Full Text for Luther's Ecclesiological Significance for the Twentieth Century Ecumenical Movement (Text)

Luther's Ecclesiological Significance For The Twentieth-century Ecumentical Movement HARRY J. ~~CSORLEY, C.S.P. St. Michael's College, Toronto, Canada T HE TfVENTIETII CENTURY has justly been called by the late Bishop Otto Dibelius of Berlin "the ccntury of the Churchw-- the century in which Protestant Christianity, under the inlpact of the ecumenical movcn~cnt, has recaptured to a considerable extent the meaning and importance of the visible aspects of thc Church and has to that extent ovcrconlc the exaggerated spiritualistic-pietistic ecclcsiology that was so influential through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and which still finds sophisticated sl>okcsn~en in the Bultnlann scllool of exe$esis, for exnnlple, and less sophisticatccl ones in thc left wing Christian denominafions. Clear evidence of this trcnd-which, from a Roman Catholic point of view, is surely a welcon~c one-can be found, for example, in the report on "Thc Church's Unity" issued by thc Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches meeting in New Dclhi in 196 1, part of which reads: \Vc bclieve that the unity which is both God's will and his gift to his Church is bcing made visihlc as all in cach place \\rho are baptized into Jcsus Christ and confess hi111 as Lord and Saviour arc brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully con~mittcd fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preach- ing thc one Gospel, breaking the onc bread, joining in conlmon prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the sanle time are united with thc whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages in such wise that ministry and illenlbers are accepted by all, and that all can act and spcak togcther as occasion requires for thc tasks to which God calls his people. It is for such unity that we belicvc we illust pray and nrork.' Significant for the purposes of this lecture is that Christians of the Augsburg Confession were directly involved in thc drafting of this statcment. True, thc h4issouri Synod, since it is not a member church of thc W.C.C., did not take part in drawing up the report, even though two members of that Synod were present as observers, along with several Roman Catholics whose church is likeivisc a non- member. Of even greater significance is the fact that, leaving aside the pros and cons of membership in the \V.C.C., there is no barrier whatcver to the full acceptance of this statcrnent by any adherent of the Augsburg Coilfession and the other Symbolic Books of thc Lutheran Church. There is nothing in the Lutheran Symbolic Books or in thc cntire corpus of Luther's writings that prevents Lutherans from actively praying and working for the reali~ation of such a visible unity of the Church, not because they have sorile penchant for a big, "super-church," not because of sonlc fear that the Church will otherwise go under-such a fear would mask a fundamental lack of belief in the promises of our Savior and in the presence of the Holy Spirit in thc Church-but simply because they are convinced that any other divided style of life for the Church contradicts the will of her Founder and presents a sinful obstacle-a skandalon in the strict New Testalncnt sense-toward the acceptance of the gospel of salvation by the non-believing world. According to the Fourth Gos- pel Jesus did not pray for unity among his disciples simply for its own sake; hc prayed for a unity that would be a powerful sign and testimonv to unbelievers, a motive of credibility in Roman Catholic parlance; that would indicate to them that he was indeed who he claimed to be, One sent by his Father into thc world to give new and abundant life to men. His prayer was not simply "that all may be onev-but "that all may be one SO THAT (hina, a conjunction here denoting purpose) the world might believe that you havc sent me." A divided Christian church is simply ~ot the Church Christ intended, for it camlot be the effective witness to a divided, unreconciled world if it itself is divided ancl unreconciled. Thc old talk about our alrcady present spiritual unity in Christ is just that-old talk. It is talk that is no