Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Sacrament of the Altar

Although this began in a discussion here, I thought I'd bring this over and post it here as well. And just for the record, I haven't forgotten about my theologically charged post due on my xanga, but seeing as I only got two responses, I didn't think most were very interested so I'm taking my time with it. In the interim, read this. It's really well done. For more about Spirituality of the Cross, which EVERY CHRISTIAN should read, you can read here. Also, if you want to look at the Small Catechism, as the post suggests, you can use the link he provides, google "Luther's Small Catechism" or try here, which is my personal favourite translation of it and I want very badly in book form, but I have to settle with the 1946 translation for now. So without further adeiu, the post.

From Augsburg with love
John H Sunday 6th May, AD 2007

Josh’s comments on evangelical converts to Roman Catholicism (as quoted in my previous post) have provoked discussion in a number of places, ranging from Kevin Johnson’s highly critical response at Reformed Catholicism, and Michael Spencer’s surprisingly positive comments (”Get out the cameras. I think Pirate’s insight on this entire subject is, frankly, brilliant…”).

Chris Atwood picks up on some of Michael’s other comments to revive a question he has asked before: namely, why are the doctrines characteristic of “Augsburg evangelical” theology only found within those churches that derive from the German and Scandinavian Reformations. In other words, Can you be [Augsburg] Evangelical without being Lutheran?”

There is then a third question, one which Josh posed in the comments thread to Kevin Johnson’s post: why are many Reformed Christians far more scandalised by the Lutheran practice of closed communion than by the equivalent practice in the Roman Catholic Church? My own attitude before joining the Lutheran church could have been summarised as follows: “The Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is blasphemous nonsense, and it is scandalous that they won’t let me participate”. I suspect I was far from unique in this.

All these questions find at least part of their answer in the following: the difficulty many Reformed Christians seem to have in comprehending how different the Lutheran teaching on the Lord’s Supper is from their own, and how this difference then colours all aspects of Lutheran theology and spirituality.

The Lutheran Supper: it’s more different than you think

Reformed Christians who take a “high”, Calvinistic view of the sacraments are undoubtedly far closer to the Lutheran position than the outright Zwinglians sat in the pew alongside them, and so it is Reformed Christians of this sort that I principally have in view here (specifically: me, circa 2001). Such Christians tend to say to Lutherans, “We agree that we receive Christ and the benefits of his saving death in the Supper, so why should we divide over what precise explanation we give for this?”

So for example, Mike Shea at the BHT highlights the third question from the Small Catechism’s section on the sacrament of the altar. Since Calvinists and Lutherans can agree that “forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words“, then “to what degree [does] faith in this promise require believing anything about the bread and cup themselves?”, he asks.

However, this argument misses (or attempts to sidestep, perhaps) the Catechism’s first question:

What is the Sacrament of the Altar? It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.

Note what we are saying here: the Lord’s Supper IS the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. This goes far deeper than simply disagreeing over what happens within the Lord’s Supper. It is not simply that Lutherans say, “At the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ”, while Calvinists say, “At the Lord’s Supper, we feed on the body and blood of Christ as we receive the bread and wine”. If that were the case, the Calvinist argument that the difference between us is one of methodology would carry considerable weight.

Rather, it is a case of saying: if you have bread and wine that are not actually the body and blood of Christ, then what you have isn’t the Lord’s Supper. Full stop. End of story. We’re not disagreeing over mechanisms here: it is a case of saying, “You Reformed Christians say that the bread and wine in your Supper are not the body and blood of Christ. Fine. We will take you at your word. But in that case, what you have is not the Lord’s Supper. So any comparison between what it means and how it works compared with the Lord’s Supper in our churches is meaningless, because we are not talking about the same thing.”

So at the heart of Reformed incomprehension over the strength of Lutheran feelings on this issue is this basic difference: Reformed Christians think the discussion is about what happens at the Lord’s Supper, while Lutherans think the discussion is about what the Lord’s Supper is in the first place.

Mis-underestimating the difference

This “mis-underestimation” of the difference between us regarding the sacrament of the altar then goes some way to explaining the phenomenon that Josh described, of evangelicals going to Rome to find truths that would be far more readily available to them in Wittenberg.

To put it simply, Reformed Christians don’t really think there is that much difference between Lutherans and themselves (the slightly odd Lutheran teachings on the sacraments clearly just being the result of Luther not rethinking his medieval presuppositions with sufficient thoroughness, and his followers being reluctant to contradict him). That is why they are outraged when we reply, “Actually, we think there is, and we think the differences are sufficiently fundamental to necessitate a breaking of altar fellowship”.

