What's church? Or: The use and abuse of AC 7 for life

So I'm spending a lot of time re-reading the late-2009 Lutheran right.  As a friend of mine says, the Churchwide Assembly wasn't about theology, so much as emotional processes, and I think he's right, but it produced a whole steaming heap of theology out the other end.  And I'm digging through it, and one of the bits that bugs me most is the assertion that the ELCA is no longer a church, because in accepting "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust" and the ministry recommendations, we violated AC 7.

The claim seems to turn on a reading of the satis est in which conformity to the Bible is the first mark.  You can read plenty of Thursday Theology entries on the wrongheadedness of this replacement of "Gospel" with "Bible" over at Crossings, but since this is a place where I do my  own work for mostly my own sake, I'm going to take my own run at it.  What is the functional ecclesiology of the Augsburg Confession?


Let's start with the groundwork.  The Augustana is a compromise minority position meant to defend the life of the accused churches by framing them within the catholic tradition.  As such, it begins with trinitarian faith, followed by the affirmation that sin is inherent since Adam, and that because of Christ the condemnation is removed in the new birth by water and the Holy Spirit in baptism.  Furthermore, we are fully compliant with the Nicene (and Chalcedonian if necessary) expression of our faith in and understanding of Jesus as Christ.  And because we were having a controversy about merit and human actions, we remind our audience that forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God come only by trust in Christ and his atonement through suffering and death.  (Very Medieval of us, I know.)

That said, we're now at AC 5.  We believe that the "office of preaching," the Predigtamt, also known as the "pastoral office," exists to convey the means of grace: "the gospel and the sacraments."  In being so used by God, it conveys the Holy Spirit, who produces faith through the hearing of the gospel.  In this faith we find that we have a gracious God.  From this faith we produce good works without having any need to place our trust in them.  (This is the right order of things!)

And now we're at article 7, and I quote it verbatim from the German side of Kolb and Wengert:
It is also taught that at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church.  It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.
For this is enough [satis est on the Latin side] for the true unity of the Christian church that there the gospel is preached harmoniously according to a pure understanding and the sacraments are administered in conformity with the divine Word.  It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that uniform ceremonies, instituted by human beings, be observed everywhere.  As Paul says in Ephesians 4: "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism."
I could dive right in, but let's start with another verbatim quotation, this time from Luther's own James Nestingen, in an article that's hard to find anymore (but CORE still keeps a PDF copy around):
In its August assembly in Minneapolis, going by the definition set down in Augustana VII, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America effectively declared that it is no longer a church.  Among those unchurched by this decision, a poignant question remains: What in the world  do we do now? Consideration of this question requires among other things, some careful examination of definitions. Going back to the sources, some alternatives should emerge.
The seventh article of the Augsburg Confession, which has united Lutherans since the l6th century, defines the church as the people of God gathered together to hear the word and receive the sacraments. The term Word of God carries over from John 1 and other biblical  references where the Word incarnates God’s power—originally in Christ, now in the biblical  word preached and administered in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. As such, God’s Word  moves to do what it says, accomplishing God’s purposes. It does not float around ethereally  in elusive meanings waiting to be unlocked by theologians. Neither does it depend on  harried pastors or gatherings of the pious seeking to apply it. Rather, God’s word takes over  earthen vessels—human declarations, conversations and correspondence—using such means to seek out sinners. Gathering the lost and the damned in its hearing, it effects  forgiveness, reckons righteous, kills and makes alive. Finally, it frees. In this way, God’s Word  literally creates the church.
Now, there's a subtle shift for you: "the people of God gathered together to hear the word and receive the sacraments."  That is obviously an interpretation of "the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel."  And maybe most of the time it works.  But only so long as "word," signifying the Word of God, signifies the gospel.  Nestingen isn't content with that; in his irritation, he overreaches.  The word of God is now "the biblical word," separable from its origin in Christ.  This lets him go on, and talk about how the ELCA has chosen to loose the bonds of interpretation from the meaning of scripture, reassigning the "word of God" to those seven or so passages that condemn something like same-sex relations.  Slippage.

But what does AC 7 actually say?  Does it actually give us grounds for talking about one or another ecclesial organization as "a church" or not?  No, in fact, it doesn't.  That was never the point!  We teach that "at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church.  It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel."  Remember, the Augustana is trying to be and remain properly within the one church, which they define here.  These two qualifications are enough for the unity of this church, the one holy catholic church that is Christianity.  As long as you do these two things, you belong to the unity of this church.  You are not judged to be a church if you do these things, and not a church by any deficiency in them; you are simply true or false with respect to the unity of this one church.  And the confessors wish devoutly to remain within the unity of this church, and believe that they have not been basically false to it.  (In fact, when pushed, the statement is that the recent leadership of the church at Rome has been deficient, but we don't say that before Charles, the man whose Catholicism can grant us clemency and scold our persecutors.)

