28 March 2006

The Frustrations of Self-Determination

The frustrating thing about being a traditional Western Catholic in a Lutheran church body is that I am such because I've determined to be such. And the parish I serve is such, not because of anything I've done, but because--decades ago--they accepted, trusted and appropriated the patient, gentle 36 year formation by one Pastor. In that, they determined to be, self-consciously, an historic liturgical Lutheran parish (or, as Pr Runge would say, a "sacramental Lutheran parish").

Two things make this conscious self-determination frustrating. The first is that this is not as it should be. One should not be traditional, liturgical, sacramental, catholic (or whatever other adjective you wish to use) because one has determined to be such. Rather, that is what the Church is, and so that is what you are to be--by definition, not by decision. This should seem self-evident, and at one time it was more so that it is now. I say "more so" because, as Lutheran history shows, there have always been regions, groups, or synods that have self-consciously determined to "swim against the current" and be what the Church is.

The second frustrating thing is, when "swimming against the current," who's to say that you're actually swimming the right way? In other words, who's to say that one's self-determination is more correct, or right-headed than another's? The LCMS church nearest mine with a layman celebrating all the sacramental rites and playing "pastor" (with the people willingly consenting after being convinced by the heirarchy)--who's to say that's nothing more than their self-determined way of being Lutheran?

To be sure, one can vociferously cite confessional documents, and haul out theology books, and point to historical precedents ad infinitum ad nauseam. However, unmoored from catholic tradition within the increasingly unwraveling bonds of the conundrum called Lutheranism; and , worse yet, with tenuous or no liturgical grounding, self-determination becomes the all important thing.

I've thought these thoughts for some time now, but was reminded of them when I read a statement made recently by Deacon Leonard Klein to George Weigel. Klein was, for 30 years, a very prominent Lutheran pastor who promoted--as best he could--the Western Catholic understanding of Lutheranism within the ELCA. (Even that phrase, "Western Catholic understanding of Lutheranism" seems self-contradicting.) In 2003, with I'm sure no small measure of frustration, he and his family became Roman Catholic. Some time later he was ordained a deacon and, in a few months, Klein will be one of a handful of Latin rite married priests. Because of that, he's a causes celebres of sorts and, so I suppose, Weigel sought him out.

In part, here is what Klein said:
Toward the end of my time as a Lutheran pastor I used to protest that we were all reduced to being gurus. I tried to be authentically Lutheran, but who was to say that I was and the liberal feminist or church-growth ersatz Evangelical down the street wasn’t just as Lutheran as I...By contrast a Catholic priest or lay person can speak of what the Church teaches or permits, and that is freedom.
I think that sums up the frustration fairly well.

Read the entire article by Weigel here.


Bob Catholic said...

As a convert from Lutheranism, I identify with what you are saying. But in the end, is this not a question of ecclesiology? The liturgy is the Church's: not any one individual person or congregation's property. A number of the issues which you have blogged about can be placed within a wider discussion of ecclesiology. So what do the Lutheran Confessions say about the Church?

Anonymous said...

Fr Fenton...
as an evagelical refugee who came to be a member of the lcms thru study of the confessions and writing of Luther, and as my 5 yrs of experience in the synod i have seen deviations from the true historic catholic Church, i thank God daily for faithful shephards like you and Pr weedon, as well as other true confessional pastors. recently reread your article "what options do the confessions give us" i understood it more than just a year ago. and if we every figure out what to do? i have flirted with the church of Rome, i.e., met with priests, began catechisis even, she is still in babylonian captivity. anyway thank you Fr Fenton!

Anonymous said...

Ironically, Deacon Klein is a Romanist because he CHOSE to be one. he intentionally walked away from one confession, and to another.

In our world of many different true and false beliefs regarding our Lord Jesus Christ, ultimately, everyone is something because they intentionally chose to move, or to stay.

Perhaps that is why our Lord lovevs children so very much. My children are baptized and catechized in teh faith, but not because they choose to be. They don't know that there is anything different to be and do.

Petersen said...

Fatehr Fenton.

Your writings ever disturb me. This one included. I resonate deeply with what you write and am forced to face thigns I'd rather not. Thank you.

