Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Body of Christ: Concerning Protestants, Christians, and Ideology

Author's Note:
I had worked a great deal on this but am humbled in the simple fact that this barely scratches the surface on a number of issues. By the time I had realized my efforts (up until now) this essay had gone past 3000 words.

Not willing to subject you the torture of reading me for too long I decided to end the piece somewhat abruptly. It would have taken me years to write this as I truly intentioned. For now I hoped to write this as partly historical, partly theological, and in part analysis, exhortation, correction, and more. Have I succeeded? I'm not sure. I'll see the discussion that comes from it--so I do hope you comment.

It is a bit long, but I hope to continue on this topic in a more concise manner. I have some comments on this already in my pieces "On the Priesthood," "On Hierarchy," "On Confession," and "On Forgiveness." If you are so inclined, please read (or reread) them.
[I have employed parenthetical citations. In them I list the primary text and cite by letter the book I used. This can be viewed at the end of the piece. -M]

 The Body of Christ

The weaknesses and failings on the Catholic Church are well focused on. Far be it from me to deny or cover up the faults of my Body. Rather I recognize them and yet, through it all, love it. Though I would like to reflect on this I would rather like my reader to consider two things: 1) that same Body which we call the Church, specifically what that means, and 2) the general view(s) of my Protestant brothers and sisters regarding this issue. If we, believers in Christ, are also called the Body of Christ, do you know what that Body looks like? Below I shall examine those communities known as Protestant and Christian as well as those people who call themselves followers of Christ. I ask my readers, Catholic and Protestant alike, to examine their own communities and ask themselves if it represents Christ and if it represents the 'body' and ‘people of God’ images that we are supposed to be.

The opposition that had begun in the form of schism and reform by the Protestant Reformation is one that should be read with sympathy by Catholics and a critical eye by Protestants. The former are often all too ready to deny their words of “faith alone” and “sola scriptura” without considering why the reformers felt they needed to say it. The latter are ready to applaud the evaluation that the Catholic Church as the “whore of Babylon” and the pope as “anti-Christ” and then fail to evaluate the reasons some reformers derived these notions. Let us all not rest in ignorance but truth. Though I wish I could focus on all things the topic is larger than my competence. Below I leave for your evaluation my analysis and interpretation of some Protestant ideologies and their implications in practice.
This man was not a fan of sola scriptura.
Lutherans and other groups say that Scripture is authoritative and binding. Yet the fragmentation of these movements, sects, and communities showed many of them that the Bible alone—however true it is—was not sufficient for the unity of the community. For example, the Missouri Synod of Lutherans is a group that is very reverent towards God. They are also quite faithful to the teachings of Luther. They, however, agree to abide by certain rules through a signed confession, such as rules found in ‘The Book of Concord’ (1580 AD). They also agree to a certain form of governance (e.g., ministers and councils) and, of course, rely on Scripture.

Martin Luther and Phillip Melanchthon. These two were the primary authors of The Book of Concord. Both, especially Phillip, wanted to rid the Christian faith of the Catholic Church. Luther moderately and Melanchton aggressively. As intellecectuals they aren't to be taken lightly--they were geniuses. But perhaps they both got swept up in a movement that was bigger than Luther anticipated.
This rule is not binding, though. It is merely a confession and agreement. They, the Episcopalians, and Baptists have learned that their unions cannot be held together by doctrine but by Scripture and faith. For Protestants in general the Holy Spirit speaks to each man. As a result, when conflict arises among them two problems emerge: 1) you are mistaken and the Spirit isn’t in you. 2) You’ve misread Scripture. This argument could go back and forth. Whereas these two statements can be used as a critique, the same two statements can be used as a support: ‘I read it correctly’ and ‘I know the Holy Spirit inspired me.’

