The Eleventh ELCA Churchwide Assembly According to Law and Gospel – Part IV (Conclusion): Merely Law Oriented Critique of the ELCA Church-wide Assembly Will Not Do
Now, according to Luther’s exposition of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism (I, 26-27), this commandment protects the giving of all of God’s gifts in this world through created means specified and instituted by God himself. It thus also has something to say about the gospel itself. For the gospel cannot be heard and believed without those created means God himself established and instituted for the delivery of the saving fruit of Christ’s life and death: the word, holy baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. In other words, any tampering with the gospel also affects God’s holy will expressed in the First Commandment. Not being clear about the specific gifts of the Lord’s Supper is not doing away with unnecessary fluff but cuts to the core of God’s majesty.
The 2004 UMC statement on the Lord’s Supper referenced in the supporting document to the agreement voted on at the 2009 ELCA assembly, This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion, affirms:
Christ’s presence in the sacrament is a promise to the church and is not dependent upon recognition of this presence by individual members of the congregation. Holy Communion always offers grace.
This statement, first of all, appears positive because it affirms the objectivity of the sacrament. The presence of Christ is not contingent on the recipients but on Christ’s promise. However, then his presence is again “personal,” that is, the specificity of the gift of this sacrament over against God’s gospel is not reflected or articulated. However, what is given with the one hand is taken away quickly with the other. While the quote above seems to affirm the presence of Christ regardless of the recipient’s faith, the quotes then adduced to elaborate on this actually deny it, tying it, in good Reformed manner, to the presence of faith in the communicant. No faith – no body and no blood of Christ:
Article XVIII [of The Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church, authored in by J. Wesley in 1784] describes the Lord’s Supper as “a sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death; insomuch that, to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith receive the same, the bread which we break is a partaking of the body of Christ; and likewise the cup of blessing is a partaking of the blood of Christ“
This article contains also the following paragraph not quoted in This Holy Mystery: “The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith.”
The Wesley hymn quoted in the document, O the Depth of Love Divine, is also telling in this connection in that it speaks in stanza one of a seeming objective presence of Christ’s body in the bread and Christ’s blood in the wine, while already there mention is made of “His faithful people’s hearts.” Stanza three, not quoted in the document but easily found online, then asks:
How can spirits heavenward rise, by earthly matter fed,
Drink herewith divine supplies and eat immortal bread?
Indeed, how can they? Do they have to? Is it not the miracle of the Sacrament of the Altar that “divine supplies and … immortal bread” are not found in heaven but in the very “earthly matter” that not spirits but mouths eat? In other words, the old contentious issues – and they are major issues – between Lutherans and Methodists are not resolved; they are simply not mentioned in the agreement between ELCA and UMC.
In general, ecumenical statements on doctrine are often so brief, vague, and superficial that one cannot really know what they mean or how those signing on to them might understand them. That is a basic problem of this kind of ecumenical dialogue. The political will to fellowship often seems to overpower honest and open theological discussion. Statements are obviously made and chosen so as not to offend the partner or to make the desired union impossible. This, however, is not unity in truth, and certainly not unity in the truth of God’s word. For when the brief statements are expanded, they are invariably expanded in the wrong direction.
After highlighting the confusing theological situation, in the case of the Lord’s Supper, that serves as the foundation for the declaration of “full communion” between the ELCA and the UMC, one can certainly appreciate why so many Lutherans and others, in reacting to the 2009 churchwide assembly have jumped on the seemingly clear issue of homosexuality and clergy. However, as Lutherans we must carefully distinguish between God’s law and God’s gospel. A merely law-oriented evaluation of “Minneapolis 2009” will not do; it would be mere moralism.
The gospel comes into focus when it comes to the fellowship agreement between the ELCA and the UMC. And here the picture is no less dismaying. In fact, precious gospel treasures, held and shared by Lutherans over centuries, are carelessly squandered. And this is truly sad: the law is not clearly proclaimed, but neither is the gospel that alone saves. Only in this dual opaqueness can this particular confusion of law and gospel persist: The clear law that calls all sinners, including homosexuals, to repentance without the clear gospel would be unbearable. The clear gospel without the clear law would be meaningless. But a muddied law that does not call a spade a spade can well coexist with a muddied gospel that does not convey God’s comfort.
Some will leave the ELCA because of its cavalier attitude toward sin as manifested, e.g., in its new position on homosexuality. Yet, given the wide margin of the vote, how many will leave the ELCA because of its cavalier attitude toward the gospel as manifested, e.g., in its agreement with the UMC? Why is this so? Certainly, one can expect that the law as implanted in the hearts of all by God’s creative act evokes a more visceral reaction in more people. It is more basic to our being as humans.