And here is where it is helpful to keep reading: AC 8
Likewise, although the Christian church is, properly speaking, nothing else than the assembly of all believers and saints, yet because in this life many false Christians, hypocrites, and even public sinners remain among the righteous, the sacraments -- even though administered by unrighteous priests -- are efficacious all the same.  For as Christ himself indicates, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat..."
Condemned, therefore are the Donatists and all others who hold a different view.
Here is the good Augustinian reminding us of the accepted fact that the church is corpus permixtum: that this assembly constituted by the proclamation of the pure gospel and the scripturally guided administration of the sacraments is therefore not constituted by the nature of its members.  The grace of God is effective no matter who does the work.  Anyone who would like to weed the church in order to make even a part of it a community of the pure faces this problem.  God does not select the pure, much less the self-designated.  God does not condemn the impure, much less those we might designate. 

"The sacraments ... are efficacious all the same."  They do what God intends them to do: they convey saving grace.  Regardless of the moral status of the "operator," and regardless of the moral status of the recipient as well.  For this reason, moving right along, we baptize infants and children, because it is the grace of God which makes them pleasing, not their own merit.  For this reason, we also insist on the true presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements, because it is the guarantor of the promises of grace in that sacrament.  And likewise, we uphold private confession and absolution for pastoral reasons, without any demand "to enumerate all misdeeds" -- not simply because it is impossible, but also because we don't hold that we must root out our own sin in order for the promises of grace to have effect.  For repentance is the conscience of faith, which believes in the gospel, in forgiveness and grace obtained through Christ as a comfort.  The reception of grace brings good works.

Now, that's taken us through AC 12, and basically covered 13 as well.  I'm going to stop here, because part one goes up to 21 articles, and the confession continues up to 28 from there, each one getting longer and longer, and a lot of it is recap and making the first half more specific with respect to the 16th century situation.

So: in what is the ELCA actually deficient with respect to the unity of this one, holy Christian church?  The burden of proof with respect to AC 7 and the unity of the church rests on those who claim that the sexuality actions contradict the gospel and/or the right administration of the sacraments.  The burden of proof with respect to AC 8 and the nature of the church rests on those who claim that in some fashion the assembly of believers and saints cannot include sinners, and that the condemned are actually sinners.  (And that their accusers, by the same token, are not sinners and can stand independently righteous before God.)  Honestly, I don't believe it can be done, and nothing I've read so far has done it.

Comments

  1. I'll admit I've only skimmed some of the work you're citing, but has anyone focused in more on the "pure preaching" and "proper administration" aspects? One argument I can see is that the gospel is not preached purely if the law is not also preached purely, and calling something not sin that is sin dilutes the purity of the law.

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  2. David, thank you for framing it in exactly that way. That's another whole post in itself, but I will suggest right off that there is no "purity of the law" for the simple reason that the law as codified is not a universal. If it were, and the purity of the gospel were bound to it, Paul would have said very different things to Galatia and Rome. We are not called to preach the law, or to name sin in accordance with some listing of what is and is not sin.

    So that argument is part of the purity of the gospel, but you also raise the question of the administration of the sacraments. My comment to that is to point out the arguments between Roman theologians, Luther and the evangelicals, and the Reformed theologians, all concerning what happens in "the sacrament" (by which they mean the Eucharistic meal). Luther, for example, takes with profound seriousness the "hoc *est* corpus meum," insisting on the real presence of Christ -- differing from the Catholics by refusing to go into Aristotelian substance/accidents metaphysics (and transubstantiation). So the bread and wine are still sensibly bread and wine, but the presence of Christ in them is truly the presence of the body and blood of Christ. The Reformed theologians insist on the symbolic presence, taking other passages literally and making the "hoc est" figural. There, the question is whether the finite is or is not truly capable of containing the infinite.

    So to some degree the proper administration of the sacraments in accordance with the gospel is a matter of not letting metaphysics get in the way of the instituting words of Christ. In another sense, it's a matter of selecting the right metaphysics, as Luther applies the creedal logic of the two natures in Christ and their coexistence to the problem of the sacrament.

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