Sunday, February 18, 2007

Thoughts on Open Communion

Recently, the practice of open communion has been a topic of discussion on several blogs (Kim Fabricius' hymn at Faith and Theology got the ball rolling, followed by posts at Connexions and Out the Door). Based on the posts and comments, it appears there's a general consensus in favor of giving communion to all who approach the altar, regardless of baptismal status, age, denomination/religion, or unrepentant sins. Richard's comments are typical:
My position on this is very clear. When I am celebrating communion, it is not my place to withhold the gifts from anyone who opens their hand to receive them. There is a place to exercise church discipline, but the Lord’s Table is not it. It should be a place of welcome and grace. No buts, ifs, howevers or maybes. All are welcome.
Similarly, Bob Cornwall (another pastor) writes:
When thinking about the “Lord’s” Table, maybe we should consider Jesus’ own dining habits — he didn’t put up barriers — so should we? I think not. If Jesus practiced an open table, then I as the one who issues the invitation must do the same.
Of course, there is much to be said for these arguments. We should never wield the sacraments like a club in order to enforce theological or moral discipline; after all, they are means of grace, not law. But I must confess that the concept of open communion, if it becomes too open, makes me a bit uncomfortable. For instance, one commentator said that he "would go a step further and welcome all people to the Eucharistic table...Christian, atheist, Buddhist...whatever." I found this rather shocking when I first read it, although I couldn't say exactly why at the time.

Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that such a wanton distribution of the sacraments violates the holiness of Holy Communion. As Rudolf Otto argues in his seminal book, The Idea of the Holy, all holy objects have both a fascinating and a terrifying quality (mysterium fascinans et tremendum). We are drawn to them become they possess the eternal, but we are also scared of them because we know that it's very dangerous to trifle with the eternal. To play with the holy is to play with fire - it could result in one's annihilation. For this reason, Paul includes the warning in 1 Cor. 11 that "if anyone eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily, that person is guilty of sinning against the body and the blood of the Lord... For if you eat the bread or drink the cup unworthily, not honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God's judgment upon yourself." Thus, in my opinion, there is a legitimate danger in encouraging people (like atheists, Buddhists, or even nominal Christians) to partake of a holy ceremony that they don't really understand. And a church that is so promiscuous with the sacraments has clearly lost sight of the fact that we should always approach the altar with both joy and "fear and trembling".

The question then becomes: where do you draw the line? It seems to me that the bare minimum requires that the communicant be a baptized Christian. But I'm tempted to set the bar higher. As Hermann Stasse points out, "church fellowship has been altar-fellowship and vice versa every since New Testament times." He goes on to say:
The idea that people could be admitted to Holy Communion with whom there is no perfect peace, no unity of faith and consequently no church-fellowship, is a modern idea that was absolutely foreign to the churches of the 16th century... Such open communion, according to the conviction of the Church of all ages up to the modern world, is no communion at all, no sacrament to be justified by New Testament practice and doctrine.
Sasse's position might be extreme, but I think it's reasonable to insist that people taking communion be "in fellowship" (that is, in basic agreement) with the church where they are receiving the sacrament. Thus, a person who rejects the rejects the "real presence" of Christ in the sacrament should abstain from taking communion in a Lutheran church. Similarly, I would not feel comfortable taking communion at a Catholic mass, and not only because the R.C. church expressly forbids it. As my act of communion would imply that I agree with the self-understanding of the R.C. church (which I do not), out of respect for both them and me I would exclude myself from the table even if there was no such rule. In this way, the communion aspect of the Lord's Supper is not compromised.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Real Presence and Modernity