longer heard among those \vorking and praying for the ecumenical unity of the Church. Not because talk about the already existing unity in Christ is not true talk, but bccausc it reflects a pitifully incomplete concept of ecumenical unity, a concept that \\-as rightfully described by Professor Edn~uncl Schlink at New Dclhi as an indication of "ecclesiological docetism," which is the danger whenever stress is made on the already existing unitv ~JI Christ of the divided churches without equal stress being laid upon thc need for visible unity. The i~nfortunate thing here is that such a nced for visible unitv is still not regf~rded as self-cridmt by all Christians. hlorc unfor- tunatc is thc fact that through some perverse misreading-or non- reading-of history, certain Christians think that their spiritualistic ccclesiological stance is justified by the reformation theology of Martin Luther. They seem to agrec with what Komaii Catholic polenlicists havc attributed to Luther, namely a Church that is in reality invisible. The Church is not an outward, tangible institution, with a divinely appointed spiritual government and direction, such as it had bccn to Catholics through all the ages, rather it is the spiritual congregation of true believers known to Christ alonc . . . . Rlen hold "office" in the Church there i~iust indeed be, but only in order to preach and to dispense the sacraments; any spiritual authority with full powers . . . for guiding the faithful is non-existent." Such a onc-sidctl caricature of Luther's concept of the church falsely identifies the hiddenncss of the Church with its alleged invisi- bility. As Ernst Kinder has noted, the Lutheran Synlbolic Books never refer to the Church as invisible, even if one reads in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession that "thc Church is hidden (verhorgelt) 7, ; under a crowd of wicket1 n~en . . . . Secondly, this view overlooks completcly Luther's early scnsc of "churchinanship"- to use a good Anglo-American Protestant term- never retracted at any latcr point in his career, which was expressed in a number of places all the way up to 1520. In his scrillon 011 the Fcast of St. Peter in Chains, for exan~plc, of August 1, 15 16, Luthcr attested to his belief in thc nced for thc visible unity of the church by saying: Without the spiritual authority Christ has entrusted to his church, thcrc would be no order, for every- one would say he is illumine(1 by the Holy Spirit. If we were to follow the heretics, each of whom claims to bc guided by the Holy Spirit, there woultl bc as many churches as their arc heads."' In thc Galatians Commentary of 1519 Luther rebuked the Bohemians for breaking thc bond of unity with the Ronlan Church. Hc writes : the separation of the Bohemians from the Roinan Church can by no kind of excuse be defended from having been an impious thing and contrary to all the laws of Christ, because it stands in opposition to love, in which all la\vs are sumnled 1111. For this solitary allegation of theirs, that they defected because of fcar of Gocl and conscicncc, in order not to live anlong wicked priests and bishops-this is the greatcst indictment of all against them. For if the bishops or priests or any persons at all arc wicked, and if you were aglo~v with real love, you would not flee . . . . iVe, who arc bearing thc burdens and the truly intolcrable abonlinations of the Ronlan Curia-arc we, too, fleeing and scceding on this account? Perish thc thought! TO be sure, we censure, we denounce, we ple;id, we warn; hut we do not on this account split the unity of the spirit . . . .' In thc same year, 15 19, Luther again insisted that there could be no justification for separating onesclf from the Roman Church. There is no doubt that this church, hc said, is honored above all others, for there Saints Pcter and Paul, forty-six popesand many hundreds of thousands of inartyrs ha~e shed their blood, conqucring thereby both hell and the world. This shows the special favor God has for that church." Especially instructive on this point is iVolfgang Hohne's momograph, Luthers A~zschnuu~zge~~ iiber die Ile minds." Which propositions were heretical and ~vliich were nicrely an assault on pious ears, Exsurge Domilte does not say. For this reason, as I have suggested in my own reccnt Luther book, I rcgard this decisively im- portant papal document as a supreme example of an inept exercise of the papal teaching ministry. It surely must be reckoned as one of the sins against unity that the Second Vatican Council says have been committed on both sides i11 the tragic history of Christian divisi~n.