01 November 2009

Who Needs a Reformation?

Fr Gregory Hogg, a brother Orthodox priest and a good friend, recently wrote what I've been thinking:
I don't commemorate the Reformation any more because I have come to see that I, not the Church, am the one in need of reformation.
I've been thinking this in light of some comments I've read by some concerning the Pope's recent Apostolic Constitution. It seems that some believe that this announcement is a way for certain Episcopalians to retain their Episcopalianism while coming into communion with the Pope. As David Sch├╝tz points out, such is not the case. Those Anglo-Catholics who have applied, and to whom the Constitution will be applied, have already accepted all the tenants of the Catholic faith. And those Episcopalians who take advantage of the Vatican's offer will, in the final analysis, no longer be Anglicans or Episcopalians practicing Anglicans in communion with the Pope; rather, they will be Roman Catholics who are permitted (for a time, or perhaps in perpetuity) to keep Anglo-Catholic (note, not necessarily BCP) customs or traditions (e.g., the KJV language) that conform to Catholic doctrine.

The Orthodox Church expects and offers nothing less; namely, that Orthodoxy is not what makes a Lutheran a better Lutheran, or enables a Lutheran to live his Lutheranism more fully while in communion with the Church. Rather, Orthodoxy requires that a Lutheran embrace fully the Orthodox faith.


Chris Jones said...

Something troubled me when I read what Fr Gregory wrote; but it was not until I read this post that I put my finger on what it was.

It is not that I don't agree that it is oneself (myself), rather than the Church, that stands in need of Reformation. It is that what Luther was faced with, what he saw as needing Reformation, was not the Church. It was an organization in which some elements of the Church, and some memory of the Church, survived; but it was no longer the fulness of the Church.

Indeed, I would describe what led Luther to attempt reform was a tension felt between the memory of the fulness of the Church and the reality of the broken institution in which he actually lived. The tragedy of the Reformation is not that the Reformers would not allow the Church to reform them, but that they were unable to get back to the Church whose fulness could reform them.

It is true that the Church is given to us for our repentance, our spiritual discipline, and ultimately our salvation; it is not we who are given to the Church for her salvation. But it is not always clear where the authentic Church is to be found. Luther is not to be blamed for failing to recognize the authentic Church in the Western Church of his time, any more that St Maximus (or St John Chrysostom, or St Athanasius) is to be faulted for not submitting to the imperial Church of his time. We don't call those great saints "reformers" (nor am I suggesting that Luther belongs in that august company); but they were unafraid to call to repentance those who were, in the name of the Church, teaching falsely. Is not that call to repentance the essence of what Luther was trying to do?

Fr John W Fenton said...


I understood Fr Gregory's comment not primarily as an historical indictment (i.e., a comment on Luther and the Reformers), but primarily as an indictment against a modern mindset (i.e., a comment on what Lutherans and Lutheranism, as well as Protestantism generally, promotes in the 21st century).

Understanding the statement historically, your comments are quite helpful. I agree that Luther et al. were dealing primarily with an organization, and that they tried mightily to right the ship; and for this they are to be commended. But permit me to suggest that the tragedy of the Reformation was not merely that political and geographical realities prevented them from being able to get back to the Church (as your comment indicates). Rather, imbedded within their "system" or worldview were philosophical and theological assumptions and elements which introduced instabilities that ruled out, from the start, a return to fullness. Those instabilities have not been created, but have magnified and increased, in the Reformers' heirs.

One small example of what I mean is found in Bouyer's charge (in his book "Eucharist") that Luther's Eucharistic theology was consistent within the philosophical and theological confines of High Scholasticism, thereby insisting that the Verba consecratory per se.

Timothy May said...

There is much to appreciate in Fr. Hogg's comment as it gets to the heart of the reform in the 16th c. The Reformation as celebrated today is so far removed from that reform in the 16th c. and has created conditions that are agnostic if not antagonistic toward anything ecclesiastical. Hence heirs of the Reformation, belying any history and tradition, ask today, "What is Church?"
or "How can we re-invent it [ie, in our image?]?

For me two unresolved questions are touched on in the comments on this blog.

1) First, regarding the papacy; anti-papacy rhetoric (including the label Anti-Christ) among modern heirs of the Reformation as well as some Orthodox may rally the troops. However such talk is unconvincing in addressing such ecclesiastical questions such as authority, heierarchy, etc. I think it could be argued that every ecclesiastical communion has an heierarchy of one sort or another. In other words, the rhetoric does not allow for serious engagement with such questions or is opposed to such engagement altogether. Such rhetoric today gives me pause and makes me wonder if there is any place left for serious theological discussion (granted that blogs are not the best place either).

2) The comment regarding Luther's High Scholastic view which I am not qualified to or interested in arguing for or against raises the ongoing question about what is specifically at heart in "anti-scholasticism." I understand that scholasticism is not prayer or liturgy but this still does not answer for me why scholasticism is not or would not be accepted as a contribution in the long history of the Church. In other words, I am aware of the opposition to scholasticism but I remain undecided as to the overall critique and appreciation of such opposition.

