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Ecclesiastical Existentialists?

February 11th, 2006
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Dr. Holger Sonntag provided the following remarks as a comment on the Lutheran/Eastern Orthodoxy post, but it truly deserves its own blog post.

Could we try to see the urge to "go east" by some as pointing to a deficit among Lutherans? In other words, has the notion of "true visible church" receded so far into the background of our ecclesial consciousness / conscience that we, quite honestly, don’t care much about it anymore? Does this transform the church into some "platonic idea" our Confessions deny it to be (Ap. VII-VIII:20), so that now folks look for surrogates elsewhere?

The Lutheran confessions emphatically include the visible church by defining the church as the assembly of believers among whom the gospel is preached purely and the sacraments are given accordingly (AC VII:1). They don’t engage in speculation about believers outside the true visible church (they don’t deny them, for sure: God does work in mysterious ways) or the concommittant speculation: how much truth is enough? The focus clearly is: preaching God’s gospel in its truth and purity and giving Christ’s sacraments rightly. That’s where true believers will be found because God’s word (and that’s, as far as we are concerned, God’s PURE word, of course) will not return void. Do we have the same kind of promise for the impure word and sacraments without falling into some sort of magical thinking (just reciting the "words" will do it, regardless of how many layers of false teaching / meaning cover them)?

So, what about the "Eastern Catholics"? They do seem to offer a compelling "visibility" that lures people away from the true doctrine. Do we just say: "Visibility — impossible / not necessary!" Or do we offer an alternative vision of visibility? I think we should, and could, do the latter. We just have to state unequivocally wherein the church’s visibility consists: not in gold-clad prelates or ancient-language liturgies, or in holiness of life, but in true preaching and true sacraments.

Luther and the Confessions do not allow us to become "ecclesial existentialists" who are content with external nothingness (faith in heart is plenty…). That would be a super-human church, or enthusiasm. They point us, instead, to the pure marks that God has given his church (and God’s church can only be the true visible church), so that individuals would know where to find God for certain and join God’s people for the sake of their salvation.

In response to a certain warm enthusiasm for Eastern Catholicism, we need to focus on keeping the marks of the church pure (and visible/central) and on pointing people to them. That certainly starts, as Rev. Cwirla pointed out, in the local congregation. But local congregations don’t live on islands. They are (or aren’t) in fellowship with other congregations; by fellowshipping with others they basically form one big congregation/church gathered around one pure gospel in word and sacraments, as scattered as true individual congregations might be across time and space (cf. Ap. VII-VIII:20).

One underlying question is: Can the true visible church, as defined above, ever disappear? If it can, and some believe it can (including Walther), then it’s maybe not our primary concern (as it was Walther’s) to keep God’s church visible, as much as we can (by preaching the truth; admonishing the erring, etc.). Then we’re perhaps content to let it slip into the invisiblity of our heart’s faith and then say: Well, there’s just no one who can be right all the time! God knows his children … Endorsing American denominationalism (a form of Pietism) is the almost unavoidable outcome. But how long can true faith live on the impure gospel and sacraments? Can we apply God’s promises to impure word and sacraments (cf. only Ap. VII-VIII:30f.: without unity in pure word and sacraments "there can be no faith in the heart"!)?

Martin Chemnitz, and it seems also Melanchthon, held that the true visible church would not utterly vanish from world history and that the true visible church is necessary for there to be the invisible church (faith requires, as far as we know, the pure word; only the pure word is God’s word). At times, the true visible church on earth would be very small, but it would never be conquered by hell’s forces, thanks to God’s promises (Mat. 16; 28). Chemnitz dedicated his life to defending it and keeping God’s truth visible in this world’s kingdom of lies; certainly, God’s promises given to the true visible church upheld him in his struggle (if the true church doesn’t have God’s promise, why fight for it??).

Luther did the same; he too believed that, according to God’s promise, "a Christian holy people is to be and to remain on earth until the end of the world" (AE 41:148), which he then defined quite along the lines of AC VII: this "Christian holy people" is recognized by the fact that it possesses God’s word purely preached(some have it only with straw, though; but some completely pure, see Ap. VII-VIII:20-21); the pure sacraments etc.

Luther and the confessors of the Lutheran church believed that doctrine could be kept pure, not just "pure mostly." In pure doctrine and the other pure marks, and in people gathered around them in (outward) unity (can’t sift out hypocrites on earth), God’s church is visible for the joy and edification of God’s holy people.