~ For Luthcr, the proiilulgation of Exsurge I>omine was the last straw. He saw it as final, overwhelming proof that what he had begun to sl~spcct in the last two years was true: the Pope was indeed thc Antichrist. IYe shall rcturn to the question of the papacy at the close of the lecture. But first let us summarize what we have alrcady seen about Luther's ecumenical significancc for the twentieth ccntury church. So far \TT have seen that Luther's concern for the visible bond of church unity has clear contcnlporary ecumenical significance inasmuch as the Reforn~cr himself can be brought for- ward as testimony to the separated Christian churches of our time that thcy arc on thc right track when thcy arc seeking to recover their lost visible unity. Having said this, \\-e have alrcady implicitly nlade a general rejection of the criticisill of Grisar and others that Lutlicr knew only an invisible church. But let us be more specific. Let us mow to thc question of the ordaiiled ministry, which is under such careful ecumenical study today and see what Martin Luthcr and his reforma- tion colleagues have to say to us today. Although Grisar and others admit the ui~clcniable, namely, that Luther and the Lutheran Sym- bolic Books see thc sacramelits as divinely instituted means of grace, a fact that renders totally inconceivable any purely spiritual or in- visible church, there is among too many Koman Catholic critics, of the past at least, as well as among certain Lutheran apologists, uncom- mon agreenicnt that the special ministry of the word and of the sacraments is regarded by Luthcr and the early rcforincrs as a purely human, purely ecclesiastical construct and not a divincly ordained institutional clement in thc church distinct from, but always related to, the priestlioocl of all believers. \Ve have several things to say about this: ( 1) The exegetical ~t~~dy by John Hall Elliott entitled, The Elect mid the Holy,"o~vever one might wish to criticilc it, surely shakes that facile con~placency that ~vould solve all questions concerning the Church's ministry by a simple retreat to the slogan: "the priesthood of all believers." (2) Look through the Book of Concord and you will find the text in question 1 Petcr 2: 5-9, cited only one timc in all of the Synibolic Luthcr's Ecclcsiological Significuncc -- . - -. . - - - -- - - -- - - - - - - - - -. - -. - - - - - - 135 - Books, and when it is invoked, it is in no way used to supplant or compete with tlic doctrine of the ordained ininistry as later became the fashion in soille Protestant circles, including, unfortunately, Lutheran ones. (3) Surprising as it may sound, the church that has the most extensivel! developed official doctrine on the priesthood of all believers is not the Church of the Augsburg Confession, nor the Church of the \17estminister Confession, but the Roman Catholic Church! I siinply refer you to articlcs 10 ancl 11 of the Constitution on the Church of the Sccond Vatican Council. Symptomatic of this is the fact that, as far as I know, it is Roman Catholic theologians today, not Lutheran or Presbyterian theologians, who are specdating about the possibility of laymcn leading the Eucharist in emergencv situa- tions. (4) The doctrine of a priesthood of all believers which nrould permit an unordained laymen to officiate at thc Lord's Supper can be found in Luther early in his rcforrnation carcer, but this doctrine graduallv diminishes in his thought under the influence of the cor- porate riflection with his reformation colleagues that eventually lcd to the doctrine of thc ordained ministry articulated in the Augsburg Confcssion. (5) As my fifth and final point in rcply to the attribu- tion to Luther of an exaggerated concept of the priesthood of all be- lievers that diminishes the meaning and necessity of the ordained ministry, I wish simply to state my conviction that many Lutherans have donc