Indeed, for Protestant Reformers the interpretation of Scripture comes through the Holy Spirit alone and “the Holy Spirit can only be possessed by pure hearts” (Luther, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, 1520; J.100). Yet who possesses this pure heart? Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss reformer, said “I know for certain God teaches me, for I know this by experience” (On Clarity and Certainty, 1522; J.188) where before he defined faith as 'having nothing to do with reason.' Neither ideology can challenge itself here. One cannot say to Zwingli “you did not experience this” on the grounds that only Zwlingli could have experienced God in the manner he describes. For Luther, no one could say to him “you are not pure of heart” because purity is a gift of the Spirit and a total trust of that Spirit makes one pure. But let us leave this here for now. Let us consider only that the proposal of these two well-intentioned men was to emphasize Scripture as the Word of God and that faith, a gift, is the guarantee of salvation. We shall examine this again in a moment.
Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss reformer, was very charismatic but just as temperamental. Before his split from Rome he had been a priest. As a priest he had been a suspected womanizer.
Luther and Zwingli (and later Calvin, to name a few) each formed their own communities based on their ideology—similar at their core and divergent in their expressions. These proposals, however, were the cause of much division. Whether it is through a true love and care for the truth or an apathy for the interpretations and witness of others, leaders who were at one time united formed their own separate congregations because of their conviction that God promised them, in faith, that they were correct. Today, the Missouri Lutherans, Episcopalians, and others came to rely on, ironically, promises and edicts outside of Scripture to maintain unity. These edicts were and are in no ways binding, but they are agreements by a people that proclaim how Scripture should be read and what is required of the faithful.

In their efforts to cast off the yoke of “institution” they were eventually confronted by the practicality and necessity of institutionalizing their faith so as to maintain unity. For example, a Missouri Synod Lutheran can only be called as such if he adheres to the agreement of this synod. A faith that is founded upon a personal faith and Scripture alone is now defined more clearly according to this code. The purpose of this is not wrong, I should say. But those who believe in a personal faith that saves (and that’s it), is it coherent?

These established Protestant groups advocated, and not unjustly, a personal faith. The problem then becomes what “orthodoxy” is for one who considers himself a ‘follower of Christ.’ One says there must be priests while others say that there is only one high priest. One says that Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper while another will say that it is only a symbol for our edification. Some meet for prayer regularly while others meet rarely.

Scripture itself became a battleground, perhaps as it always had been. But now Scripture was the only authority for the Christian and only those inspired could preach it (properly). Now, we say that it is true that those without faith will struggle with Scripture. They may not be able to pierce its depths at all for “the mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you [Jesus' disciples]. But to those outside everything comes in parables so that they may look and see but not perceive” (Mk 4:11-12a). Jesus also says that we should “beware false prophets … [since] by their fruits you will know them” (Mt 7:15) and yet the method by which we evaluate these fruits is difficult. Those from outside cannot effectively speak—some think not at all (which is false)—and even those within could lead people away.

A Christian who rejected the Catholic Church could no longer refer to any precedent in history or practice for support or clarification. This is true because the rejection of precedence and tradition gave way, eventually, to preference—both in determining one's spiritual fruits as well as orthodoxy. In reality it was the only option remaining. 

In the past, an ecclesial council (such as Nicea in 325 AD) was called because of some dispute in practice or some affront to dogma (and/or doctrine). A council met, typically, so as to resolve those topics which lacked clarity and not impose practices or beliefs that were arbitrarily new. These disputes arose either because of variant practices, clashing theologies, or a development of long-held doctrine in light of a new crisis. The most famous example was the divinity (Godhood) of Christ challenged by Arius. Councils of the past appealed to Scripture but also Tradition, for they looked to and “held fast to the traditions they were taught” (cf. 2 Thes 2:14). They used both of these to test the truth of new practices and beliefs would inevitably arise over the course of time, just as they had for the Apostles when the name of Christ Jesus gathered Gentile and Jew (see: Acts 15). From this council the Apostles dispersed once again to reaffirm the good practices and correct the errors of each community.
The Council of Trent (1545-1563) stands as perhaps one of the Church's greatest councils. It was a response to the Protestant Reformation but also a council by which the leaders of the whole Church met to enact reform, clarify doctrine, as well as extend a pastoral hand to those disenfranchised with the faith.

