Some Lutheran reflections on Scripture and Tradition

A while back I was reading through an old (closed) discussion on an online forum, and read some thoughts from one of the participants.[1] He said that we shouldn’t read Scripture through any kind of tradition, since Scripture was ‘self interpreting,’ ‘clear,’ and ‘easily understandable.’ Then he went on to cite his proof of this, and said that Luther held to sola scriptura. There is just one big problem with this, and that is the fact that neither Luther nor any other Lutheran reformer made the claim that sola scriptura implies that tradition (or Tradition) doesn’t matter. This we can see by analysing the word. ‘Tradition’ (Gk. παράδοσις, Lt. trāditiō) just means ‘that which is handed over,’ and the act of handling over is παραδίδωμι in Greek and trādere in Latin. Scripture is itself handed over, and is thus part of Tradition. But, as we see with all text, this handing over is not passive. It is always interpreted, and Scripture is no exception. It is not ‘clear’ and ‘easily understandable,’ and is read within a community, within a Tradition.

The Lutheran reformers, who used the term sola scriptura, meant by this the fact that Scripture stands above (other parts of) Tradition. But Scripture was still to be read within a living ecclesial Tradition, and especially though the writings of the Church Fathers. One can, of course, discuss to which degree they were successful in this, but they did not use the term sola scriptura as a way to exclude Tradition. In fact the first authorities mentioned in Confessio Augustana (CA) aren’t Scripture, but the Nicene Creed (article 1) and, in all ways but in name, the Chalcedon Creed (article 3).[2] To get technical, the Lutheran reformers defined Scripture as ‘the norm which norms (but which is not itself normed)’ (norma normans or norma normans non normata) and Tradition, especially the ecumenical creeds, as ‘the norms which are normed’ (norma normata).[3]

But there is a danger here. Since Scripture judges Tradition, we often end up defining Tradition as a given creed (the Apostles’ Creed, CA, etc.) That is what has happened in many modern Reformed and Lutheran churches. In a discussion I once referred to St. Ignatius of Antioch, who said to obey the bishop, and was told that this wasn’t uttered explicitly in Scripture, so we shouldn’t believe it. But this has never been part of what, at least Lutherans, have understood by sola scriptura.

I have been asked why, on this view, we cannot just say that Scripture is ‘the written rules from a board game,’ and play the game based solely on Scripture. The problem with this is that there are many different interpretations at play. The ‘game’ has changed, and does change constantly. We can say that the ‘game’ has gotten a lot of ‘expansion packs.’

The question often boils down to this: Why must Tradition judge me, and my reading of Scripture? The answer is that one person’s reading of Scripture is not identical with Scripture itself. That person’s interpretation of Scripture is not necessarily correct. Although Scripture cannot be normed by Tradition (norma normans non normata), it can be, and is, interpreted through Tradition. Tradition is still a norm (norma normata). It all boils down to the question of whether or not Scripture is ‘clear’ and ‘easily understandable.’ As a man with a master’s degree in theology, and who loves Greek, I can say that it is far from.

We need people to teach this. People not only with education, but who are called and ordained to teach in Church. According to Lutheran teaching, “no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.” (CA XIV) Who are ‘regularly called’ (Lt. rite vocatus)? William Weedon has some thought on this:

The Augsburg Confession is very bold in its insistence: “As can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church universal, or from the Church of Rome, as known from its writers.” (Conclusion of first half of the AC) “In doctrine and ceremonies we have received nothing contrary to Scriptures or the Church universal.” (Conclusion of the second half of the Augsburg Confession).

I would contend, however, that precisely at the point of AC XIV Melanchthon KNEW that something needed to be introduced that was new in both doctrine and in ceremony. But he was betting the farm that his opponent, Johann Eck, would NOT notice what he had done. And so what Melanchthon did was to scrounge up a term from canon law that might be a tad ambiguous – rite voctaus – and hope that Eck wouldn’t notice that the term was being used in a novel manner.