These questions are not posed to put anyone "on the spot." Rather they arise from my own background and the tradition in which I was nurtured. If there is any feedback, thank you in advance.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Debates and discussions about what Luther faced are important, at least on an historical level. For myself, I think that Luther did pretty well when you consider how dysfunctional the west had become since its split from the Church. The Lutheran fathers and confessions all point to problems which had arisen in the several hundred years before the Reformation. But they didn't, or couldn't, connect the dots and see their need to return.

Having said all this, historical debates and discussions are beside the point. I had to recognize that I am not Luther, and Lutheranism isn't the papacy--nor, by its own lights, is it the Church.

The sensible thing to do when one discovers one is not in the Church, is to humble oneself and get there by any means possible. "Since the days of John the Baptist, the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force."

We are keeping your Jacob in our prayers, Fr. John. Keep us posted.

The unworthy priest,

Fr. Gregory Hogg

Benjamin Harju said...

I had to recognize that despite all my best efforts in my own congregations, or any in the future I might shepherd, I could not compensate for that lack (or rejection) of fullness in the parishes with whom I was in communion.

I was looking for an eschatological fullness that was natural between parishes and enjoyed - despite struggles - throughout the progression of history. I could not create this, nor could I compensate for its lack. And I could not accept that pure and full Christianity was dependent on my vision of reform (or Confessions - same thing).

Only much later did I come to realize that it was the Church I was after, even though I knew Orthodoxy was what was needed.

It's a different mode of existence under the ideology of reform than it is in the Church (and I say this as only a catechumen). I agree with Fr. Gregory: a person should get to the Church as soon as possible.

Dcn. Muehlenbruch said...

Fr. Hogg, et al:

It confuses me at times that the definition of the "Church" seems to differ depending upon ones understanding of "church."

It is my understanding, based upon the Nicene Creed (the filioque not withstanding) is that the church "one, holy, catholic and apostolic." I cannot comprehend how the Nicene adjectives are, or can be, implied to be applicable only to Orthodoxy.

I know the Christ's High Priestly Prayer that the "Church should be one" is lacking in fulfillment in this world. But I cannot understand the logic that Lutherans, and even Rome herself, are not part of the Church. Even our Lord Himself said that He had "Other sheep that were not of this fold." This, then, rises the question as to what and which is the "authentic" church.

It has always been my understanding that the Church was defined as that place in which the Gospel was rightly proclaimed and in which the sacraments were properly celebrated. If this understanding is not correct, I await your instruction.

But unless and until You are able to disabuse me of my understanding, I remain a Lutheran member of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, no matter the adjective which is used to define the appropriate branch.

Chris Jones said...

Dcn Muehlenbruch,

I know the Christ's High Priestly Prayer that the "Church should be one" is lacking in fulfillment in this world.

How exactly is it that you know this? Of all of the marks of the Church, why should we regard her unity as somehow invisible? Are her holiness, catholicity, apostolicity also invisible?

I see no reason to think that the Fathers of the ecumenical councils that promulgated the Creed were referring to anything other than the concrete, visible Church when they confessed the four marks of the Church. Nor do I see any basis in Scripture for any notion whatever of an invisible Church. Scripture speaks of a Church which is fully united in the confession of a common faith and in communion in the holy mysteries. It does not set before us a hidden unity among congregations which have different confessions.

The reason the Orthodox apply the Nicene marks of the Church only to their own Church body is the same as the reason why confessional Lutheran congregations are not in altar and pulpit fellowship with Reformed or Romanist congregations. The Orthodox do not recognize the confession of the Catholic faith in its fulness in any other Christian group, therefore they do not recognize any such group as being "the Church" -- because "the Church" is characterized by the fulness of the faith. Similarly, we do not see a fully orthodox confession of the Catholic faith by the Reformed, so we cannot be in fellowship with them. The principle is the same.

That is why, by the way, your qualifier of the filioque notwithstanding makes no sense. If one group confesses the filioque and the other does not, then there is no common confession of the Catholic faith, which is the only basis for unity. It makes no sense to say that congregations with differing confessions can be "branches" of the Catholic Church.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Dear Deacon,

For the Orthodox, it’s not so much a question of the Church’s definition as it is a question of her identification. “Church” is not a generic term, made up of various species (Roman, Protestant, Orthodox). It is, rather, the name of a particular organism, founded by Jesus Christ on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

Nor would we agree that Christ’s high priestly prayer is lacking in fulfillment in this world. The Church he founded was organically one for the first thousand years of her life. The break that became evident in 1054 was not a splitting of the Church, but a falling away from the Church. The Church Christ founded remains one, holy, catholic and apostolic to this day. (The “other sheep” the Lord spoke of were, of course, the Gentiles, as is made plain in the epistles.)