For the Christian reformers of the 15th and 16th centuries, however, the opinions of past ages were true if and only if they were in accord with the present age, in a manner of speaking. The councils did not speak authoritatively in that the declared this or that was proper or improper in regard to Scripture. Rather the purpose of ecclesial councils was so that “many may derive benefit from it.” Yet here in the Smalcald Articles, which were written in 1537 by Luther, he immediately follows by saying “[We ourselves do not] need such a council, for by God's grace our churches have now been so enlightened and supplied with the pure Word … that we do not ask for a council … [for we believe that] it would not improve our condition” (T.290). Those who are well do not need a doctor and those who are enlightened do not need council (or a council).

If you look at this situation as I do perhaps you see how much of a mess it could become. Even among Luther's friends there were stark divisions towards the end of his life. The Christian who had faith must follow the Holy Spirit more than the counsel of men and he must also prefer Scripture as higher than all other words. The organized reformers, in recognizing the weakness of human nature, also sought to establish communities, churches, and rules by which they would not be led astray. The goal of the reformers was to rely on God alone but many ended up with a local, often times a state institution—for “no one can [form a truly free council] so well as temporal authorities … [since] whenever it is profitable or necessary, they ought to exercise the office and work which they have received from God over everyone” (Letter to the German Nation, J.101). The intention was that the state [not the best term for this time-period] would facilitate a free council for religion. A problem arose, however, in that the Catholic Church at this time had in many senses true autonomy from the state. Of course there were clashes and corruption, but as a whole the Catholic Church under the guidance of the pope and bishops was concretely separate from the state in many respects. This relationship could only survive, in part, by an agreement from Church and State. The Protestant model, however, relied on the uniformity of State and church almost to the point where the authority wielded was the State's alone. Temporal authority was charged with protecting the freedom of the faith in that land. But in many cases the reformers became a member of the state themselves and concerned very much with temporal power (the same power they accused the Catholics of hoarding). In other cases, reformers and the faithful became indebted or even reliant on the state to support their faith. (It should be noted that Pope Boniface VIII, when he published “Unum Sanctam” in 1302, made the opposite error for Catholics by proclaiming the Church alone had all power, temporal and spiritual—but a proper examination of this is for another time).

However, there were those who recognized this weakness and absurdity—for if the pope and bishops were merely a human institution how did the state guarantee better governance? As such, they reduced the whole of faith into a personal venture. But as time progressed these ones entered into an even greater absurdity for they call those who have faith Christian but they appear to be far from a “people of God.” Many of them identify under the maxim “I believe in Jesus but not religion.” These people see faith as nothing more than a personal relationship with Christ. At the same time there is nothing in their lives that might explicitly direct them or warn them of deficiencies in their faith.
Spiritual and not Religious = not spiritual.

Certainly we can recognize deficiencies in our bodies and in our behavior, such as alcoholism or extreme arrogance. Their faith, however, is personal and no man could point a deficiency in it. For some, perhaps, they believe that their own faith is weak and that's how it's supposed to be. All the same they believe that just as a relationship grows so too does theirs with Christ develop.

As a thought on its own it isn't bad. In fact we are all called to grow closer to the God who loves us. Let us return, however, to the image of the Body of Christ. Those who claim to be non-denominational must make an account for themselves as to how they see this Body. For a body is not a patchwork of personal relationships of bones to the head, sinews to the head, blood to the head, and so forth. Rather every sinew, muscle, vein, and follicle is interconnected in some manner. Is the Church simply the number of those who believe or is it something greater? The blood is not the head yet does it not provide life to our limbs? The bones are not the head yet do they not support the whole? Likewise the hands are not the head but do they not labor and provide for the body?