Noentheless, I must protest. I am daily frustrated with the nonsense in the LCMS, yet I see no lack of nonesense elsewhere. As a Lutheran I look to Rome and see not only the contuation of the errors and abuses of Luther's day (much of which has been curtailed) but the newer errors of Trent and the current nonsense of Vatican II. Rome has a lot of little side shows - that prevent me from taking Deacon Klein's statement very seriously. Rome can match the ELCA Klein left with feminists and charistmatics 100 to 1. At the same time, as a Lutheran I look to Constantinople but she can't give a straight answer. She refuses to acknowledge the development of doctrine forged by controversies in the West (even as we recieved the Creeds by controversy), and she has side shows of her own. Perhaps she can't go 100 to 1. But liberation theology and charistmatics are known in Constantinople even as lay consecration is known in the LCMS. So an escape from nonsense is futile.

Next, though I am disturbed by what you write and resonate also with what Klein writes (as I always have) I am not so sure my course has been self-determined. I fear that. But is that the case? Or has it been Divinely determined? Have these things been foisted upon me? Would not have ignorance been an easier path? The guru mode is uncomfortable at times, to be sure, but without you were would the LCMS now be? You've done much good here. The catechesis you've done has not been wasted.

Yours in Christ,

David Petersen

Chris Jones said...

Fr Petersen

The abundance of nonsense elsewhere does not relieve us of our responsibility for the nonsense in our own house. And the recognition that there is (this side of the eschaton) no perfect Church does not relieve us of the responsibility of cleaving to the Apostolic Church, if we can discern at all where she is.

As Lutherans, we believe that the Church at the time of the Reformation was in such a state that Luther's call to repentance was called for, and we believe that the Lutheran Church, as described in the Confessions, is the Catholic Church, rightly reformed. So far, so good.

But the Lutheran Confessions do not represent a guarantee of orthodoxy and apostolicity from the 16th century until the Parousia. We still have to be faithful to the Church's authentic tradition. And if the mediaeval Church could stray from that, so can we; the authentic tradition can be obscured, or even lost.

What is troubling about Fr Fenton's post - because it is the truth - is that the Catholic faith is not something that we decide on as individuals; it is something that we are given. And if it is something that, in practice, is "self-determined" by pastors like Fr Fenton and yourself (and your congregations), then that raises the question whether the Catholic faith is any longer a living tradition in our Church body.

And if it is not, then there is little wonder that some are seeking it elsewhere. Because you cannot pass on what you have not got.

Anonymous said...

From "The Craw of Private Judgement," *Pontifications*, March 28, 2006:


"As a Catholic I am sympathetic to the quia position; but its problems are serious. First, does any Protestant Church body have the moral right to demand an unconditional assent to its teachings? Only teachings that enjoy divine authority can claim such unconditional assent; but no Lutheran synod claims that its confessional interpretations of Holy Scripture are infallible, inerrant, and irreformable. Theoretically, therefore, Lutherans could change or abandon their doctrinal formularies if they were to decide that the formularies were mistaken. Newman saw this clearly when he declared that he would never again bind himself to “mere matter of opinion.” Conscience can surrender unconditionally only to “teaching which comes from God.”

Second, the demand for an unconditional assent to fallible formularies puts a terrible burden upon the subscriber. He must declare that he believes in the doctrinal content of the Book of Concord because it fully accords with the witness of Holy Scripture. I would think that such a declaration would require the subscriber not only to know his Bible backwards and forwards but also to be well acquainted with non-Lutheran exegesis before he’d be prepared to unconditionally assent to the Lutheran confessions. Can the Lutheran really be certain that his interpretation of Scripture is superior to the Reformed interpretation?

Third, does quia subscription to the Book of Concord prevent subscribers from entertaining fresh exegetical insights into Holy Scripture? Is the subscriber bound to confess that the views of N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn on justification are wrong because they contradict the Lutheran confessions? Is the subscriber forever precluded from reconsidering the Lutheran commitment to the eucharistic real presence in light of deeper exegesis? Do the confessions trump the Bible?

Fourth, who interprets the Book of Concord? Who decides whose interpretation of the confessions is correct? The pastors? the faculty of Concordia Seminary? all the baptized? As recently pointed out by Bill Tighe, the LC-MS authorizes the lay celebration of the Eucharist under specific conditions. Is this authorization in fact compatible with the confessions? Who has the authority to decide?"

There is more to this excerpted article, which compares the anglican, the Lutheran and the Catholic positions on doctrinal subscriptions and Church authority.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Petersen, you wrote:

At the same time, as a Lutheran I look to Constantinople but she can't give a straight answer. She refuses to acknowledge the development of doctrine forged by controversies in the West (even as we recieved the Creeds by controversy), and she has side shows of her own. Perhaps she can't go 100 to 1. But liberation theology and charistmatics are known in Constantinople even as lay consecration is known in the LCMS. So an escape from nonsense is futile.