In This is My Body, Hermann Sasse notes that Lutherans, at nearly all points in their history, have been tempted to abandon their adherence to the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar. Even Melanchthon succumbed to this temptation after Luther’s death, as he sought to harmonize the Lutheran position with Calvin’s theology of the sacrament. Although his compromises were eventually rejected by the Formula of Concord, which affirmed Luther’s belief that “in the Holy Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present and are truly distributed and received with the bread and wine”, the controversy never went away. In the European situation, the debate over the Real Presence would arise whenever churchmen and politicians sought to merge the Reformed and Lutheran churches. Such ecumenical considerations have also played a role in America, as evidenced by full communion agreements negotiated by the ELCA. But part of the motivation for ditching the Real Presence has also come from rationalists who argue that “modern man” cannot tolerate this absurd doctrine, which is supposedly a stumbling block to faith. It is undoubtedly true that the Zwinglian approach, which regards the bread and wine as nothing more that signs of Christ’s body and blood, is more palatable to the modern scientific mind. But while reading This is My Body, it occurred to me that, in at least two respects, the Lutheran doctrine is actually more in tune with current theological and intellectual trends than the Reformed position.

First concerns the flesh/spirit dualism that was central to Zwingli’s understanding of the sacrament. In the Marburg Colloquy (which is reproduced in Sasse’s book), Zwingli and his ally Oecolampadius return time and time again to John 6:63: “It is the spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing.” For them, it is axiomatic that “spirit can only be influenced by spirit.” Thus the tangible elements – the bread and wine – are essentially worthless, since they can only feed the body, not the soul. As Sasse writes, “of all the absurdities which Zwingli found in Luther’s doctrine on the sacrament there was none greater or more dangerous than the idea that a bodily eating can help the soul… Such an idea seemed to be a violation of the spiritual character of Christianity.” For Zwingli, Christianity is a spiritual affair in which our bodies are mere spectators. Thus, the Reformed churches teach that the Supper only involves the “spiritual eating of faith” (As Oecolampadius said at Marburg, “As we have the spiritual eating, why should there be any need for bodily eating?”).

Luther’s position is very different. In response to Zwingli’s persistent claims that the “flesh profiteth nothing”, Luther asserts that “I do not know of any God except Him who was made flesh. And there is no other God who could save us”. Luther is capable of distinguishing between spirit and flesh, but he never separates them for fear that the reality of the Incarnation will be compromised. Thus, “the idea that the sacrament is meant for the whole man, body and soul, is one of the fundamental elements of Luther’s doctrine of the Supper… Luther knew that according to Holy Scripture not only the human soul, but also the human body, is the object of God’s redemption.” (Sasse, 184, 186).

I would argue that Luther’s refusal to radically separate the soul from the body is more consistent with our current scientific understanding of the body, as well as modern theological approaches to our corporeality, then the Reformed dualism. It is also more Biblical. As Sasse points out, the separation of body and soul is really a Platonic concept that has no foundation in the Scriptures. This type of dualism has fallen out of favor today, not only among scientists, but among those who advocate a holistic approach to human body. Thus, I suspect that Luther’s position on the Real Presence would be appealing to many “moderns” who reject an other-worldly spirituality. It is the Lutheran contention that Christ incarnate comes to us in the lowly things of this world - bread, wine, and water.

As I mentioned above, there is another area where I think the Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper is more congruent with our current ways of thinking. This involves the Reformed contention that Christ’s body is physically located in heaven, and thus cannot be present on the altars of the world. But since this post is already plenty long, I’ll save that discussion for another time…

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Confessional Question

In my previous post, I discussed the perpetual identity crisis of Lutherans in America, drawing on Mark Noll's article in First Things. Noll writes that:
Lutherans do have much to offer to the wider American community, but only if they can fulfill two conditions. First, to contribute as Lutherans in America, Lutherans must remain authentically Lutheran. Second, to contribute as Lutherans in America, Lutherans must also find out how to speak Lutheranism with an American accent. Falling short of either condition means that, though Lutherans as religious individuals may contribute much to Christianity in America, there will be no distinctly Lutheran contribution. The task is to steer between the Scylla of assimilation without tradition and the Charybdis of tradition without assimilation. If such skillful navigation could take place, the resources that Lutherans offer to Americans, especially to other Protestants, would be of incalculable benefit.
So what guides should Lutherans employ to help them "navigate" such dangerous waters? The logical answer is, of course, the Lutheran confessional documents contained in The Book of Concord. But this solution is not as straightforward as it seems, as there has never been agreement amount the precise role of the confessions in the church. To what extent are we "bound" to the confessions, and how should they be used in the church (as Law or Gospel)? Moreover, as our history demonstrates, the more "confessional" churches tend to be more sectarian and legalistic. Is this necessarily so?

