Thursday, August 20, 2009

Let's get this straight...

As the debate rambled on (and really, most of the speakers were just rambling through standard stump speeches, adding very little to the deliberation) yesterday at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Churchwide Assembly, there were two speakers who made a claim about the Reformation that were simply untrue. Unfortunately I didn't catch their names, but one was a professor of religion at some college or university, and the other was a bishop. But both of them stated similar things about the Reformation, that is was about doing something new. One referenced Luther's attack on sacerdotal celibacy. The other just claimed Luther was breaking new ground.

No matter where one stands on the issue of homosexuality or the sexuality statement, can we all agree that retelling history wrongly is ignorant at best, and deceptive at worst. The argument of the Reformation is precisely that the Catholic Church had brought in something new and *gasp* innovative, paticularly shown through the selling of indulgences, but found elsewhere. Luther's claim in that we are justified by grace through faith is actually a call to return to the older and authentic Christianity, articulated by Augustine over a millenia before him. The claim that the attack on sacerdotal celibacy is also not anything new. As pointed out to me by a colleague, Melanchthon argues from natural law that priestly celibacy imposed upon someone is in fact unnatural, and the call is thus to return to something older and more authentic.

Making claims such as these are wrong because they effect so many other issues, particularly our ecumenical relations, but many others as well. And it sets up whatever statements we make on a weak foundation. Supporters of both positions should want to agree on things such as these. If we are to move forward faithfully, the story we tell should be consistent. Newness and innovation are suspect. God's steadfast and unchanging love is to be trusted above all. How we tell stories about both are of utmost importance.


Chris Duckworth said...

I heard someone say once that if the Roman Catholic church were to ever allow the ordination of women or the marriage of priests, its statement would begin with the words, "As the Church has always taught ...."

Are we "changing" or are we "restoring" or appealing to a past teaching? Either way, we're changing current practice and doing something "new" to those immersed in current practice.

Surely what Luther did in the Reformation was something new, a "change" - a change to then-current practice - but it was a change that was rooted in an older, established teaching. It's silly to claim there wasn't change or newness in the Reformation, for to the common parishoner there was plenty "new" in the way the Reformers did church.

But it is also silly to just say "change" for the sake of change, or that the Reformation calls us to "new" things all the time. What Bishop Graham (Metro DC) was saying, I think (I saw it live but haven't gone back to review the tape), is that change itself isn't bad, for the Reformers themselves were accused of making horrible, heretical changes to the life and ministry of the church. I don't think Bishop Graham was making a claim that change in itself is always good, but he was saying that change isn't inherently bad.

On a related note .... I know that my Evangelical Catholic friends believe they are seeking to restore a certain, ancient, understanding of church, or that they are in continuity with a certain tradition, but even restoration of tradition involves "change" in current practice and understanding, even if it is appealing to an older precedent! We are doing a new thing, even when it "simply" involves appealing to ancient practice or precedent.

Brian Bennett said...

I just don't see a return to an older practice as something NEW. For us in the moment it might seem new, but it simply is not.

Your point is well taken, but I am also constantly working to have people realize that we are not emigres heading off for a new land, but exiles from home. Talk of the Reformation being about doing something NEW undermines my work in building up not just our ecumenical relationships, but our understanding of identity and of the gospel.

I simply think we have to take the long view.


Steve said...

The "new thing" ought not contradict Holy Scripture.

(I think)