Perhaps this also has to do with a movement called Pietism. Pietism arose in the late 17th century and, since it was found in many Christian denominations, is also among those movements that influenced John Wesley and many of the ancestors of current ELCA members in Germany (the first German immigrants to Pennsylvania (Germantown) were Pietists from the Frankfurt area; Pietists from Halle, Germany, sent Henry Melchior Muehlenberg to minister to them in the 18th century from which resulted the Pennsylvania Synod, a major historic building block of today’s ELCA) and in Scandinavia (e.g., Norway’s Hans Nielsen Hauge). Pietism – the longer, the more – deemphasizes the doctrinal differences between various Protestant denominations and emphasizes sanctification on an individual and social level at the expense of justification. The predilection of natural man for the law is resurrected in Christian garb. Gazing to Christ is then quickly replaced by seemingly more fascinating but ultimately hopeless navel gazing; Christology is replaced by Christianology.
All this made Pietism quite popular, e.g., in Prussia, where it achieved what some have called a “state-religion status.” For as traditional Calvinists and Lutherans emphasized doctrine, they were perceived by the political leaders of the day as divisive and not conducive to national unity (or, later, like Hermann Sasse in the 1930s by members of the “Confessing Church” in Prussia: as not conducive to a joint resistance of all Protestants under Karl Barth’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s leadership against the evil of the German Christians). And as they emphasized justification, they were also not perceived as contributing sufficiently to remedying the social ills of society (interestingly, German Christians in the 1930s considered the “Pauline” doctrine of justification a “Jewish” doctrine that needed to be cast out from pure, Germanic religion; Jesus’ religiosity, perceived as simple and anti-Semitic, was more in synch with their tastes). Pietists, in Prussia, were seen both as conducive to political unity with their non-doctrinal preaching and as conducive to social renewal with their emphasis on holiness. Many leading Pietists, such as August Hermann Francke of Halle, Germany, and John Wesley, were engaged in major social reform projects, thereby taking social pressure off the state; Muehlenberg’s offspring became influential leaders in the early American Republic. And it was then also the Pietists who introduced various forms of chiliasm, the belief in a millennial reign or kingdom at the end of the world, into Lutheranism.
In 19th-century America, Lutheran Pietists considered a church body’s stance against slavery and for temperance to be more important than its stance on baptismal regeneration and the real presence in the Lord’s Supper. In this, they could easily ally themselves with certain Methodists at the time, leading advocates of abolition and temperance as they were. Today’s socially active Evangelical movement with its de-emphasis of doctrinal distinctives is a conservative heir to this movement. Liberal mainline churches that are equally disinterested in doctrinal particulars and heavily interested in the promotion of progressive social causes represent the liberal heirs to this movement. In these two groups, the stance of a particular individual or church body on a given social issue – e.g., abortion or “gay rights” – is ultimately more important than their stance on the Lord’s Supper or predestination. Mission work, by the way, is equally important to both conservative and liberal Pietists: for the former, it is introduction to a non-denominational, basic Christianity; for the latter, it is basically social assistance conducted in the spirit of religious tolerance.
It seems that the statement, “Doctrine divides, but service unites,” coined at the 1925 Stockholm meeting of the Universal Christian Conference on Life and Work, one of the forerunner organizations of the current World Council of Churches, still is the guiding principle for many. And, of course, if service represents love and doctrine faith, then it is not surprising that more people, from diverse religious backgrounds, can agree on loving service. After all, the law-guided conscience is a gift of God to all people which, even if damaged today by sin, still guides even unbelievers in a way that is, in most cases, conducive to service and social order. Divisions in the world are indeed created by the supernaturally revealed Christian doctrine (Matth. 10:34-39). In its realm, reason and conscience, common to all men but blinded by sin especially when it comes to spiritual matters, are only of very limited usefulness. A unity is service is, therefore, no real Christian, spiritual union at all. It can easily be engineered by human ingenuity: Even sinful mankind after the fall could agree on a common project such as the enormous tower of Babel. A unity in doctrine, however, as stated above, is a gift of the Holy Spirit that is brought about by the same Spirit working repentance and faith in and through God’s biblical word in law and gospel.
Given this reality of Pietism, it seems the two votes in the ELCA on homosexual clergy and fellowship with the UMC are best explained as a clash between conservative and progressive Pietists who, to be sure, fight over how the new, holy life of the individual should look like and how best to cure society’s ills but who, frankly, don’t care all that much about whether Christ’s body and blood are truly present in the Lord’s Supper or – to reference an earlier decision of the ELCA, its adoption of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church – whether justification is a lengthy process or a once-for-all declaration of liberty (the former having been held repeatedly by Pietists all along). Also the on-going resistance within the ELCA against its importation of apostolic succession for their bishops from the Episcopal Church is best understood from the Pietists’ aversion against the preaching office as a distinct office and not just as an assemblage of various functions best performed by enthusiastic laymen without any formal training in theology.
And this predominance of Pietism in the Christian media scene, controlled by Evangelicals as it is at the moment, also explains quite well why the issue of the law and sanctification – i.e., homosexual clergy – got by far more playtime than the issue of the gospel and salvation – i.e., the union with the UMC. In fact, the predominantly pietistic face of Christianity in America compounds the world’s legalistic notion of religion to the extent that even secular media focus on social issues debated by the churches more than on any doctrinal, gospel-centered discussions that might take place. Lutherans need to take care here lest they be swallowed up in the maelstrom of Pietism