Can we earnestly hold this out as a real, gospel alternative to other attempts to "visibilize" the church (gold, statistics, success, holiness of life, ancient liturgies)? Or have we grown content with church as a mere "platonic idea" existing in our memories or books?

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Categories: Lutheran Confessions
  1. revcwirla
    February 13th, 2006 at 09:51 | #1

    This eloquent post presents a false alternative. Either one has a “true visible church,” which preaches and practices in all purity, or one has an invisible “platonic ideal.”
    The Lutheran Confessions do not use such visible/invisible language, for good reason. We don’t “visibiilze” the church; God does. The “marks of the church” (Kennzeichen) are divine activities, namely, the divine proclamation of the Gospel through the divinely established Office and the administration of the Sacraments through the same. These recognition marks denote the church and can be and are present even in the midst of error and abuse, as in the Roman churches. (Luther never denied that the church was present also under the papacy.) This is hardly a Platonic ideal, but a concrete reality, as real as absolving words and the Body and Blood of Christ.
    A telling development in Lutheran ecclesiology comes with the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy, which shifted the emphasis from the dynamic activities of preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments to the static concept of “pure doctrine” as the decisive mark of the church. Walther goes the same route when he defends the thesis that the Evangelical Lutheran Church (defined as the sum total of all who profess the doctrine of the Lutheran symbols) is the “true, visible church on earth” on the basis of the purity of her doctrine.
    I fear that one reason some of our brothers and sisters have left their Lutheran churches is that we have utterly obscured the divine marks by our own vain attempts to “visibilize” the church either with doctrinal sophistries or institutional chicaneries.

  2. Karl Amo
    February 13th, 2006 at 14:42 | #2

    “But local congregations don’t live on islands. They are (or aren’t) in fellowship with other congregations; by fellowshipping with others they basically form one big congregation/church gathered around one pure gospel in word and sacraments, as scattered as true individual congregations might be across time and space (cf. Ap. VII-VIII:20).”
    Or they form one big congregation/church gathered around an impure gospel in word and sacraments. In that case, even the most confessional congregation among them no longer constitues a portion of the visible church.

  3. revcwirla
    February 13th, 2006 at 18:04 | #3

    “Or they form one big congregation/church gathered around an impure gospel in word and sacraments. In that case, even the most confessional congregation among them no longer constitues a portion of the visible church. ”
    By that line of reasoning, the Roman Church no longer constitutes a portion of the visible church.

  4. Holger Sonntag
    February 13th, 2006 at 18:20 | #4

    As writer of the original blog post, let me respond to those who graciously took the time to responded to it:
    First, Karl Amo: I agree; fellowship also exists around impure marks. When purity and impurity are mingled, well, I guess, you get impurity — still visible, sometimes very visible, just not pure anymore.
    Second, Rev. Cwirla: I don’t think it works to reduce the marks of the church mentioned in AC VII to “activities”. How do you know what to do in preaching, absolving, communing, baptizing? In other words, is doctrine (content) not a presupposition for the activities of preaching etc.? And is right doctrine not a presupposition for preaching rightly etc.?
    I wouldn’t want to blame “doctrine” on the poor Lutheran Orthodoxy (and Walther). The “doctrine of the gospel” (doctrina evangelii) already can be found in AC VII:2 (Latin), see in addition only SD X:31, where “teaching (doctrina) and all the articles of the faith” are mentioned.
    And what about Luther? Certainly, we all know his statements about Christians in the Catholic Church. Should we argue with him on that? I was referring to his statements in the Large Catechism, on the Third Article of the Creed (para. 43): “Where [the Holy Spirit] does not cause [the Word of God] to be preached … all is lost, as happened under the papacy, where faith was swept completely under the rug and no one recognized Christ as the Lord … That is, no one believed that Christ is our Lord in the sense that he won such a treasure …”
    (“No one believed”?? — Didn’t they have the bible / lessons in church, words of institution? Yes, but, first of all, in a language most people north of the Alps couldn’t readily understand and, second, openly contradicted and thus much obscured by false preaching and practices. Does the actual teaching / preaching of a church mean anything? Or is “the bible” a magical charm against any and all doctrinal evil?)
    To be sure, Luther’s is, on the face of it, a historical judgment — the Confessions don’t claim to be infallible in such judgments. What I’m try to get at is the underlying dogmatic truth: does the Holy Spirit ordinarily (and we should, for obvious reasons, focus on this aspect of the Spirit’s work lest we become enthusiasts) create faith, even if His word is used apart from / against the Lord’s command and promise (see, for example, Mat. 28:19-20)? We can also ask: can we rely on the Holy Spirit’s presence (on which everything depends, as Luther stated) even in the midst of (tolerated / promoted) error and darkness? (Consider 2 Cor. 6:14.)
    The apostle Paul, it seems to me, did not want his congregations in Corinth and Galatia to have to rely on such shaky comfort. He acted swiftly to rectify doctrinal and moral aberrations in those congregations. A little leaven leavens the whole lump, that was his clear word of warning to both churches (1 Cor. 5:6; Gal. 5:9), as it was Luther’s and C. F. W. Walther’s. Have we today become so fortified in our beliefs to be able to ignore this?
    Doctrinal sin can drive out the Spirit in individuals; can it do that also in entire congregations / church bodies? That is my question.