But that is also a key reason why Reformed Christians looking for “something different” are going to end up in Rome (or possibly Constantinople): because they don’t see Lutheranism as “something different”. Lutheranism is seen as a synonym for “German Reformed”, and we’ve already had enough of the Swiss/Westminster versions of Reformed theology, thanks. (My own, slightly hazy, view of Lutheranism five years ago was that it was basically middle-of-the-road Anglicanism with longer hymns.)

Is non-Lutheran Augsburg evangelicalism possible?

I think there is another, related, reason why Reformed Christians looking for “something else” tend to overlook Lutheranism in favour of Rome for inspiration, even if they remain in the Reformed churches. Chris Atwood summarises the essence of “Augsburg evangelicalism” as follows:

  • Justification by faith alone;
  • baptismal regeneration;
  • the real and substantial presence of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion;
  • the relative indifference of polity as defining the being of the church; and
  • Scripture as the only binding norm of faith and practice.

Now, this seems to be exactly the sort of agenda that a “Reformed Catholicism” should be pursuing: a return to the mainstream of historical church teaching on the sacraments, while retaining the insights of the Reformation as regards justification and the role of Scripture, and regarding bishops as some considerable way down the list of priorities.

However, as Chris goes on to point out, these five distinctives are, in practice, only found in conjunction with “the whole kit and kaboodle of the Lutheran tradition, from the Book of Concord to Law and Gospel sermons to Waltherian congregationalism to Reformation Sundays to Concordia Press to beer”.

So the invitation to consider the tenets of Augsburg evangelicalism is inevitably heard as an invitation to become Lutherans, in the sense of buying into the whole package. And I can well understand that a Reformed Christian would be reluctant to do this: after all, the LCMS is a very imperfect organisation, and (in the UK) the ELCE, while perfectly formed, is undoubtedly very, very small. In human terms, to become a Lutheran looks very much like edging into an obscure niche, rather than finding the purest expression of the catholic and apostolic faith.

The effect of this understandable reluctance to become Lutheran is that people overlook the insights of Augsburg evangelicalism, in favour of a “Reformed or Rome” dichotomy. When that is the choice presented to us, it’s inevitable that many people will choose Rome, especially when their local Roman Catholic church is five minutes walk away, and their nearest church confessing the Augsburg evangelical faith is an hour’s drive.

The challenge to Augsburg (and other) evangelicals

The intention of this post is not to bash Reformed Christians over the head and say, “You idiots! Haven’t you ever read the Small Catechism?” Rather, the challenge is to Lutherans, to ask how we can engage more effectively in commending the basic principles of Augsburg evangelicalism to Christians from other traditions - not with the aim that they necessarily end up members of Lutheran congregations, but so that these teachings can be a blessing and a help to other Christians even as they remain in their own traditions.

I came within the Lutheran orbit initially through receiving Lutheran insights while still being a Reformed evangelical Anglican. The proper distinction of law and gospel and the doctrine of vocation, for example, are teachings that can be tremendously liberating and helpful for Christians of any tradition. The Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper can attract more opposition, but stands witness to the fact that moving beyond a Zwinglian or even “high Calvinistic” view of the Supper needn’t involve embracing the erroneous teachings of transubstantiation or the “sacrifice of the mass”.

This isn’t about “winning the argument”, let alone winning “converts”. If we really believe these teachings to be true, then we believe them to represent a blessing to all Christians, even if we don’t see any increase in “our” numbers. The spirit we should display is perfectly summarised by Gene Veith in the first chapter of his brilliant introduction to Lutheran teachings, The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals, as he disclaims any intention to engage in “sheep-stealing”:

I think any Christian could draw on the spiritual insights of the Lutheran tradition that will be described here, though of course there will be points of disagreement.

For Reformed (and other) Christians reading this, I would say this: do read the Small Catechism. I’m sure you will find much of it a blessing to you (it’s been described as the only Reformation catechism that can be prayed). It will also help you understand our points of difference more clearly, particularly as regards the sacraments - but even there, I hope you will find a perspective that enriches and challenges your own views of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and makes each of those more of a blessing to you in your own experience. And do read Veith’s book as well: it is superb, and written in a gracious and eirenic spirit.

But equally, it is only fair for me to continue as Veith continues in the paragraph quoted above:

The full dose of Lutheran spirituality can only, of course, be found within the day-to-day life of a Lutheran church … Spirituality, after all, must be lived, not merely intellectualized, and its locus is the mysteries taking place in an ordinary local church.


Eric Comstock said...

I do think we (Lutherans) have what many Christians are looking for. However, they have a hard time finding us. So many of the material on the net seems to suggest there are only two options - Rome or Reformed.

Time to change that...:)


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