Fat chance. Eck was a careful student of the Lutheran movement and watched it with growing alarm. He did not let AC XIV slip by without telling commentary:

“When in the fourteenth article, they confess that no one ought to administer in the Church the Word of God and the sacraments unless he be rightly called, it ought to be understood that he is rightly called who is called in accordance with the form of law and the ecclesiastical ordinances and decrees hitherto observed everywhere in the Christian world, and not according to a Jerobitic (cf. 1 Kings 12:20) call, or a tumult or any other irregular intrusion of the people. Aaron was not thus called. Therefore, in this sense the Confession is received; nevertheless, they should be admonished to persevere therein, and to admit in their realms no one either as a pastor or as a preacher unless he be rightly called.” (Reu’s *A Collection of Sources for the Augsburg Confession*, p. 357)

The question is this: What is meant by rite vocatus? Does it mean, following Eck’s opinion, that you need ordination in apostolic succession (as that had been understodd throughout Church history), or something else? The problem is that we have never agreed what it actually means. The way I see it, is that we must read it the way the receivers of the text would read it. CA was not just a confession, it was an apologetical piece of writing, delivered to the Roman Catholic Church and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Imperial Diet of Augsburg, June 25, 1530. It seems to me that if you write a work, you need to use terminology the way its intended audience will use it. And furthermore, the authors of the confession claimed that “there is nothing,” at least in the first half of the confession (articles I-XXI), “that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers.” (CA XXI) The ‘writers’ in question is the Church Fathers (Lt. ex scriptoribus; Ger. aus der Väter Schrift).[4] But if this is true, we need to understand rite vocatus as a need to not only call but to ordain men into the apostolic succession. There have been much discussion on this. But if we want to read this artivle through Tradition – the Tradition of the Church Catholic and the Church Fathers – we cannot avoid this idea. We must either read CA XIV as part of Tradition, or as a break with (or a correction of) Tradition. But then we end up, I think, as judges of Tradition. We become the norma normata ourselves. I will stop there, and let Chris Jones, one of the commentators on William Weedon’s blog post get the last word:

If the Apostolic Tradition means anything, and if the Creeds, the Councils, and the Fathers are worthy of any credit at all as faithful witnesses to that Tradition, then it seems to me that we must see our Confessions as part of that tradition, and consistently read them in the context of that tradition. Otherwise how can we possibly claim to be the Catholic Church, rightly reformed? And if that leads us to the conclusion that our Lutheran fathers were mistaken about the necessity of episcopal ordination, then that ought to lead us not to put the “Catholic principle” out of court, but to repent of that error. If we have made a mistake, we ought to admit it – not re-interpret Church history to make the mistake somehow not a mistake. After all, if one should never admit a mistake in doctrine or practice, there never could have been a Reformation.

If the “Catholic principle” is only an a posteriori judgement, not an actual embrace of the Apostolic Tradition, then it was no more than a rhetorical weapon against the Romanists, without substance. And that leaves us not as evangelical Catholics, but mere Protestants. That is not a position that I care to be in.

Notes:

[1] This post is based on different things I have written here on my blog, and on some posts in which I have participated in various online forums.

[2] For thought on this, read this (unfortunately Norwegian) article by Knut Alfsvåg: «Luthersk spiritualitet: Om lære og liv i den éne, kristne kirke» (Dansk Tidsskrift for Teologi og Kirke 40:1, 2013): 42-56.

[3] The Roman Catholic Church also essentially states this, in Dei Verbum. Here is a ‘taste’: “But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”

[4] For the Latin and German texts of the Lutheran Confessions (the Book of Concord), see Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (Herausgegeben im Gedenkjahr der Augsburgischen Konfession 1930. 5., durchgesehene Aufage. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1963). In the Church of Norway, however, we are bound not by the entirety of these confessions but only the three (western) ecumenical creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed); Confessio Augustana; and Luther’s Small Catechism.

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Alternative episcopal oversight?

I am a member of the Church of Norway (CofN), and I am currently in seminar. I am also part of a group of priests called Carissimi, who seek alternative episcopal oversight. To flesh out the reasons for this, I will here post a slightly edited version of a comment I made on an online forum. I hope this clarifies the reasons for this.