  5. Karl Amo
    February 13th, 2006 at 22:20 | #5

    “We can also ask: can we rely on the Holy Spirit’s presence (on which everything depends, as Luther stated) even in the midst of (tolerated / promoted) error and darkness? (Consider 2 Cor. 6:14.)” – Holger Sonntag
    We have Exekiel’s account of his vision of God’s glory departing from the Temple (Exekiel 10). We have John’s account of his vision of Jesus warning the Seven Churches (Revelation 2-3).
    Perhaps it is only when the Gospel is purely preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered that we can know with certainty that the visible church is present. Perhaps only then can we rely on the Holy Spirit being present.

  6. revcwirla
    February 13th, 2006 at 22:24 | #6

    “Second, Rev. Cwirla: I don’t think it works to reduce the marks of the church mentioned in AC VII to “activities”. How do you know what to do in preaching, absolving, communing, baptizing? In other words, is doctrine (content) not a presupposition for the activities of preaching etc.? And is right doctrine not a presupposition for preaching rightly etc.?”
    Presupposition? Yes. But not a mark of recognition. Of course there must be a doctrine to preach. I can possess a Book of Concord, and even know what it says and subscribe to it, but unless that doctrine of the Gospel is actively preached and administered, there will be no visible or audible sign that the church is present. A “presupposition” is always “pre” to something else, in this case the actual divine marks of the church.
    The genius of the Lutheran Confessions is that they articulate a dynamic understanding of both the church and her ministry over and against a static, institutional understanding of the same.
    Regarding the presence of the church in the company of error, as late as 1539 Luther could delight that Christ could have His church even in the presence of the antichrist (see “On the Councils and Churches” (1539)).
    Certainly one continually strives against sin, including the sin of false doctrine, but this is an ongoing struggle against the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. It was in the 1st century, it remains so in our own.
    As to whether “doctrinal sin” can drive out the Holy Spirit from the individual/congregation/church body: Were that the case, we could only be as certain of the Holy Spirit as we are certain of the purity of our doctrine and practice.

  7. Holger Sonntag
    February 14th, 2006 at 09:18 | #7

    I have to put it with more precision: By doctrine as presupposition for right teaching, preaching, baptizing, etc. I didn’t mean “presupposition” to be some entity disjointed from the activities. But “as we believe, so we speak” — or “we teach, believe, and confess”. Doctrine is teaching — and teaching is doctrine. It’s right teaching when the doctrine you’re teaching is right; hence “doctrine of the gospel” (AC VII).
    Certainly, teaching is a dynamic activity — because it’s driven by the dynamis, the power, of the Holy Spirit himself, not because its content always changes. It’s not all movement (quicksand has this property too). The Confessions (beginning with the Creeds in the ancient church) exist because a “reliable form for teaching (certam formam doctrinae)” was, and is, needed as a rallying point for all Christians. After all, “fundamental, enduring unity in the church requires above all else a clear and binding summary and form in which a general summary of teaching (communis doctrina) is drawn together from God’s Word” (Cf. the Rule and Norm section of the Formula of Concord.)
    “Doctrinal sin” and the Holy Spirit — well, if we accept the scriptural teaching that the Holy Spirit is driven out by persistent sin, what can we say now? Faith is always repentant faith. Our certainty ultimately rests in the unchanging promises of the gospel, but the Confessions make it crystal clear that genuine, saving faith cannot coexist with an unwillingness to abandon sin. That’s the law. What admittedly holds for the Second Table of the Decalogue (fornication, for example), we should not hesitate to apply to the much weightier First Table (Commandments 1-3). And in Commandments 2 and 3 I do think false doctrine is clearly condemned: We should not use God’s name to sell our doctrinal inventions; we should keep sacred, and listen to, the preaching of God’s Word, not man’s words. We should distinguish the spirits. Does ignorance protect from punishment? Possibly; there are “felicitous inconsitencies:” People don’t always believe what they say or hear. However, these exceptions can’t become the rule, the basis for our practice as church of Jesus Christ, because we can’t know what is in people’s hearts; Christ has pointed us to the “fruits,” to what comes out of man’s heart (Mat. 7 etc.). God will judge the hypocrites; we’ve been given to struggle against those who’ve come out with a faulty confession in word and deed.

