospel other than Christ’s, I’m not sure what else I can say.]
The word “anathema” was certainly understood in the Medieval Era to entail such condemnation to hell. One need only look to Pope Zachary’s oft-quoted Rite of Anathema to see that such condemnation was understood to be a power granted by the Office of the Keys: “In virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive [Name] himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate.” To be sure, the Rite includes the hope that the anathematized will repent and be received back into the Church; but if he doesn’t, the final end is clear: “eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate.”
I do not think contemporary Catholics believe this about Protestants, nor do I think their church today teaches such theology. I rejoice that they do not. But what they do teach, however good, seems to me to contradict the Trentine use of the anathemata—and thus, to my mind, undermines their belief in the Magisterium as an authority equal to Scripture.
Regardless, it is accepted by all that to be anathematized means to be cut off from the Church, the Body of Christ. And if ex ecclesiae non salvatum, then Trent’s use of the term anathema amounted to the same thing: no salvation. Still, perhaps as many Catholics say today, these anathemata do not apply to those who have never been Roman Catholic (though they would still, of course, apply to the original Reformers). That’s little comfort. After all, the contention of Roman Catholicism is that non-Roman Catholics are not part of the Church in the first place; they don’t need to be cut off because they’ve never been members of Christ’s Body.
Hello all. This is just a note to say that I’ve seen your questions and am still planning to respond but have been busy as of late (I went camping Saturday-Monday, and am this week trying to get the latest issue of The Canadian Lutheran ready to print). Thoughtful questions require thoughtful answers, and that’s what I aim to give. I just need your patience until I have time for such thoughtfulness.
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Eric M said:
Thank you very much for this article! I loved every bit of it and if I can figure out how to subscribe I will. I am a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod but half of my family is Catholic. This article was very informative to me, as I am in the season of Reformation researching Martin Luther, his teachings, his life, and just what it was that happened to make him split (to put it plainly). I Love the aspect of being a “catholic”…that is, part of the Universal Invisible Body of Christ. I’ll take time to read the comments in a bit but I just wanted to thank you for writing this. God led me to this blog for a reason, so please keep doing what you do!
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Jon Jones said:
I mostly agree. Except that the big tent approach of Anglicanism is not much more anything goes than Catholicism’s. Of course, much of it is outside Catholicism and Lutheranism. So, yes, that’s problematic. But, the idea itself is more Catholic than our more narrow Augustinian sensibilities.