themselvcs, the Reformers and the twentieth century ccunlenical movement a disscrvice by not paying more attention to Article XXVIII of the Confessio Augustana. This Symbol of Faith Ivas, of course, pennecl by Melancthon, but as we knoll7 it had the full approval of Dr. hfartin Luther. Too often I have received from Lutheran colleagues the im- pression that the sum total of the ecclesiology of the Lutheran Con- fession is to bc found in Articles VII and VIII of the Augsburg Con- fession. Article XXVIII of that confession is more oftcn than not either entirely overlooked or else not studied with care. And yet it is precisely the rehabilitation of Article XXVIII concerning "The Power of the Bishop" (German text) that could help so much today in the present ccumcnical discussion concerning ministry, episcopacy r~ild apostolic succession. Why should only Roman Catholics, Ortho- dox, Anglicans and American RIIcthodists be standing up for an episcopal church structure in ecumenical cliscussions? \Vhy do we not hear Lutheran voices joining in, confessing as they once did at /\ugsburg, that: the powcr of bishops is a power and command of God to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins and to administer and distribute thc sacraments . . . . According to divine right, therefore, (de iure divino), it is the office (Ambt) of the bishop to preach the Gospel, forgive sins, judgc doctrine that is con- trary to the Gospel, and exclude from the Christian community the ungodly whose wicked conduct is manifest . . . On this account parish ministers (I'farrlezite) and chul-chcs arc bound to bc obedient to the bishops according to thc saying of Christ in Luke 10: 16, "Hc who hears you 11cars me." (The Idatin text reads: "Churches arc therefore bound by divi~ze lnlv to bc obe- dient to the bishops according to the teit, "He who hcars you hears me") .lo RIay I say, as a Roman Catholic whose Church has a very highly developed understanding of nlagisterium or Lehmmt, that this con- cept of the ordained ministry of the episcopate is cxtrcnlcly congenial. When we find this in such an authoritative document as the Augsburg Confession, we bccomc all the more aware that we're not just soul brothers with you, but body brothers as well. Just as Lutherans rightly would like to see Eoilian Catholics giving more evidence of that freedoill of the sons of God which they profess as Christians, so Rornan Catholics wish to see a real inlplen~entation of the rilagistcrial function of the bishop that Lutherans profess in their greatest confes- sional book. Can one disagree with the Lutheran theologian, Johann Heinrich Ixrche, when he asserts that "the office of the Landesbischof is not the office of the bishop in the sense of Article XXVIII of the Augsburg Confession and (that) it has arisen not from the Reforma- tion but from the Jdaizdaskirchentum that, in thc course of time, developed (in Gcrinany)?"" The office of a bishop and the title of bishop arc not the same thing! So far wc have dcalt with two aspects of Luther's ecclesiology that he never repudiated, both of which have significance for the ecuillenical movenlcnt of our century: ( 1) his genuine concern for maintaining visiblc bonds of unity in the Church and (2) his ad- herence to the doctrine of the institution of bishops by divine right, as \+re11 as thc duty of the churches-by divine law-to obey the bishops. \,\7hat about that aspect of his theology of thc Church that he oncc wlloleheartedlr cmbraced and then most vehemently repu- diated- his insistcnci until 1520 of the need to retain union with the Church of Komc, a nced so important that he said no reason jus- tified separating oneself from the Roman Church? What is to be said about his constant identification-from 1 5 20 until his death- of the papacy with the Antichrist? Obviously the qucstion of the papacy is a crucial question-if not the most crucial one-for the future of the ecumenical move- ment. The rcquisite national and international dialogue among Christians on thc doctrine of the papacy has scarcely begun and we are surely in no position to contribute substantially to that discussion in the brief space of this lecture. We can, however, suggest sornc points that might be fruitful for such a discussion