When we talk about alternative episcopal oversight, we need to make a crucial distinction between doctrine and opinion. And to illustrate this, I will use two examples: the decision of the Church of England (CofE), in 1992, to allow women to be ordained to the priesthood and the decision of CofN, in 2006 (confirmed in 2007), to allow practicing homosexuals to be ordained to the priesthood. The reason I use these is that the first marked the demand for (and introduction of) alternative episcopal oversight in CofE, while the second marked the demand for (and hopefully the introduction of) alternative episcopal oversight in CofN.

There was a qualified difference between pre and post 1992 (in CofE) and pre and post 2006 (in CofN). Before 1992, there were bishops in CofE who believed that women could be ordained as priests. But what a bishop privately believes is not that interesting. A bishop is not appointed to pontificate privately. He is appointed to ensure ecclesial unity (both sacramentally and doctrinally), to teach and uphold the doctrine of his Church, and to ensure that proper doctrine be taught. Now pre 1992, CofE taught that women could not be priests. Therefore any bishop would be responsible to uphold this. Post 1992, however, we see something new: We do not (merely) see CofE changing position (saying that women could be priests), but we see that CofE said that it was ecclesially and canonically legitimate either to hold that women could not be priests or to hold that women could be priests. We saw something similar in CofN in 2006.

In 2006, the Doctrinal Commission of CofN issued a document on the question of homosexuality and Scripture. (The link is in Norwegian.) The Commission was divided in two on the question of the marrying of same sex couples and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Prior to 2006, CofN had one official view, even if there were many bishops who held other views. After 2006, however, there have been two official (and contradictory) views on this question, which means that it is now ecclesially and canonically legitimate either to hold that same sex couples cannot marry in the church and that practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained, or to hold that same sex couples can marry in the church and that practicing homosexuals can be ordained. Because of this, a group of priests and lay people have sought alternative episcopal oversight.

The point of alternative episcopal oversight is that there is a new situation, ecclesially and canonically. The important thing here is that the unity of the Church is both doctrinal and sacramental. This means that if there is a real internal (ecclesial and canonical) schism (i.e. that two opposing views are both legitimate), then this needs to be expressed episcopally. The question is not: What do we do about these [insert adjective] bishops? Thus it is not a question of ‘putting up with’ certain bishops. I don’t particularly care what my bishop privately holds. The question is rather this: What do we do when we have two contradictory views which are both legitimately (ecclesially and canonically) taught within the same Church?

A Roman Option for Lutherans?

The cover of Oddie’s book

Update: There is now a Norwegian version of this post.

Today I got my copy of William Oddie’s book The Roman Option.[1] Written in 1997, in the aftermath of the 1992 decision of the Church of England to ordain women to the priesthood, it explores the possibility of a ‘Roman option’ for ‘disaffected’ Anglicans. Some have compared Oddie’s proposals to the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to allow (Catholic-minded) Anglicans to convert corporately to the Catholic Church, while retaining certain elements of their Anglican patrimony,[2] and I know some Anglicans personally who have rejected the proposal of the Pope, favouring rather an (conservative) Old Catholic solution,[3] and who refer to the proposal of the Pope as ‘the Roman Option.’ I have not yet (started to) read the book, but plan to do it in the not so distant future, but I believe some remarks are in order.

I have long wondered if it isn’t perhaps time for a ‘Roman option’ for Lutherans. Much of what was considered abuses in the Augsburg Confession (a word which assumes that there is a legitimate use of said things) is long gone, and I must admit that although the Book of Concord is an interesting piece of history, I couldn’t care less about much of what it says, should I disagree with it. Belonging to the Church of Norway, I am only bound to Scripture, to the three ancient (western) symbols (the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed), to the Augsburg Confession and to Luther’s Small Catechism.[4] And there is also a ‘hierarchy of truth’ here. Scripture is the norm which norms and which is not itself normed (norma normans non normata); the rest are norms which are normed and which do not themselves norm (norma normata).[5] A further important point to be made is that in article 21 of the Augusburg Confession, in the conclusion of its doctrinal part, it is said that «there is nothing [in the preceding doctrinal part] that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers.» (Emphasis added) If Lutherans are to be seen as a part of ‘the Church Catholic,’ if the ‘catholic principle’ is to be taken seriously, and not merely as a rhetorical device void of meaning, we need to take a look at what the Church has taught throughout history. And we also need to ask four important questions. The fourth question, which is the mirror image of the third, is the most important, adressing the concerns of the Reformation, its relation to our present situation and Christ’s prayer of unity in John 17:

  1. Is there room for a Catholic ecclesiology in the Church of Norway, or in any given Lutheran church?
  2. Is there such a thing as a ‘non-papal Catholicism’?
  3. Do we have to be in communion with Rome?
  4. Are there any compelling reasons not to be in communion with Rome in our present situation?

I am not going to answer these here, but they might be a good starting point for a discussion.

With these thought in mind, I recommend reading this post (and the subsequent discussion) concerning comments from the President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, Kurt Cardinal Koch, on the possibility of a Lutheran ordinariate.

Notes:

[1] William Oddie, The Roman Option: Crisis and the realignment of English-speaking Christianity (London: HarperCollins 1997).

[2] See here, here and here. For an introduction to Pope Benedict’s proposal, see Wikipedia. Also read the ‘founding documents,’ Anglicanorum Coetibus and its complementary norms. Here, here and here are links to the three main Catholic-anglican personal ordinariates in England/Wales, USA and Australia, respectively.

[3] One person I know has seeked union with the PNCC and the Nordic-Catholic Church.

[4] See Arve Brunvoll, Vedkjenningsskriftene åt Den norske kyrkja (Ny omsetjing med innleiingar og notar. Oslo: Lunde 1979). I am probably only self-imposedly bound by this as a layman, but should I be ordained in the Church of Norway, I will be bound to it canonically, through my vows at the ordination. For some considerations of the Catholicity of the Augsburg Confession, see Wolfhart Pannenberg, «The Confessio Augustana as a Catholic Confession and a Basis for the Unity of the Church» (in The Role of the Augsburg Confession: Catholic and Lutheran Views, ed., Joseph A. Burgess. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press 1980), pp.27-45; Joseph Ratzinger, «Elucidations of the Question of a “Recognition” of the Confessio Augustana by the Catholic Church» (in Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press 1987), pp.27-45; and Avery Dulles, S.J., «The Catholicity of the Augsburg Confession» (The Journal of Religion 63:4, 1983), pp.337-354.

[5] Let me Google that for you.

Do we need the Church?

A question that is often asked is the question of wether we need the Church. I want to reflect a bit over that in this post.

I believe a case can be made for the claim that being a Christian necessarily includes being part of a Church; that a Christian without a Church is an oxymoron. And I believe that we don’t need to go further than St. Paul to find that out.

In the Pauline Corpus we find a some key phrases regarding the Church. We see that the Church is the body of Christ (1Cor 12:27; gr. σῶμα Χριστοῦ), that this body is “the pillar and ground of truth” (1Tim 3:15), and, most importantly, that this Church is referred to by the noun ἐκκλησία. Ἐκκλησία isn’t a mere abstraction (the ‘Church’ as apart from ‘one of the denominations’). Ἐκκλησία was used in the Septuagint as a translation of Qahal, the congregation or assembly of Israel. And to me it is absurd to use Qahal as an abstraction apart from the actual, concrete assembly of Israel.

It seems quite clear to me that the Church of the New Testament is a concrete, palpable Church, outside of which there is no salvation. This follows from the fact that there is no salvation outside of Christ, and that the Church is his body. When we are in Christ, we are in His Church. And His Church, being His body, is concrete. As Taylor Marshall wrote in his ‘apologia’ for his conversion:

The Church is not the “invisible Soul” of Christ, she is the visible “Body of Christ.” There is no such thing as “an invisible Church,” because the Church is defined as “the Body” which is a visible, empirical reality.

Being Christian is being in Christ. Being in Christ is being part of His Church. A Christian without a Church is indeed an oxymoron; a member without a body.