  8. revcwirla
    February 14th, 2006 at 12:36 | #8

    “But local congregations don’t live on islands. ”
    I might phrase it a bit differently. Local congregations ought not live on islands, and cannot live for long in isolation.
    Parochial isolationism is the hallmark of sectarianism. However, times and circumstances often drive one unwillingly into congregationalism. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if it forces a congregation to embrace its confession in a living and active way. Freedom from institutional structures can provide opportunity to discover fellowship in the confession of the true faith, especially outside of institutional boundaries, a phenomenon that is being observed with increasing frequency within Christianity.

  9. Holger Sonntag
    February 14th, 2006 at 20:35 | #9

    To further discuss the question at hand — the nature and continual reality and importance of the “true visible church” — I did some reading in Luther’s later writings against the papacy of Rome, especially “Against Hanswurst” of 1541 (Am. Ed. 41:179ff.).
    To be sure, these tracts are strong stuff, nothing for faint-hearted souls. But they certainly do not lack any clarity re: the issue at hand.
    First, Luther readily admits that there are Christians in the Roman church, but, due to the prevalent false doctrines, only very few, mostly young children (up to 7 yrs. of age) who haven’t come to grasp what is actually being taught. In other words, Luther doesn’t deny the power of baptism (perhaps children can “grasp” only baptism), but also doesn’t deny that actual teaching (not just this or that shred of truth) has a real effect on those exposed to it. If it is the wrong stuff, it will destroy people, one soul at a time.
    Second, Luther makes it crystal clear that the Roman church is a church of the devil, not of God. This is so not because it was lacking holiness of life. Luther, unlike Wycliff and the like, did not target primarily the moral filth. He readily admitted that also the church of God, in this life, is not wholly holy. Sins need to be, and are, forgiven. Persistent sinners in word (heretics) and deed are excluded. But hypocrites remain.
    Luther identified the Roman church as a church of the devil, as a whore over against Christ’s holy bride, because of its doctrine, its teaching. Here he is not lenient at all. God’s church (and in Luther’s mind this is the Lutheran church of his time in continuity with the ancient church of the apostles) does not simply get doctrine right more often than the church of the devil (at least in the article of justification, e.g.). God’s church, according to Luther, only teaches what God’s word teaches, no more, no less. It teaches God’s word and doctrine purely, otherwise it is not God’s church anymore.
    Luther makes his point by asserting that a Lutheran pastor, that is, one who preaches God’s word purely, need not pray for forgiveness after his sermon. If he needs forgiveness after the sermon, he had better not preached at all, because he used God’s name in vain and confused God’s people — every sermon in the church is introduced by a “Thus says the Lord”, even if it remains unsaid most often. But, thanks be to God!, doctrine is not something we do or produce / find (that’s the approach of the papacy), as Luther points out. Doctrine is simply God’s own word.
    He criticizes those who, kindheartedly, propose peaceful coexistence: can’t we teach God’s word purely and then tolerate certain additions to it in the church? This is not possible, so Luther, because of the First Commandment: We can’t serve God and other gods. In other words, a church in which man’s words are replacing God’s word is to be left behind, as Luther points out based on Rev. 18:4-5.
    Luther furthermore asks: what use is there for a church in the world that teaches both truth and falsehood, that does not have God’s doctrine straight in all its articles? What good would it do? It would only further confuse people. Where should they turn on earth to hear the truth about them and God?
    This is also the point Luther makes in his “On the Councils and the Church” of 1539 (same Am.Ed. vol.). He enumerates seven marks of the church, centering around the purely preached word, precisely so that “poor people” would find the church of God, the “true visible church” on earth, lest they be lost in false belief.
    Luther places the titanic struggles of his times in the context of the ongoing battles of the (heretical) church of Cain against the (true) church of Abel, which, according to Augustine, last as long as this world.
    Now, reading these texts by Luther is, from today’s perspective, just breath-taking. It sounds unrealistic or too good to be true. Haven’t we kind of lost this zeal of Luther’s for “pure doctrine”? Don’t we know that “it” doesn’t really work and only leads to partisan bickering and name-calling (look at Luther’s own choice of words!)? Aren’t we truly convinced that “it” perhaps doesn’t really matter? (Who cares about the “finer points” of doctrine? But Luther says: “when there is disagreement in doctrine, it becomes quite evident who the true Christians are, namely, those who have God’s word in purity and refinement”, AE 41:219.) Finally, isn’t some peace in the church a fine thing, where we can just do our “thing”?
    To be sure, no one said the “narrow way” would be easy to walk. Hence, not many should strive to become teachers (James 3). Yet the answers to the questions above will reveal whether we are Lutherans contending, with God’s gracious aid, for the “visibility” of God’s church in a fallen world (for the sake of poor, wretched sinners: orthodoxy (pure doctrine) is true Christian evangelism, as Luther points out based on Mat. 28:19-20!) or “ecclesiastical existentialists”, who’ve somehow learned to live without the constant guidance of God’s own word. And once we’ve learned that, well, then everything is possible and we continue to confirm Eastern Catholic prejudices against “reformism” in the Western church.