insofar as Luther's theological attitude toward the papacy is concerned. As more than one Lutheran theologian has reminded us: the infallibilty of Luther has never been defined by the Lutheran Church. Yet the position of such a scnlinnl tllcologian on such a decisive issue cannot simply be ignored. (1) The first thing that nould havc to be said is by way of an important reminder. The attack on the papacy as the iintichrist \vas not the ccntcr of Luther's reformation protest. The center, iis know, \\.as his proclamation of the good news that man is justified solely by faith in Christ and solely 1>y the grace of Jesus Christ, through no merits of liis own. It was priniarilv because Luther believcd that thc Popc was denying the Gospel or prohibiting him to preach it that he came to the conclusion that the l'ope \\.as the i2iitichrist. As I have pointed out in my own Luther book, Luther's ecclcsiology, includincr his concept of the papacy, is subservient to O. ancl conditioned by h~s doctrine of justification. "If the Poyc will grant us," wrote Luther in his Galatians conimentary of 15 3 1, "that God alone bv his incre grace through Christ justifies sinners, we will not only car& him on our shoulders, but will also kiss his fret."" Rcniigius Baumcr, a Roman Catholic theologian, has rcceiitly written a very useful essay on "The Young Luthcr and the Pope." But Biiunier is wrong, in illy judgment, when he fails to see with 1,0rt~, Tserloh, Peter Alanns, Albert Brandenburg and other Roman Catholic 1,uther scholars the positive possibilities of this statement which occurs not once, but twice in tlie comnientarjr on Galatians.''' Baunler docs not think that an agreement between Lutherans and Catholics on tlie doctrine of justification in 1531 would really haw affected Luther's attitude toward the Pope. I frankly cannot under- stand ho\~ he can uphold this position and still take Luther's own words serious1 y. Regarclless of what might havc happe~lecl in 153 1, but actually clid not, what is to be the 1,utheran attitude toward the papacy today now that such extraordinary and unprecedented agreenieiit has been reached between Roman Catholic ant1 Lutheran thcologians on "the key issue" that someone has rcniarkcd: it's hard to get a good debate going anymore on the doctrine of justification among thcologians ;IC- quainted with the literature? (2) \Vc have already me~ltioned what we consider to be one of the Roman Catholic sins against unity at the tiiiie of the 13cformation -the inept, insensitivc exercise of the papal teaching illinistry in the case of Exsurge Domi~ze. Can Lutherans, for their yart, entertain the l~ossibility that Luther might have been guilty of excessij-c over- reaction, or imprudence, or pride-or hatred-in affirming so con- fidently and vchemcntly that the papac) was tlie Antichrist? (3) Is it Luther's judgment that the papacy as an institution is the Antichrist, or is he simply indicting the popes of his time? The ansu7cr to this question is of obvious importance for our approach to the question of the papacy toda)r. If Luther identified the papacy as such with the Antichrist, it would seem verJ1 hard-if not impossible -to recnncilc such a position with Luther's words of 15 19-~vords he never rctractcd because he knew they were based on historical fact -that forty-six popcs died martyrs' deaths in Romc for the love of Christ. If Luther believed that only the las popcs of his time-or of thc mcdicvel periotl-were thc Antichrist, did he have to use such an eschatological category as that of the Antichrist to dcnounce them? Could hc not just as well have called theill sinners, hirclings, world- ings-or cvcn heretics-all of which jutlgmcnts were possible ac- cording to both rnedicval theology and canoil law." (4) As Edniund Schlink has pointed out, the statcillcnts of the Confessions in which thc papacy is linked with the Antichrist were all made in the conviction of living in the last tinles and days immediately beforc Christ's return. This conviction may by no means be minimized; it is basic for decisions of doctrine and practice . . . Therefore we all have to weigh carefully to what cxtent thesc historically conditioilcd statenlcnts about the Antichrist arc to be understood as dogma or paradigm. To