Rx: OK, I'm game. Let me say something about your post.

1. WRT the development of doctrine forged by controversies in the west--(a) some of those controversies, and that doctrine, occurred pre-schism. To the degree that the doctrines forged do not teach *against* the ecumenical consensus of the seven councils, they can be viewed as local expressions. To the degree that they do, they are wrong. (b) some of those controversies, and that doctrine, occurred post-schism. The Orthodox Church need not recognize that as normative in any respect, since it stems from faulty presuppositions.

2. WRT the "side shows and controversies of her own," you mention charismatics and liberation theologians. (a) charismatics--I'm aware of one Greek priest from some years ago who's charismatic. Are you aware of some groundswelling organization like RIM within Orthodoxy? I'm not. (b) liberation theologians--strictly speaking, like charismania, liberation theology is a development of the western branch of Christendom (just as the charismatic movement arose from Methodism and Holiness movements, so Liberation Theology arose from a Roman Catholic context). However, the Church has *always* had a deep concern for the poor; the sermons of John Chrysostom reflect that concern well.

And one must note the difference between the problems in Lutheranism and the problems of the Orthodox Church. Any problems in the Orthodox Church one might point out are personal and practical; those of Lutheranism are systemic and theological (e.g. the lack of bishops, and the presence of 'sola Scriptura' in its Gerhardian formulation). Sin and stupidity are equal opportunity employers. The question is, how are they dealt with.

God grant you a blessed Lententide.

Cordially, in Christ,

Fr. Gregory Hogg

123 said...

At the same time, as a Lutheran I look to Constantinople but she can't give a straight answer. She refuses to acknowledge the development of doctrine forged by controversies in the West (even as we recieved the Creeds by controversy), and she has side shows of her own. Perhaps she can't go 100 to 1. But liberation theology and charistmatics are known in Constantinople even as lay consecration is known in the LCMS.

Orthodoxy does acknowledge "development", of a kind, in doctrine, meaning a greater understanding of the nascent faith present already. Orthodoxy does not, however, accept that the doctrinal development of the Lutherans countering Roman error was correct.

The Lutheran response to Rome would be put in the category of those attempts at reform and clarification in the Church that just didn't fit the bill: Eutychianism, Apollinarism, Donatism, monoenergism, etc. These were local answers to theological and practical errors. They were not accepted as being catholic and universal by the catholic and universal Church.

The reception of the Creeds, and the forging of a more clear doctrine in controversy is a propos. However, Orthodoxy would view this Lutheran development doctrine along the lines of how the Athanasian Creed was wrongly received as ecumenical, an error the Book of Concord repeat, by one part of the universal Church. The Nicene Creed was also forged in controversy, but it superceded all other local creeds because it was accepted by the whole Body of Christ. The leg of the Church did not set its understanding against that of the eye saying, “I have no need of thee”.

The contention that there are charismatics and liberation theology in the Orthodox Church simply betrays an understanding of Orthodoxy as gained primarily via the internet and the fringes. Even if one could point to a place in America where “charismaticism” is/was present this simply means that in an outpost far away from the centers of Orthodoxy (such as was Rome and the entire West for most of ante-Nicene Christianity in the first millennium of the Church) nonsense such as this grew up like a weed in the cracks of the pavement. If that weed does not die, but takes root, spreads, and takes over then you can speak of this as a problem within Orthodoxy.

Anonymous said...

I have often said, rather anecdotally, that those I know who leave the ELCA go to Rome; those who leave the LCMS go East. I believe it is a search for the very authority of which you speak.

In the ELCA, having given up any notion of Scriptural Authority, those who become disenchanted and leave are looking for a foundation of teaching - thus Rome.

In the LCMS, having given up any notion of a common worship life proceeding from common doctrine, those who leave are looking for a foundation for worship - thus Constantinople.

Pr. Klein only strengthens the anecdotal evidence.

So does Fr. Hogg.

Yet the question of authority still remains. Even in our own synod, the "authority" is now vested, not in our confessions - which failed doctrinal review - but in the CCM and CTCR. Yet their authority is so clearly anthropocentric that I easily sympathize with those looking an authority which has any sort of connection with ecclesial things.

What I appreciate about your blog, Fr. Fenton, is that you look so clearly to the teaching of The Church, especially the Lutheran Confessions. And you interpret the confessions in light of the fathers on which they are based, (Gregory, Cyprian, etc.) not the fathers that later interpreted them. (Gerhardt, Walther, etc.) It is how they were meant to be read - and certainly how they were written.