Those who would isolate themselves from others insofar as they reject a visible and concrete community of believers would do well to heed Scripture: Peter and John “went back to their own people … [and] as they prayed, the place where they gathered shook[.] The community of believers was of one heart and mind” (Acts 4:23,31a,32a). More still, Scripture herself speaks not only of our weakness that is brought about by the struggle between flesh and spirit, but in the spirit itself. Paul says that “we pray beyond measure to see you in person and remedy the deficiencies of your faith” (1 Thes 3:10). Here we have men, acting in the Holy Spirit, gathering physically together and desiring a physical union so as to teach, preach, instruct, and safeguard against deficiencies in personal faiths. Stronger still, Paul relates to Timothy both the things he taught and what was given to him by the community of the faithful. He tells Timothy to “Command and teach these things … Attend to [your own faith] and to your teaching; persevere in both tasks, for by doing so you will save both yourself and those who listen to you” (1 Tim 4:11,16). 
Spiritual and Religious. They gathered in the upper room and received the Holy Spirit and immediately began preaching Jesus to the World.

I think I have spoken enough on this matter. Faith neither starts nor ends as a private or isolated venture. Rather faith in Christ Jesus joins us to His Body, the Church. That Church is likewise more than the number of believers but a community of believers that is visible. More still that visible community is one made up of laborers, teachers, parents, and priests where those “who are spiritual should correct [one who errs] in a gentle spirit” (Gal 6:1). All of us are in a community called to holiness, and that call to holiness is a perfection of charity for all people. Like a Body, however, some are charged with greater authority. “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who are laboring among you and who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you, and to show esteem for them with special love on account of their work” (1 Thes 5:12-13).

I rise, now, towards my Protestant brothers and sisters who have acknowledged much of what I said above by gathering together in prayer, accepting admonishment from others in regard to faith, and in a greater sense of Christian unity. You must wrestle with what you place upon Scripture as well as the manifestation/expression of your image of 'Church.'

If indeed you hold that “All Scripture is inspired by God and ise useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16) what was it that compelled Luther, a general among the milites contra catholicam, to say “St. James' epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these other [books of Scripture] for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it” (Preface to the New Testament, 1522, 1546; J.117)? Many deny, as a matter of belief, that we are justified by works and have ignored this holy author when he says “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. … See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:21-22,24). What determines Scripture and its interpretation if this phrase could be ignored in favor of St. Paul? By what standard do you judge these matters?
I only put this here because I love this image.

I pose another question to you, friends: who spoke truly in this regard?

Two men read that Christ said “this is my body” at His Last Supper.

One claimed that Christ's Body and Blood were truly present in that sacrament. He claimed that Christ's “is” was true and real. That at the repeating on these words Christ Himself is present “in, around, under, and through” the bread and wine. He believes this is true because Christ Himself said so.

The other countered that just as Jesus had called Himself the “Way” and the “Vine,” and that both were not literal, that His words here also constituted a symbol by which we are edified in faith.

The issue was not resolved among them—how do you resolve it?

There is much more that I would like to speak on, but I will refrain from some of it here in favor of explaining a different aspect in a future piece concerning the holy ones, the saints. In it I hope to address human weakness, how we participate with God (and examples in Scripture), and other aspects. In this piece I regretfully omitted the wisdom of Augustine who can offer us a great deal of wisdom. I hope to introduce him when I am more comfortable and versed in the vast body of his work on this issue. Until then I heartily recommend “On Christian Teaching” as a good starting point. Lutherans owe much to Augustine's theology of which Luther was well versed.

I conclude by urging a greater reflection on that powerful image the “Body of Christ” and all its implications. It is easy for us, if we have faith, to simply see ourselves as members. It is far more difficult for any of us to see ourselves as pained, maligned, festering, bleeding, crippled, maimed, or cancerous. The unity of any Body rests in both uniformity (for a body has many parts working towards the same purpose) as well as diversity (i.e., the aforementioned parts). Does that Body which you call 'Church' facilitate this? Is it accomplishing the call for one Church here on earth as it is in heaven? Is Scripture the only authority, and if so which is greater, faith or Scripture? Consequently, how is this question answered? There is much more to say but for now I will pause my argument and allow it to grow from here. My other pieces refer to Catholic perspectives on some of these matters, but as of now I hardly have the talent or the time to expound on these subjects as I would like.

Cited as [J]
Denis R, Janz. A Reformation Reader (2008).

Cited as [T]
Theodore G Tappert, editor. The Book of Concord (1580, trans.1959).