understand them as paradigm \zoulcl mean to regard them as a model of how to take scriousl) thc Lord's directive that we should look in the present mon~ent of every age for the harbingers of the end. In this case the statements about the essence of the Antichrist \vould have a more binding significance than the judgnlents about thc pope as the Antichrist." (5) A final point to be considered is that made by Peter Brun- ner, \vho suggests that, had Luther been able to see in New Testament passagees such as kit 16, 1 S and Jn 2 1, 15ff. that which the inore rcccnt Protestant cxcgcsis from Bultmann through Cullmann finds in thcm, this kno~vledge ~vould surely have had immediate dognlatic consequences for his doctrine of the Church and its order.]" Tinie does not permit me to deal here with those problen~s con- cerning the papacy that have bccon~e cspeciallv acute since the Refor- mation. I refer to the probleins s~~rrounding the Vatican I definition of l>al>;ll primacy and infallibility and thosc connccted with the two papcl definitions about hlary which Roman Catholics widcly rcgard as infallible teaching. I can only refer you to the treatnlcnt 1 will give to thesc neuralgic problems in 111!~ forthcoming book on the papacy. As a concluding word I wish simply to express my hope that thcsc rcflectioils on Luther's ecclesiological significance for the twen- tieth ccnturv ccumcnical movement may in some small way further the of Lutherans, Roman Catholics and other Christians toward a Church that will be truly evangclical, truly reformed, truly catholic ant1 truly uniting. Only then will the Church of Jesus Christ be what it was intended to be: such an impressive example of unity that it will lead men to bclicvc that Jcsus Christ has indeed been sent into the world bv his Father to give them more abundant life. FOOTNOTES 1. Tlzc h'c1t7 Dcllzi Rcport, ccl. W. A. \'isscr 't Hooft (Association Press: NCIV York, 196 l), p. 116. 2. H. Grisar, L7ithcr, tr. E'. h/l. L~anlond, vol. V1 (St. Louis, 1917), p. 291. 3. E. Kinder in: H. Lamparter, Und ihr Nctz Zcriss (Stuttgart, 1957), p. 27 1. Cf. Apology, art. VI1 and VIII, 19. J. WA 1, 69. This statement is col~chcd in a very strong attestation to tlle supreme pastoral authority of the pope, a point Luther did retract 1;ltcr with vchcmcncc. Cf. I?. Biiumer, "Dcr junge Luther und der Yapst," Ccrtholica, 2 1 Jhg., H. 4 (1969), pp. 392-420, esp. pp. 400-401. 5. WA 2, 605. Cf. Luther's Works, ~ol. 27, tr. K. Jungkuntz (Concordia l'uhlishing Housc: St. Louis, 1964), p. 392. 6. Wrl 2, 72 f., from Ltithcr-s Untrrricht nzif ctliclle Artikcl, rlic tlzln 1.011 winen Abgiinrrcrlz a~tfgclcgt zlnd zzrgcmcssell ll~crdcn. 7. Berlin-Hamburg, 196 3. 8. Dccrcc on Ecumcnis~n, 11. 3. 9. Lciden, 1966. 10. Augsburg Confession, XXVllI, 5, 21; cf. V and XlV. In his rcccnt essay, "Die Entstchung und erstc Auswirkung von Artikcl 28 dcr Con- fessio Angustana," in Volk Gottcs, Fcstgahc f. J. Hofcr (Frciburg, 1967), pp. 361-394, Wilhelm Maurcr in our judgmcnt emphasizes too much thc rcstriction on episcopal authorit) in the area of human ccclcsiastical ordinances (XXVIII, 29-74) ~vhilc overlooking thc contcmporar) cco- menical significance of XXVIII, 5, 21-22. Symptomatic of this "for- gotten" section of Article XXVIII is that such a grcat churchman and theologian as Petcr Brunncr, in an important article, could warn against thc ccumcnical movcnlcnt hclcoming a "Protestant Synthesis" that would be "coupled with acceptance of thc episcopal constitution of the Angli- cans." What has happened to thr cpiscopal constitution of the Lztthcra~ts that is provided for in Augustana XXVIII? Cf. "Commitment to the Lutheran Confession-What does it mean today?" Thc Springficldcr, vol. XXXIII, n. 3 (Dcccmber, 1969), p. 12. Furthcr, why does Brunner say (p. 13) that the "Lutheran confession, as norrnrr normata, \vill cscrcisc concrcte authority in the Church" \rhcn the forcmost book in that confession ascribes to ;I living pcrson-thc bishop-thc function and duty of exercising ;iuthority by "judging doctrine and condemning cloctrinc contrary to the Gospcl." That is as concretc as authority can get! So l~ook, however sacred and authoritative, and no confession makes concrctc authoritative judgments; onI\ pcrsons