(I think you wrote something about a "catholic principle" in this regard, but I understand that there were many who did not receive it well.)



Fearsome Pirate said...

Note that leaving a Lutheran church and joining a Roman Catholic one over and against an Eastern Orthodox one (or vice versa) involves some measure of self-determination.

Peter Lombard's codification of the sevenfold sacramental system also required a measure of self-determination on his part.

Athanasius needed more than a little self-determination to stand up to an increasingly Arian world.

A Catholic priest may simply repeat what he's been told by his hierarch to say (or he may not; there's a lot of self-determination in the RCC), but someone had to have the idea originally. "Doctrinal development" doesn't happen out of thin air, y'know. And then he's going to argue with other priests over what the Church really teaches (go read any Catholic blog), requiring further self-determination.

If you're looking to completely avoid self-determination and exist as purely passive in relation to all matters of faith and order, you're not going to find it. You may find places that allow you the illusion of neither you nor anyone else having made decisions against odds and opposition, but it's only an illusion in the end.

Anonymous said...

"Yet was not Pius V also a bit self-determined, insofar he stated that any church that had, say, adopted the use of a liturgy "however ancient"—St. James, or St. John Chrysostom, or the Sarum rite—only 199 years and 364 days prior to July 13, 1570, would 'incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul'?"

There are a fair number of misunderstandings in your posting. First, *Quo Primum* was not a dogmatic definition, but a legal decree. This means that while it is a legislative act binding upon those to whom it applies, it is not, cannot be, an infallible statement -- which, in turn, means that "the legislator" (in this case, a future pope) may without any inconsistency modify or abrogate it completely (indeed, as early as the 1620s popes were introducing minor modifications to some of the proper prayers, as well as to the lectionary that accompanied [in fact, was a part of] the Tridentine Missal).

Secondly, you have overlooked the concluding phrase in your quotation, "in accord with the rites and customs of the Roman Church." *Quo Primum* was never intended to apply, and in fact, as never taken to apply to those churches that follwed the Liturgy of St. James or the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, since these were not churches that followed the rites and customs of the Roman Church. By contrast, it was the case, and was known to be the case, that the so-called "Sarum Rite" was simply a variant of the Roman Rite, the Roman Rite "according to the Use of Sarum" as the phrase went. So were the "Lyons Rite," the "Braga Rite" and the rites of religious orders such as the Carthusians, the Cistericians and the Dominicans. In the aftermath of *Quo Primum* Rome confirmed the validity and continued existence of all of these "rites" (as well as the "quasi-Roman" Ambrosian Rite of Milan and the wholly distinct Mozarabic Rite [which by this point was confined to a single chapel in the Toledo Cathedral in Spain]). *Quo Primum* was meant to suppress variants of the Roman Rite that could demonstrate less than 200 years of existence. What happened, in fact, was that various dioceses (such as the Archdiocese of Lisbon, in Portugal, which had followed the Sarum Rite ever since the 1390s) and religious orders (such as the Franciscans) prefgerred to adopt the Tridentine Rite, and did so -- just as, after the promulgation of the *Novus Ordo* in 1970, the Archdiocese of Lyons, the Dominicans and the Cistercians dropped their old variant versions of the Roman Rite in favor of the *Novus Ordo.* One might regret this, and be pleased that the Carthusians did not do the same thing, and that when Braga sought to go "Novus Ordo" in the late 1970s Rome refused to allow it; but I don't see what's the big deal. Those Tridentinists who hold that *Quo Primum* can bind future popes don't know what they're talking about, and as to your own charge of "self-determination" it's maaning in this context is unclear: as pope, he can't be "other-determined" (since that would be to subordinate his authority to others), but as successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ (as Leo the Great put it, in terms which combine Roman Law and Christian theology, "indignus heres beati Petri") his "self"(determination) has the stamp of Peter, Paul and Almighty God, that's good enough for me.

Anonymous said...

No pope can bind a future pope, except in the matter of a dogmatic degree, and if the distinction is unknown to you, such is not the case to Catholic theologians or Canon lawyers; and for all your rhetoric, there is no doctrinal definition in *Quo Primum* at all. This was a truth as well known to St. Pius V as to any modern canonist. Still, and regardless of this fact, the concluding "by this present Constitution, which will be valid henceforth, now, and forever, We order and enjoin that nothing must be added to Our recently published Missal, nothing omitted from it, nor anything whatsoever be changed within it under the penalty of Our displeasure" was perfectly true, until a later pope, enjoying equal authority with his predecessor (all popes being "Vicars of Christ" immediately, not vicars of their predecessors) abrogated it.