  10. February 16th, 2006 at 07:56 | #10

    So there was no “true visible Church” until the Lutheran Confessions were published? As far as we can tell, at no time in church history can we find someone with 100% pure doctrine. If that is the case, then this “true visible church” has nothing to do with the “Church” in Scripture, and this “promise” meant nothing until about 1529.

  11. Nathan Rinne
    February 16th, 2006 at 11:24 | #11

    Hey – its Nate here.
    I’m just curious – if what you (and it appears, Luther) are talking about is true, does that mean that the office of the papacy can’t really be the seat of Antichrist – seeing as how he, according to Luther, must dwell in the Church of God? Maybe we should then look for the seat of the Antichrist somewhere in the true (Lutheran) Church?
    Gets kind of messy, I think.

  12. Holger Sonntag
    February 17th, 2006 at 09:29 | #12

    Responding to the last couple replies:
    1. Josh: No, that doesn’t mean that before 1529 there was no “true visible church”. Consider, for example, the church of the prophets and apostles, as recorded in Holy Scripture. We’d think that at least they got doctrine 100% right. But this also means that here, in a normative way (not just: “ideal way”), we see how Christ’s church looks like: believers/confessors gathered in unanimity around the word purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered. You notice that not even the apostolic churches were “pure” in life (just read 1 Cor!). There was, of course, also false doctrine intruding and trying to take root in those churches (just read Gal). But the apostles didn’t consent here; they didn’t say: “Well, that’s just how it is in a fallen world. We have to settle for a ‘mostly pure’ church.” Indeed, we live in the church militant — that’s neither the church triumphant nor the church at sleep in false carnal security.
    As to the time between the apostle and, say, the Lutherans — or the time between the death of the last prophet and Christ — where was the true visible church then? You correctly write: “as far as we can tell, at no time…” The problem with the way church history is presented today is that it doesn’t focus on doctrinal purity too much. It looks at the big doctrinal controversies (Trinity, Christology, justification, etc.). The primary texts certainly are best for those fields, so you naturally gravitate towards those main battles. Luther, for one, envisioned a way of writing church history that would focus on how God’s word fared, that is, he would look at whether churches abided by God’s word or not and where, if at all, they deviated.
    More specifically, the Reformers, when looking for doctrinal purity, did not look for doctrinal perfection (there’s a nice section in Dr. K. Marquart’s book on The Church in the Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics series on these issues). This becomes clear when they, in Ap. VII-VIII:20-21, based on 1 Cor. 3, speak about those who, after the apostles, have built on the foundation laid by them (“true knowledge of Christ and faith”). Some have built stubble. However, not every piece of stubble (Melanchthon thinks here of “certain useless opinions” held by the fathers) overthrows the foundation, this is at least the view of the Reformers. I readily admit, this needs to be researched in greater detail, how the Reformers distinguished between mere straw and an outright overthrow of the foundation — certainly the Roman church at the time of the Reformation had, in the mind of the Refomers, overthrown the foundation — which, I hasten to add, is likely wider than the doctrine of justification, though this doctrine is of course, with Christ himself, at the center of the church’s foundation.
    I also add this important observation from Luther and the Confessions: that the true visibile church would remain on earth until the end of the age was for them, first of all, an article of faith. That sounds counterintuitive (aren’t we talking about the “visible church”?), but here is how it works: God has given certain promises to his church (and I submit that, for Luther and the Confessions, this is the true visible church as defined above). God cannot lie and deceive; his promises still stand. Therefore, there must always have been a true visible church, however small and insignificant and “scattered through the entire world” (which explains why it perhaps didn’t show up on the “historical radar screen”). Consider especially Ap. VII-VIII:9, where Melanchthon writes: “This article [concerning the true church in the Creed (third article)] has been presented for a very necessary reason. We see the endless dangers that threaten the destruction of the church. There is an infinite number of ungodly persons within the church itself who oppress it. This article in the Creed presents these consolations to us: so that we may not despair, but may know that the church will nevertheless remain …” This church is defined, in para. 8 and again in para. 10, as “the assembly of holy people who share in common the association of the same gospel and the same Holy Spirit” and “people scattered throughout the entire world who agree on the gospel and have the same Christ, the same Holy Spirit, the same sacraments, whether or not they have the same human traditions” (in other words, they need not be in one external church organization or have the same liturgies etc.). It goes without saying that, for Melanchthon and the early Lutherans, the “gospel” is more than article 4 of the AC (that is, more than the doctrine of justification), cf. SD X:31.
