05 December 2011

Changing Churches - A Recap

The announcement of the publication of Changing Churches has caused me to reflect, once more, on my move from Lutheranism into the Orthodox Church.

As I recapitulate this move, I realize that my answer to the differences between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy has crystallized over the years.

Early on, when I was a Lutheran minister trying to diagnose how to remain faithful to the Lutheran Confessions and yet remain in an heterodox church body, I wrote (with some help from Rev Dr Charles Robb Hogg and Rev William Weedon) and delivered an essay entitled, "What Options do the Confessions Give Lutherans." In that paper, I argued for what I called the "catholic principle" in the Lutheran Confessions which, in terms of ecclesiology, led the early Lutherans to see themselves not as a denomination but as the continuation of the Catholic Church in the West. I still maintain that, although I now think that the attempt by Luther and Chemnitz was doomed from the beginning due to the inheritance of systemic flaws in medieval theological constructs. (Louis Bouyer exposes one of these in his book "Eucharist.")

In a statement written for laymen, I pointed to some of these systemic flaws in the Statement of Resignation that Rev David Stecholz (President & Bishop of the English District) graciously permitted me to read to my beloved parishioners when I left Zion Ev. Lutheran Church in Detroit. What I wrote then I still maintain, although I would now sharpen, with more careful nuance, some of the phrases.

Over the years, I've also made other attempts at explaining the differences; most notably, a presentation on "Creeds and Confessions" at the "Faith of Our Fathers" colloquium for Lutherans. (I highly recommend all the presentations at this colloquium.)

In the final analysis, however, I would boil all the differences down to these main points:

  • The Church is not a Platonic Republic (i.e., intrinsically or primarily invisible); i.e., an assembly of believers. Rather, it is and must be a visible entity, traceable through an unbroken link to the time of the Apostles. (The Lutheran Confessions, in my view, speak with two minds about this doctrine.)
  • The end or purpose of salvation is not merely to be safe or make it to heaven, but to be in an undying union with God through Christ and the Spirit. That end or purpose is never fully achieved, just as a relationship is never exhausted. (This is a summary of theosis or, what "Lutheran Orthodoxy" called unio mystica.) This leads me to resonate with St Maximus the Confessor's speculation that sin and death did not necessitate the incarnation of the Son of God; rather, the original design, from eternity, was that the Son of God would become incarnate so that man could be in union with God.
  • Tradition is not a custom nor merely a lens through which the church reads the Scriptures; rather, Tradition is the ongoing life of the Church (the Spirit in and of the Church) which, of course, cannot contradict Scripture but which also amplifies Scripture. (The Lutheran Confessions state that some of Tradition - e.g., liturgy - is indifferent; and insist, for those who take a quia subscription, that it is a lens.)
  • Sin is certainly serious and is inherited; but it is not part of man's nature nor is it the primary problem. Rather, death is the primary problem, as seen by the fact that Christ purposefully took on passable flesh in order to suffer, die and rise. (The article on Free Will [FC SD II], when read understanding the philosophical underpinnings of the language, agrees that man is not by nature sinful.)
There are, of course, other differences. But these are the ones that I would identify; at least, these are the ones that were uppermost for me.

In the final analysis, however, with my understanding that liturgy is what drives the everyday experience of every Christian, what tipped the scale for me was this question: "What gave Luther (or whomever) the right to change the Mass, Office and Ritual which he had received ultimately from the Holy Spirit."


Chris Jones said...

Fr Fenton,

Always good to see a blog post from you. They are all too rare.

In general, as you know, I mostly agree with what you have to say. But I want to press you on your ultimate point (not because I necessarily disagree, but to get you to elaborate, explain, and support it a bit more):

... liturgy is what drives the everyday experience of every Christian

Indeed, and this is of course quite important.

What gave Luther (or whomever) the right to change the Mass, Office and Ritual which he had received ultimately from the Holy Spirit.

Of course I agree that the liturgy is something which is given to us in the Church's Tradition, and not something of our own devising, with which we may do what we will. But I am curious why you identify the Holy Spirit in particular as the source of the liturgy. I would expect that the liturgy is something which was given to the Apostles by Christ (mostly by example) and then became part of "whatsoever I have said unto you" which the Holy Spirit brings to our remembrance. That is, I see Christ as the source of the liturgy (and of the whole of the Gospel) and the Holy Spirit as the One who enables us to remember and to be faithful to what Christ has given us. Do you see the Holy Spirit as giving the liturgy to the Church subsequent to, or over and above, the revelation that is given by Christ? Or is the liturgy a part of the revelation given by Christ, which we receive and keep by the light of the Holy Spirit?

The other point (and the main point) that I would like to address, though, is the general question of "who has the right and authority to alter the liturgy?" For while the liturgy is indeed given to us in the deposit of faith, it cannot be said to be changeless in every word and every detail. It has developed and changed over the centuries and shown considerable variation in different places and different eras; and all of those changes were made, in the first instance, by human authority. We don't fault St Basil the Great for "changing the liturgy" because he wrote his magnificent anaphora; but we do fault Luther for the changes he made to the Mass. (At least, I fault him for it; presumably most other Lutherans are perfectly fine with it.)

