Earlier this week NPR offered a short word on a perceptible change of tone — coming from some notable figures — in the Roman Catholic church’s narrative of the Protestant Reformation. A kindling of hope, perhaps, for those with ecumenist sympathies? You can listen in at the link below.
Two Approaches to Ecumenism
A. Gerhard Forde
… the ELCA statement on ecumenism seems more geared towards what we ought to be prepared to give up — more interested in selling the farm than in contributing from its bounty. What, after all, do Lutherans have to contribute to this postliberal, postmodern age? Well, what is it that keeps a postliberal Lutheran catholic? What keeps me, for instance, in the catholic faith, ties me to the Trinitarian confession of the church catholic? … What keeps this postliberal Lutheran catholic is precisely the most radical facets of the early Lutheran Reformation, such matters as the “theology of the cross,” the anthropology emerging from the argument about the “bondage of the will,” the hermeneutics of “letter and spirit,” and “law and gospel.” These are some of the things we have to contribute. … Lutherans actually have something of value to say, and it is not a proper or faithful move to leave it all behind to enter the middle kingdom where all cats are gray.
We Lutherans have a contribution that is a vital understanding of what it means to preach the gospel and to give the sacramental gifts.
from A More Radical Gospel, Eds. Mattes and Paulson, (Eerdmans, 2005), 188.
B. The Princeton Proposal
71. The disciplines of unity are penitential. As St. Paul teaches, for the sake of unity we must be willing to suspend gospel freedom and conform to the limitations of the weak. This process will be ascetical; it will necessarily involve the sacrifice of real but limited goods for the sake of greater good. We are convinced, however, that this ascetical dimension is necessary if the ecumenical project of modern Christianity is to move forward. Unity will require our churches not only to renounce the selfishness and insularity that we all dislike and easily see as sinful. It will also require our churches to embrace a spiritual poverty that has the courage to forgo genuine riches of a tradition for the sake of a more comprehensive unity in the truth of the gospel.
from In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, Eds. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, (Eerdmans, 2003), 58.
D. Stephen Long on Christian unity
Christian unity is only a unity in Christ. If we first seek Christ, unity will inevitably follow. If we do not yet have unity, it must be that he is not yet our first desire and end. If the analogia entis, metaphysics, dialectic, nature/grace distinction, potentia oboedentialis, finitum non capax infiniti, ecclesial structures, ethics, or doctrine does not serve that end, it has no necessary place in the theodrama.
from Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation, (Fortress, 2014), 287.
On the peccability of the Church
A. Lesslie Newbigin
The Catholic is right in insisting that the continuity of the Church is God’s will. He is wrong when he suggests that the doing of that will is the condition of our standing in His grace. As for the individual, so also for the Church, there is only one way to be justified, and it is to say, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’
from The Household of God, (SCM, 1957), 86.
B. Bruce Marshall
The unity of the church is a unity among sinners; the continuing reality of sin in the lives of all the church’s members has no bearing on the church’s unity. The currently much-debated question whether the church itself, like all the individuals in it, can be regarded as simul iustus et peccator should also, I think, be answered in the negative. That is, the church as a whole, as a community, cannot be conceived of as a sinful individual (or perhaps several such individuals) over against Christ. What makes the church to be, and so to be one (that is, to be an individual) is the very unity of being, knowledge, and love by which the triune God is one, into which human beings are drawn by the missions of the Son and the Spirit, so creating the church. Apart from the missions of Christ and the Spirit and the divine unity that is their gift to the church, the church is not an individual at all, and a fortiori not an individual “over against” Christ and the Spirit. Thus, it seems that while everyone in the church is an individual “over against” Christ, the church itself is not. Apart from or over against the missions of Christ and the Spirit, the church lacks that unity specific to it and constitutive of its reality as church; it is simply a collection of individuals and not the community for which Jesus prays in John 17. So if the church turns out, visibly and empirically, to be divided, this does not show (according to the stringent logic of John 17) that the church is a sinful individual over against Christ—it shows rather that the bond uniting Christ to the Father is broken, and thus that the triune God does not exist.
from “The Disunity of the Church and the Credibility of the Gospel,” Theology Today, vol. 50, (1993): 85-6.