    In other words, the true visible church, as we can call it — or the “holy, catholic church”, the church believed and confessed in the creed, that church is not an outward organization like the papacy. This is where Lutherans and Catholics (and the Orthodox of the East) part. But they don’t part yet over the question whether there would be a true visible church. First the “left wing” reformers (the Anabaptists etc.) seem to have opted for a basic invisibility of the true church, which, given their spiritualism (basic irrelevance of “means of grace”), would make sense — but here I just don’t know much. I merely point to Pietist G. Arnold’s way of looking at church history: he found the “true church” in individuals persecuted by the “established” churches for their unorthodox views. “Visibility” is here near zero.
    2. Nathan: The question of the papacy in the “temple of God”. I don’t think that “temple of God” necessarily means the “true visible church”. It certainly has clear visible elements to it (you can see a temple). But consider the fate of the temple of God in the OT: there was many a false idol in it at various times. And what happened then? The glory of God left the temple, as a earlier post on this topic reminded us. Outwardly, the sacrificial cult still went on — everything looked normal, like the real thing (temple of GOD), but, due to the false worship going on in God’s house, God, the essence of the temple, so to speak, was long since gone. Cf. especially Exod. 40:34 with Ezek. 10-11 (after Ezek. 8:14ff.!). (It’s then no surprise that the glory of the Lord continues to show itself to the prophet Ezekiel around whom, as the one remaining true teacher of the church, gathered the small band of the true visible church at the time.)
    In other words, outwardly, before the world, so to speak, the temple in Jerusalem always was the temple of the one true God. Among the pagans it was recognized as such. But God’s word reveals that it was not. It had the name, the outward appearance, but it did not have the reality, Rev. 3:1.
    It seems to me that the Reformers now apply this to the church of Rome. It claims to be God’s church; it has God’s word; it has baptism; it has the sacrament — but it has these things in a very adulterated form. They are covered under layers of false teaching. And, most importantly, it has, in the view of the Reformers, replace trust in the one true God with trust in one’s own works. This is a serious sin, not “just” against the doctrine of justification; here we are touching on the First Commandment itself and the question: who is your God? Reliance on both God and good works might make sense, humanly speaking, but it neither give Christ the honor due his name nor does it give true certainty (that is, certainty related to God’s sure promise in Christ!) to sinners plagued by sin. God wants to be our only God, and that implies: our only Savior. The doctrine of justification is the soteriological application of the First Commandment. That we’re justified by faith is not the “second best” solution, as if we were just too weak to save ourselves. It is the only solution compatible with the First Comm.
    This then explains why the Refomers saw in the Roman doctrine of salvation (as a progress of divine-human cooperation) idolatry. Luther, in the Large Catechism (I:22-23), calls reliance on our works “the greatest idolatry”.
    So, taken all together, the papacy sits very much in the “temple of God”, that is, in outward Christianity. But it is, due to its false teaching especially, but not exclusively, on the article of justification, the antichrist par excellence, besides which there are many false prophets and antichrists in the world (read 1 John 2), cf. also Ap. VII-VIII:48; Treat. 39.
    Hope that helps…

  13. February 17th, 2006 at 13:55 | #13

    What exactly makes a local congregation a “true church,” anyway?
    Is it the opinions about doctrine that each communing member individually holds? In that case, how many erring members does it take to remove the power from the Gospel?
    Is it only the opinions of the minister? But I can’t know the every secret opinion of the minister’s heart, or how he may interpret all of the Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel, and Creed used every Sunday morning.
    Is it what’s preached? How many times can a minister err in his sermon before God abandons us, and the Gospel as proclaimed in the Scriptures and Creed in the liturgy will not save us? Once? If so, ought we to leave any church in which the minister has said something which we can’t agree with?
    Or is it legal quia subscription to a 100% propositionally correct confessional document, so that we can say that Roman Catholic Churches were technically “true churches” until Trent?