How can we tell the difference between changes to the liturgy that are legitimate developments (such as adding the singing of the Creed or of the Agnus Dei, both of which were added to the Mass late in the first millennium), and changes which are destructive of the Church's liturgical tradition (which I should certainly say that Luther's excision of the Roman canon was)? In your writings generally you have assigned to the liturgy a very central role as the bearer of the Church's Tradition (a strict and strong reading of lex orandi lex est credendi, with which I agree). But if you are going to do that you have to have a robust model to explain the change and development of the liturgy across time and space, a model which enables you to identify the changeless core of the liturgy and relate that core to the changes (legitimate and illegitimate) that have occurred to the liturgy through history.

If you can't show why Luther's changes were symptomatic of heresy and/or schism while many other historical changes in the liturgy were not, you cannot consistently claim fidelity to the liturgy as part of your basis for leaving Lutheranism.

Peter said...

Wow, a remarkable comment, Chris--literally.

I would also appreciate your perspective, Father. My instinct is telling me, however, that the approval of liturgical "changes" or whatever you want to call them ultimately stems from the fact that liturgy is "the work of the people", in action (as we usually use that definition to proclaim) and even in composition. The Christian Liturgy is handed to us by the origin of Christ or the Holy Spirit (I'll leave that open for now), but it is rightfully our Liturgy as a Church, not merely God's. We can only disapprove of additions, substitutions, or deletions when the people--the fulness of the Church agrees. But what of those not using said Liturgy? What of the concept of a single Saint against the world being legitimate while a single heretic can still more clearly be pointed out?

I would love to hear what you have to say, Father: it is a particularly intriguing thing on which to ponder.

Fr John W Fenton said...

Chris & Peter,

Thanks for the comments. My posts are rare primarily because my schedule does not always allow me time to write substantive things. I think of many things, even composing some in my mind, but never seem to have the time to put keyboard to screen.

I'm still considering the points you've made and have come up with some preliminary thoughts. I hope, in the near future, to organize and compose my thoughts.

Ps-Iosifson said...

Irenaeus looked to churches founded by the Apostles: Rome, Smyrna, Ephesus. Others would look to the Pentarchy, and the hundreds of other apostolic foundations in the East. And, of course, not any given apostolic church in isolation (infallibly), but the apostolic churches in synod, i.e., conciliarity. I think the answer to your question is found in the Eastern response to Vatican I.

The other aspect is the consistency with the teaching of the early Church in continuity with the Church today. What is that Church? A church that can be traced, visibly through time teaching publicly. That is, one can't claim to understand the 'real apostolic faith' from afar, it has to have been handed to you.

Even 'discoverers' such as St. Paisius Velichkovsky and St Gregory Palamas (and Gregory of Sinai) didn't simply learn from books - they learned from the few remaining who held on to the fullness of the true faith.

If you've 'learned' or 'rediscovered' what the Bible or the Apostles or Christ really meant via books, you've probably discovered exactly what you wanted to see. It's likely a creation as much in your own image as anything else - how much 19th Century biblical criticism smacks of 19th Century concerns and styles!

Not every change is God given, and even asses can speak when God so wills. That is, good intentions and serious scholarship, etc. is no guarantee one will get it right. Just look at new liturgics and theology from the 20th century and how dreadful and dated it is so soon afterward. Also, changes introduced for one reason (not always laudable) or by less than holy men are not incapable of holy use - if God can make an ass to speak...

Chris Jones said...


Your answer is sound as to the general principles, and I agree with it. I was looking for something a bit more concrete, however, with respect to how the general principles you outlined are applied to the question of liturgical change. It is fine to point to the consensus of the Apostolic sees and note that the Church is governed conciliarly; but there was no consensus of the Apostolic sees nor any decree of an ecumenical council which legitimized (for example) the addition of the Monogenes or of the Creed to the liturgy. So apostolicity or conciliarity, as general principles, are of limited utility for distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate liturgical change.

In short, what you wrote is quite true, but it is not an answer to my question.

Ps-Iosifson said...

I don't think there is a more concrete principal regarding how changes are introduced. There always seems to be a reticence to change anything, added to the fact that changes were made by either a widely revered holy one or by an especially powerful ruler. That's where the general principal I laid out then comes into play: said change is either accepted as being in conformity with the other churches' understanding of the Faith, or it is not. Some such changes become universal, others do not and are yet respected as local traditions. The process often seems ad hoc in its speed or in its drawn out nature.

A consensus of apostolic sees did in fact accept the O Monogenes and the Creed in the Liturgy, which is why both are in the Liturgy today in all of the apostolic sees. Again, it took a long time, but Orthodox ecclesiology is primarily an ecclesiology of the local church, not primarily that of a universal church. (That's not to say there aren't aspects of Orthodoxy that extend beyond the local community around the bishop that include regional, superregional and universal primacies, etc.) The local is experienced tangibly not the universal; in the same way that the Persons of the Godhead are experienced not the one Essence. These local, regional, etc. churches came to accept them. ECs aren't legal bodies telling us what the Faith is and isn't. ECs gather as needed to address specific issues and concerns that have arisen. They are like fences, they are not the farm the fence surrounds. Statements and decisions of the ECs do not exhaust the depositum fidei, they are only ever parts of it - and an EC is not required for the normal, more typical functioning of Holy Tradition. ECs are extraordinary measures to address problems that the regular processes have not been able to address - and that required a more broad, universal, and conciliar statement of the mind of the Church (so as to squelch what were usually regional or local heresies that metastasized).

Trent said...

As I have reflected on the the journey that you and I both made, I too have come to realize the importance that theosis plays in the differences between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy. Not only is theosis a key difference in our understanding of salvation, but is, in my opinion, the reason behind our vastly different opinions of 1) Holy Relics and 2) Asking the Saints for their intercession.

Trent Sebits