Carl Braaten addresses these issues in his Principles of Lutheran Theology (1983), noting that:
As Lutherans we have no magisterium that can impose an answer from above. Lutherans have frequently reacted to this dilemma of self-definition by claiming to take the confessions more seriously than all the others, thus becoming the "scribes and Pharisees" of a Lutheran sect... Lutherans now separated do not trust the sincerity of each other's confessional subscription. For some people confessional subscription is not enough; it must be done "seriously." Some require as a condition of altar and pulpit fellowship a certain amount of confessional good works. It is ironic that a church can become absolutely legalistic about a set of documents that condemns all legalism and not see the point.
Braaten then goes on to label four misuses of the Confessions in the Lutheran churches:
1) Repristination: "The basic aim of this type of Lutheran confessionalism is to repristinate the theology of orthodox Lutheranism... Confessional statements are applied as rules and laws to govern what ministers and officers of the church say publicly."

2) Liberal Nonconfessional: "This position leaps backward over the period of 17th-century orthodoxy and The Book of Concord to the creative years of the young Reformer, Martin Luther... It is much easier to modernize Luther than to try to prove the relevance of 'The Formula of Concord' or Lutheran scholasticism."

3) Hypothetical Confessional: "According to this view, our modern situation has been so drastically modified by the revolutions in the natural and historical sciences that any confessional statements conceived in a prescientific age can no longer be ours in a direct way. Nevertheless, we can still accept these confessions as part of our heritage... Moreover, these confessions are still our in a hypothetical sense. Were we to confront the same issue as our Lutheran forefathers, we would adopt their identical positions... But, of course, times have changed; and so there are certain strings attatched to our confessional loyalty."

4) Anti-confessional Biblicism: "Contemporary Lutherans locked into American Protestant neo-evangelicalism have no use for the confessions, but prefer to go right back to the Bible."
Whereas the conservative Lutheran churches (LCMS and WELS) are primarily guilty of #1, the ELCA suffers from both #2 and #3 (with an emphasis on the latter). Meanwhile, many of those sitting "in the pews" probably opt for #4. Against all of these approaches, Braaten proposes an alternative that he calls "constructive confessional Lutheranism", which incorporates the principles of continuity and contemporaneity: "continuity with the substance of the catholic tradition" and the ability "to preach the gospel and actualize its reality within every new situation." To use Noll's words, Braaten's constructive confessionalism is trying "to steer between the Scylla of assimilation without tradition and the Charybdis of tradition without assimilation." It sure sounds nice, but it's tough to figure out how this approach would work in practice. Since it involves a balancing act, people will inevitably disagree about which side should be emphasized more. And where will we turn when the debates begin? After all, an argument about the role of the confessions cannot be decided by the confessions themselves.

In the end, my fundamental question is this: is it possible to take the confessions seriously without using them in a legalistic fashion? Or is it inevitable that these documents, which were originally written to promote the Gospel, will become Law in the hands of our church leaders? I would really like to hear what people have to say about this question, because it cuts to the heart of all issues concerning identity, mission, ecumenical relations, etc. Without the confessions we really aren't Lutherans, but if the confessions are more of a hindrance than a help (as many seem to think), then we shouldn't want to be Lutherans. If the confessions no longer advance the Gospel, but only serve as Law, then we should abandon them and move on. But if they still hold the Truth of the gospel message, then we can't afford to compromise a single word. So which is it?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Our Perpetual Identity Crisis

It is widely acknowledged that Lutherans in America are suffering from something like an identity crisis (see here, here, and here*). Indeed, for many, the question of our identity has become almost an obsession. What does it mean to be Lutheran today? Is our identity theological or cultural, or some intangible mixture of both? Does our identity even matter? I'm certainly not above engaging in such self-analysis; quite the contrary, this blog has often bewailed the decline of a distinctive Lutheran identity. But I've come to the conclusion that none of this is new. In fact, it would appear the Lutheranism, especially in its American form(s), has always suffered from an identity crisis and always will - it's simply built into its structure.