  14. Mark Louderback
    February 17th, 2006 at 17:11 | #14

    That’s where true believers will be found because God’s word (and that’s, as far as we are concerned, God’s PURE word, of course) will not return void.
    Perhaps as far as you are concerned.
    As far as I am concerned, I find this a curious statement.
    The Word says that God’s Word will not return void–are we so free to interpret this passage to say that what this *really* means is that only the pure Word does its work–the impure word doesn’t…
    Is that what the text says?
    Why will God’s *impure* Word return void? Why will the twisted words of the Scripture not do its work and bring about the action that God intends? Why do we hold that the Holy Spirit can only work when we get things perfectly right and speak things perfectly accurately–so that our good work of pure teaching is what allows the Holy Spirit to work?
    If a person hears “Christ died for you and for your sake. Now you must choose to accept this gift.” is the Holy Spirit unable to work then? Not a pure Gospel…Not pure words…God’s word mixed with that which is wrong…And yet…
    Where in Scripture does it say that this will not also bring about His work?
    The words says “The Word will not return void.” It does not say “Once you get it perfect and right, then my Word will not return void.” It does not say “The Pure Word will not return void.”
    This is why, of course, that we can point to the visible/revealed church as where the Gospel is proclaimed. Where the Gospel is, there the church is.
    “Therefore, in His immeasurable goodness and mercy God provides for the public proclamation of His divine eternal law and of the wondrous counsel of our redemption, the holy gospel of His eternal Son, our only Savior Jesus Christ, which alone can save.
    “By means of this proclamation He gathers an everlasting church from humankind, and He effects in human hearts true repentance and knowledge of sin and true faith in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.” (SD Art 2, Free Will)
    Where the Gospel is, God’s church will be. Even in a church where there is not doctrinal purity, where error is taught, where the sacraments are not rightly celebrated, yet God’s Word will not return empty.
    I understand you point about “How much truth is enough?” but I think you are pulling a tighter circle than we ought to.
    The Confessions don’t engage in speculation about Christians outside the visible church: they say clearly that where the Gospel is proclaimed, there God works. That’s not speculation. They don’t speculate on individuals, that’s all. But the Gospel creates faith.
    Which, incidentally, is why Paul gets unglued at the Galatians. Because they are destroying the *Gospel*. They are attacking the Gospel. They are not merely teaching impure things.
    No, the Corinthians are doing that. Which is why Paul adopts an entirely different attitude with them (shoot, some thought there were more than one god. How impure is that? 1 Cor 8:4-7)
    So, this is why we can look in confidence at our Lutheran church and say “The church is here.”
    As well as pointing to the Orthodox church and saying “The church is here.”

  15. Holger Sonntag
    February 17th, 2006 at 23:14 | #15

    Just a few comments on the recent posts:
    1. Josh: what makes a church “pure”, so to speak, in the sense I used the term here is the actual proclamation going on there. So, we ask: what is the pastor teaching? Is he teaching God’s word alone, or something else added to it, perhaps not all of God’s word? What about the sacraments: are they taught and used rightly?
    Obviously, preachers can err. And not every error drives the Spirit away; it’s the persistent error. I don’t have any charts that tell me: it’s going to happen after the fifth time. But clearly, we ought to avoid error in preaching. And, in fact, Luther thought it to be possible. False doctrine is not something to be taken lightly.
    2. Mark: God’s word has to be pure for us to have certainty that it really is from God’s mouth (Is. 55:11!). God never speaks a mixture of his and our words. A sermon / evangelism pitch that offers a mixture of true and false, well, is that the way Jesus would speak? I trust not.
    The “gospel”, yes, where the gospel is proclaimed there the church is because it will create faith. But what’s the gospel? Does it have any content? It does. Can we use the same words and mean different things, some true, some wrong? You bet we can. These different meanings (true and false) will come out, at the latest if you hear more than one sermons or if you look at what the church body you’re visiting teaches in more general terms (the wider context of the sermon).
    The confessions insist on the pure gospel and the sacraments rightly administered to locate the church / believers, not just on any kind of gospel or sacraments. What does that mean? That we can turn around and say: even if it all is overgrown with false teaching, somehow God’ll still come through? He might, but on what basis are we saying that? Wishful thinking? Concern for a friend in a heterodox church?
    Other than that, I bring up again Luther’s assertion that God’s word doesn’t have parts. If you get one part wrong, all is wrong. If you reject God in one part, you reject him all the way, since God too doesn’t have parts.
    That’s pretty strong stuff, and I’ll end on that today (2/17), the eve of Luther’s heavenly birthday.

