Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Thoughts for Reformation Day

Today is Halloween, of course, but it is also Reformation Day in the Lutheran Church. On this day in 1517, Martin Luther, dressed as a monk, played a world-historical trick on the Catholic Church by nailing 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. What exactly he intended to accomplish with this act of vandalism remains unclear, but we are all aware of the consequences, both good and bad. Through the centuries, Reformation Day (now typically celebrated on the previous Sunday) has served as a sort of Protestant 4th of July, with multiple renditions of "A Mighty Fortress"” and a festive meal in the church basement. But perhaps the day calls for more reflection and less denominational patriotism. After all, the existence of a separate Lutheran church is not necessarily a good thing, and the freedom we gained in the Reformation will be in vain if we forget what motivated Luther in the first place -– the insight that justification comes through faith alone. Reformation Day is worthwhile only if it spurs the Church to renew its commitment to the articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae.

A brief aside: The Catholic author Flannery O'Connor was at a dinner party when "“the conversation turned to the Eucharist."” A lady remarked that "when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one." To which O'’Connor replied, "“Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it."” She later wrote that "that was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."

O'Connor's words often come to mind when I contemplate what the doctrine of justification through faith means to me. This article has come under frequent attack, especially in recent years, and the only defense I can offer is that it serves as "“the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable." It is a source of joy and my refuge in distress. To those who would say that it is merely a doctrine, one among many, my reply is nearly the same as O'’Connor's: "“Well, if it'’s just a doctrine, to hell with it”." As Luther said, "“nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls... Upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice."” In other words, justification is the Word that God has spoken to his Creation, and we must resist all attempts to obscure its radical message with caveats and evasions.

Ultimately, O'Connor's position is not that different than mine. The sacrament is, after all, nothing more and nothing less than the visible Word - "“my body given for you." Similarly, the justifying Word comes to us in the very human and very earthy language of Scripture. As Luther said, "The glory of our God is precisely that for our sakes he comes down to the very depths, into human flesh, into the bread, into our mouth, our heart, our bosom." Reformation Day reminds us that the Church and all its members live only from these two gifts of Word and Sacrament. Thus, the Church is never a finished product capable of standing on its own two feet. The Holy Spirit continues to work within the Church, justifying it through grace, and that is the reason why we celebrate today. Semper Reformanda!


Lee said...

Great post. It reminds me of one of the things I miss from the Lutheran liturgy since we've been worshipping at an Episcopal church. In the Lutheran liturgy, as you point out, the pastor (or whoever) says "The Body of Christ, given for you" whereas in the Episcopal liturgy it's "The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven." I miss that "pro nobis" aspect that Lutheranism emphasizes, which I think it's safe to say is tied in to the doctrine of justification. God, in Christ, is for us.

D.W. Congdon said...

Very nice post, Thomas. I liked the way you were both ecumenical and uncompromising in your adherence to justification. I am reminded of J√ľngel's own uncompromising ecumenism.

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

Wonderful post. I've been realizing that the older I get, the more "comfortable" my faith has become. Not comfortable in that I may be taking it for granted too much, but comfortable in the sense that it is THERE. The forgiveness is there. The justification is there. It was given to me.

I've unfortuately had to listen to more "Christian radio" in recent months that I care for (long story). There seems to be an underlyng tone to that station's speaker about doing this or doing that or about our sinful natures and how to improve in this or that aspect of daily life.

All well and good, but I do miss that comfort of "Given for You."

Matthew N. Petersen said...

I am having difficulties understanding this post. O'Connor said the SS. Sacrament was the center of her life. She did not say the doctrine of the real presence was. The Sacrament was the comfort in distress. But you seem to say that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the center of your hope. But the doctrine of justification by faith alone is not Christ, the sacrament is. Thus it would seem that you should say that the SS. Sacrament is the center of your life. That the Sacrament be the center is only possible 1) because the Sacrament is Christ and Christ is the center, and 2) because he has justified me by faith. But nevertheless, the only center is Christ, which is the Most Blessed Sacrament.

As I understand it, the doctrine of justification by faith states that Christ through the sacrament is the center. And because he is the center, nothing more is required, save that we not spit on it. But nevertheless, the SS. Sacrament is the center.

Thomas Adams said...

Matthew -- I apologize if my post confused you. It was never my intention to suggest that the doctrine of justification through faith is itself the center of my hope. Christ is my hope, not the doctrine. However, the doctrine does perfectly describe the manner in which I am saved by Christ, that is, through faith apart from works of the law. Thus, the content of the doctrine, what it conveys, is the center of my life. That is why I said that O’Connor and I are not that far apart. Both of us trust in the justification that comes from Christ alone, in Word and Sacrament.

In short, I agree with what you said in your comment: the only center is Christ. And that is what the doctrine of justification through faith makes so clear, and that is why I treasure it so much.

Matthew N. Petersen said...

ok, thanks