This point was driven home as I re-read Mark Noll's excellent First Things article on the history of American Lutheranism. Noll argues that, while Lutherans are quite ordinary as a group, Lutheranism itself has always been somewhat "out of place" in the landscape of American Christianity. Thus, from the very beginning, there has been consistent and enormous pressure for Lutherans to assimilate their churches into the American mainstream, whether that be conservative or liberal. This was evident even in the 19th century, when the influential Samuel Schmucker sought to amend the Augsburg Confession in order to bring Lutheranism in line with New World Protestantism. Schmucker's "reforms" were eventually rejected and Lutheranism retained its Old World distinctiveness well into the 20th century. It wasn't until after World War II that Lutherans began to reengage with the broader scene, bringing with it the same pressures to assimilate. This time, the forces of Americanization were more successful, resulting in our present situation. Noll writes:
The jaundiced critic, in other words, might think that American Lutherans escaped the peril of nineteenth-century Schmuckerism only to fall prey to a late-twentieth-century version of the same thing - for the ELCA, launching the ecclesiastical ship into a mainstream that had almost run dry; for Missouri, taking on the colors of a fundamentalism ever more clearly revealed as a Christianity merely of assorted rightist tendencies.
Some of this was simply inevitable. As German and Scandinavian immigrants assimilated into American culture, it was natural that they would lose elements of their Old World religion, just as they lost their language and customs. But, upon closer analysis, it appears that the plight of Lutheranism in America was never going to be easy. This is because Lutheran theology, in many respects, is fundamentally at odds with the American "creed" of progress and self-reliance. As Matthew Rose writes (in another great First Things article):
Perhaps no theology is so wonderfully unfitted as Lutheranism for the triumphant, but often disordering, American Century. The American Success Story requires a list of ingredients that reads something like a Lutheran anti-creed: an obsession for the new and untried; a condescension towards the old and tried; a mania for self-expressive accomplishment; a creative drive to overcome, define, and establish oneself over and above others. These distinguishing characteristics have been strung into a charming civic poesy. Yet American Lutherans have been little inspired by this, not being people of an epic state of mind. Fame, for Lutherans, seems best accomplished by accident, if at all. In this vein Falstaff is surely revealed as an “anonymous Lutheran” in his dictum, “The better part of valor is discretion.”
Yet it would be too easy to simply blame America for our current dilemma. Instead, we must admit that there is something internal to Lutheranism that lends itself to a perpetual identity crisis. By leading a very conservative Reformation (with one foot in the Catholic Church and the other outside), Luther guaranteed that future generations of Lutherans would find themselves in a precarious position with respect to other Christians. Are we a "confessional movement within the Church catholic" or are we full-blooded Protestants? Are we a conservative, traditionalist church, or does the spirit of semper Reformanda allow us to change and adapt with the times? Even in Europe, the Lutheran Church found it difficult to answer these questions, as it struggled to articulate and preserve its identity against both Catholic and Protestant influences (for an example, see my previous post on the Prussian church). How much more true is this must be in America, where the old fault-lines created during the Reformation no longer apply. We should therefore expect the wrangling over Lutheran identity to continue for some time.

* While I agree with Preus's statements in this article regarding the JDDJ and the Reformed full communion agreements, he's wrong to assume that only liberalism is a threat to Lutheran identity. Noll's article makes it clear that conservative forces, in the form of American evangelicalism, have already eroded the Lutheran identity of the so-called confessional churches (i.e., LCMS and WELS). These churches, of course, make a big show of their allegiance to the Lutheran confessions. But it doesn't matter if you're a biblical fundamentalist and a confessional fundamentalist - you're still a fundamentalist (this is not to say that the LCMS or its members are fundamentalists, only that there is a danger in them becoming so).