From an Orthodox point of view, the definition of Church as “that place in which the Gospel is rightly proclaimed and the sacraments are properly celebrated” is inadequate. “Is proclaimed” and “are properly celebrated” are dangerously obscure, as recent controversies within Lutheran circles concerning lay preaching and eucharistic administration demonstrate. Further, it raises the difficult question, “Who decides what constitutes properly?” Is it “proper” administration when individual plastic cups are used? If not, then one cannot say the Church is there—from a Lutheran perspective—and it seems that one finds oneself in communion fellowship with something that is not Church.

You rightly ask about which is the authentic church—there is no more important question in our day than that. What does the historical evidence suggest?

1. Consider some of the issues that divide east and west. Leavened bread was used universally till about 1000 AD in the West. The filioque was a later addition to the Creed, resisted even by the popes until Frankish hegemony over Rome. Baptised infants were communed in east and west till about 1200 in France. Purgatory was invented in the 1200s. The Lutheran confessional writings point out the problems with Rome. They also held that such problems went back a few hundred years—right around the time of the east-west divide.
2. Living things preserve their wholeness, their integrity. Once-living things decompose—break down. The western split into Catholic and Protestant, followed by the ongoing divisions within Protestantism, suggest decomposition.

(Please note in all of this that I make no judgments about individual persons. My issue is not with Lutherans, but with Lutheranism.)

Past experience suggests that this reply may not help much, but I offer it nonetheless. Forgive me if it seems cheeky or impertinent.

The unworthy priest,

Fr. Gregory Hogg

Benjamin Harju said...

Fr. Gregory makes an important distinction, I think. In Orthodoxy there is a difference between "being in the Church" and "being a Christian." One can believe in and follow after Christ, as many do in Lutheran congregations for example. Yet they're proper home is in the Church.

Maybe that's one of the first orders of business: to point out that their is a definite gathering in the world in the Spirit, rather than an indefinite one which makes appearances under the right conditions (i.e. right preaching and sacraments). This gathering is the eklesia, or gathering out of the world into communion with God. But I suppose it is that such a Church is singularly findable that causes the trouble here, right?

Maybe the second order of business would be to point out that the Church herself is a sacrament of the kingdom. This might make the first point more understandable. While we might say that the Church is a destination, a place one desires to arrive in, it is also the immediate presence of the kingdom of God on earth. It is within this kingdom that Baptism, Christmation, and Eucharist are found. One does not approach a duly appointed vicarious representative who baptizes, chrismates, and distributes a connection with the kingdom. Rather one comes to the Church herself and is immersed into, anointed with, and fed with the kingdom she herself is the communion of. And this occurs not by a created grace that links man and God, but by participation in the uncreated energies of the Trinity (not the uncreated substance, though).

A third thing to point out would be the mindset of the Fathers at the time of the Nicene Creed's writing. They described what the Orthodox describe, not the invisible/hidden concept of Lutheranism. They tell how there is only one Church, and she was described not merely by what she confessed but also by her customs and canons and way of life. Some aspects of her ecclesial nature are invisible or hidden, while many others are visible and findable on the earth. St. Epiphanius of Salamis, writing between the first two Ecumenical Councils, describes the Church as a single eschatological society in the world (but not of the world). His treatment is exceedingly long, but his views about the Church are abundantly clear and Orthodox. Those who had separated themselves - through false teaching or simply by breaking communion fellowship - were not at all considered part of the one Church, but rather half-wives (concubines). That is, they were considered to have some familiarity with the covenants and promises, but their ecclesial relationship was illicit; they were not considered receptacles of the Holy Spirit. (He's speaking of groups, not individuals here.) This should give one pause, at least if one confesses the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed every Sunday. I don't include this to offend, but to point out the difference in thinking between those who first confessed belief in "one holy catholic and apostolic Church" and the Lutherans like yourself who confess this now.

Benjamin Harju said...

Dcn. Muehlenbruch wrote:
But unless and until You are able to disabuse me of my understanding, I remain a Lutheran member of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, no matter the adjective which is used to define the appropriate branch.

I've been thinking about this, having once held to the same view you espouse here. I suggest that your view seems most certain because it is what you have experienced. Experience says that faith alone makes one a member of the Church. Experience says that many divergent groups claim faith and worship Christ. There are other parts of experience that could be thrown in here, but I think you get my drift.

In theory why should Eastern Orthodoxy be any different? What convinced me that the Orthodox Church is the Church is the Orthodox Church herself. To answer this question one has to be willing to take the Orthodox challenge: investigate her spiritual life; spend time hearing her interpretation of Scripture; soak in her worship; ask lots of questions; compare both intellectually and also in your heart. That is, engage the Orthodox experience. In the end you will believe or not. This is the only way.

That there is only one Church, and that the Orthodox Church is this Church, is apprehended by faith.

I don't think we can really prove to you what you ask us to prove. God must prove it to you. And you must really be willing to have this proved to you.

And if the enormity of the task seems daunting, remember that the early Fathers did not envision the sort of Church you espouse here. The answer to your question is not a book answer. It's a faith answer.