C. Robert Jenson
Can simul iustus et peccator apply to the church? Luther called the church magna peccatrix, the “greatest sinner” and some Lutherans have taken this as a cue to apply the simul not only to the believers who make up the church, individually or all together, but to the church as she is a singular agent. The ecumenical protest this generates is surely justified. The church as the mother of all believers is not personally sinful nor has she ever been, however many sins may have been committed by her members in her name. Ecclesia iusta et peccatrix just does not fit the situation. The peccator I still am after baptism is precisely my “old man,” my pre-baptismal self, reaching from that past needing to be thrust back again and again. There was a time, however brief, between my birth and my new birth at baptism, and this fact remains as the base of the old man’s excursions. But the church had no such time antecedent to her birth as the body of Christ. There never was an “old church” which might emerge and need to be killed again. What then of Luther’s magna peccatrix? Whatever Luther may have had in mind, the phrase can serve if taken as a christological slogan. The church is the great communal sinner in that she is the body of that Christ who “was made to be sin for us.” Christ is the magnus peccator, not because he was once a sinner but because precisely as one “without sin” he could take all history’s sin as his burden. Just so his church as his body, his available presence in the world, is the world’s great sinner not because she has any sins of her personal own but because Christ’s body of course is laden with his burden.
from Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, (ALPB, 2011): 73-4.
Evangelical Catholics on Church Unity
31. Much current preaching, catechesis, and discipline are emptied of the power of the cross of Christ. Nor are the “challenges of modernity” the only reason for the diminishment of Christianity in Western culture. The spiritual failure of Christianity in the modern era stems in many ways from ongoing division. Our complacency about division undermines our mission.
71. The disciplines of unity are penitential. As St. Paul teaches, for the sake of unity we must be willing to suspend gospel freedom and conform to the limitations of the weak. This process will be ascetical; it will necessarily involve the sacrifice of real but limited goods for the sake of greater good. We are convinced, however, that this ascetical dimension is necessary if the ecumenical project of modern Christianity is to move forward. Unity will require our churches not only to renounce the selfishness and insularity that we all dislike and easily see as sinful. It will also require our churches to embrace a spiritual poverty that has the courage to forego genuine riches of a tradition for the sake of a more comprehensive unity in the truth of the gospel.
From Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, Eds., In One Body through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, (Eerdmans, 2003), 33, 58.
Bruce Marshall on the role of theologians in a divided church
Even in its self-inflicted suffering and want, the divided church remains Jesus Christ’s own body. He can and will give it new life from the dead, in his own good time. As we await this mysterious outworking of the Triune God’s judgment and grace, we theologians cannot save the church. But we can love it, and put our ancient craft to work in the service of Christ’s body as it is, and not as we would wish it to be. What God will make of our efforts we cannot say, and need not know. Here too, as [Ephraim] Radner reminds us (pp. 10, 354), Israel grants to the church its needed prophetic figure: “You will rise up and have compassion on Zion … For your servants love her very rubble, and are moved to pity even for her dust” (Ps. 102:13-14).
from “The Divided Church and its Theology,” Modern Theology, Vol. 16, No. 3, (2000), 395-6.
Ephraim Radner on the unity of the Church
“To live is to give up and give away parts of ourselves. This is not just a comment about the social character of our lives. Giving up parts of ourselves fuels our very being as persons: it is how we learn, it is how we think, it is how we grow, it is how we make decisions, it is how we love. In giving up, of course, we are also gaining something new, although that is not always obvious, just as it is not always clear what we are losing as we live, at least not until the very end of this or that process. To live is to give up parts of ourselves, and to live fully is to give ourselves away fully. This is the simple Christian corollary of the fundamental character of human living, and it is not a novel claim in the least; ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. he who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ […]
“These elements of giving up and of fulfilling at once … all pertain to the Christian Church; they describe who she is and thus finally they describe what it means, given who she is, to be ‘one’ Church, the united Church that so eludes her members and whose lack so subverts her life and purpose. To be ‘one Church’ is to be joined to the unity of the Son to the Father, who, in the Spirit, gives himself away, not in some general flourish of self-denial, but to and for the sake of his enemies, the ‘godless,’ for their life. Not that the Church in fact does this. She does not, and hence she is not one, and finally therefore she is not who she is meant to be. But though she is faithless, yet ‘he remains faithful.’ The woefulness of Christian witness in this world is measured by the distance between these two realities; so too is measured the mercy of God.”
from A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church, (Baylor University Press, 2012), 1-2.