Proof-texting, absent any consideration of context or background, is an enterprise fraught with peril (or risk of absurdity) and, as you have shown, it applies equally well to legal texts as to Scriptural ones.

Mike L said...

I was struck by this statement of Chris Jones: "the Lutheran Church, as described in the Confessions, is the Catholic Church, rightly reformed." So, what is the communion called by everybody else "the Catholic Church"? Chopped liver? Or is she too "the Catholic Church", only not "rightly reformed"? Can there be more than one communion called "the Catholic Church"? And less reformed than which Lutheran church that some Lutherans regard as the Catholic Church? How much less reformed? Who says? And why should we care?

There are two insuperable difficulties here. One is that no church called "Lutheran" enjoys apostolic succession in the sense understood by the real Catholic Church—or even, for that matter, by the real Orthodox Church. It is indeed clear that no Lutheran church even has orders in the sense understood by those churches. Whichever Lutheran body one chooses to call Catholic, it is according to a definition of 'Catholic' that does not include historical or sacerdotal continuity with the ancient church. That is one reason why "the Lutheran Church," whatever it is, is Protestant, and why Protestantism is not Catholic.

The other problem points to the same result. Confessional Lutherans divide roughly into quia subscribers and quatenus subscribers to the Confessions. Each criticizes the other as misunderstanding what the basic rule of faith is. Who is right? More important, does anybody in Lutheranism have the God-given authority to decide for "the Church" who is right? This is all private judgment. And that too makes Lutheranism Protestant, not Catholic.

It amazes me that any of this is even controversial. Fr. Fenton can, and I believe does, understand why.

Chris Jones said...


I am very sorry if I have given offense. The phrase "the Catholic Church, rightly reformed" is not my coinage; it is a common phrase among confessional Lutherans. It's just another way of saying that we believe that we are right and the Roman Catholic Church is wrong. If no one believed that, there would be no Lutherans.

So, what is the communion called by everybody else "the Catholic Church"? Chopped liver?

Well, it's not chopped liver, but it is not regarded by serious Lutherans as the true "Catholic Church," either. If we believed that the Roman Catholic Church were the true Catholic Church, we would be Roman Catholics, not Lutherans.

Of course I do not expect you, or any Roman Catholic, to agree with the claims of Lutheranism, nor to agree that any Lutherans have any claim to be called "Catholic Christians". But that is what we believe ourselves to be, even though you think we are sadly mistaken.

Mike L said...


I understand all that. I still think you're missing my point, which is that it's fundamentally non-Catholic to imagine that the question whether something called "the Lutheran Church" or the Catholic Church is the Catholic Church can be treated as a matter of opinion without begging the question. If it is to be so treated, then the Catholic Church, whatever that is, did not come into existence until the sixteenth century. For the Catholic Church, in the standard sense of that phrase, has never professed that the matter is one of human opinion. But if the matter isn't one of human opinion, then nothing called "the Lutheran Church" can be the Catholic Church. For within Lutheranism, the question what counts as Catholic is inevitably such a matter no matter how certain this or that Lutheran is that he is right.


Chris Jones said...



What was it about my comment that made you think that I consider it "a matter of opinion" to discern, and cleave to, the Apostolic and Catholic Church? It is most certainly not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of faith. That does not mean that two different persons of good will cannot be of different minds on the question.

Not everyone who seriously and prayerfully seeks to discern where the Catholic Church can be found concludes that it is found only in communion with Rome. The Orthodox, for example, do not so conclude. But the Orthodox do not have to endure the censure of having their prayerful discernment called "a matter of opinion". Only Lutherans, who honestly and in good conscience believe that the western Church had gone astray enough that a call to repentance (a Reformation, if you will) was absolutely necessary, are accused of having not faith, but only "opinions". I find this less than respectful.

In your model of the Church, her authority, and her history, such a call to repentance can never be justified, because for you the indefectibility and infallibility of the Church are identified with her institutional structure. But this model condemns not only Luther, but also Athanasius and Maximos Confessor, and any saint of any age who is called to stand, with Catholic daring, against the world.

The Catholic Church did not come into existence in the sixteenth century. It was called to repentance from the heterodoxy and heteropraxis into which it had fallen, just as it was called to repentance from Arianism in the fourth century and from Monotheletism in the seventh century. If your model of the Church does not allow for such periodic going astray and repentance, then it is hard to square with the facts of Church history, and it is not I who am begging the question.

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