  16. Holger Sonntag
    February 18th, 2006 at 10:32 | #16

    To close off my comments on this issue, I merely want to highlight a few items that seem important to me.
    1. For the Reformers, the true visible church (as defined in AC VII: believers gathered around the pure marks: word and sacr.) has God’s solemn promises. Because God cannot lie or deceive, this church shall remain forever, however small, however scattered through the whole world.
    2. For a human word to be God’s word, it has to be God’s word, that is, it has to be in agreement with the Scriptures. We have absolutely no authority to grant any license here, either to subtract or to add or to change.
    3. The flip-side of these realities is the command to avoid false prophets, that is, those who say: “Thus says the Lord”, even though the Lord did not say thus. This covers a whole range of cases, and it certainly includes false teaching going on in nominal Christianity. Whom we are to avoid cannot speak Christ’s voice.
    4. False doctrine is a dynamic reality that actively destroys truth and faith. It is a most slippery slope. Once it is tolerated in the church, it is hard, if not impossible, to contain or domesticate. It has a powerful ally in the Christian’s sinful nature.
    5. The Holy Spirit leads the Christian into battle against sin — sin of every form and description. This includes as high priority the struggle against false teaching as the chief abuse of God’s holy name and word (2nd and 3rd Commandments). In the Lord’s Prayer (1st – 3rd Pet.), the child of God, taught by God’s Spirit himself, prays for God’s word to be taught in all its truth and purity to bring about faith, against the onslaught of the world, the devil, and the flesh. This prayer becomes meaningless, even sinful, if false doctrine is considered simply unavoidable and thereby excused. It becomes equally meaningless, even sinful, if there is no promise of God given to teaching his word in all its truth and purity in the first place. (See # 1.)
    6. In reality, there are only two churches in the world: the one true church which preaches God’s word fully and purely — and the many false churches which preach God’s word mingeled with all sorts of human ideas (some more so than others). The false church has the praise of the world; the true church has God’s praise and promise against all his enemies, SD XI:50. The former is the church of glory and outward peace and security; the latter the church under the cross. The former lives by sight; the latter by faith. There can be no union between these churches; they are mutually exclusive as light and darkness.
    7. It is only due to the extraordinary grace of God that there are children of God in the false church. God’s extraordinary ways cannot be the foundation of our teaching (analogy: baptism’s necessity for salvation), lest they undermine God’s ordinary ways clearly taught in his word — this would be tempting God.
    Now I rest.

  17. Mark Louderback
    February 20th, 2006 at 11:06 | #17

    Well, I am sorry that Dr Sonntag is finished with his comments.
    I find that too bad, because he position suggests to me one of soft-works-righteousness. A position that teaches us to look at what we do in order to claim salvation.
    Only, it is not couched in terms of actions; rather, it is stated in terms of what we *believe*. So, I need to have right and proper and pure beliefs–and anything short of that is dangerous.
    So, we have a positon that turns the grace of God around and instead I look to what I believe and whether it is pure and perfect and right…
    Not at all clinging to Christ crucified–which is saying that even in my error, my wrong exegesis, my misunderstandings of Scripture, the doubt I have that I have all parts of doctrine perfectly correct, STILL I am sure and confident that Christ has died for me and His resurrection is the promise for me to live.
    Now, obviously the Gospel has some content. We have a confession about who Jesus is that is important–but it is pretty minimal. You don’t have to have all doctrines correct and right–you just look to Christ.
    This is why Luther questions the Roman Catholic church. They are teaching concepts that cut directly against the Gospel.
    This is why Paul goes nuts about the Galatians. Because their attacks are directly upon the Gospel.
    That is why our church body makes a clear distinction about the Mormons–a church body that claims Christ, but is in fact not teaching Christ crucified.
    But Luther and Paul both allowed that those who teach wrongly, who hold things wrongly, who doubt and have insecurity, are saved from their sins–because they hold to the Gospel. That is our comfort.
    I suppose some will see this as Gospel reductionism, but as a quick counter for that, I’m not running all my theology through this–what I am saying is that if you want to know where the revealed, visible church is, look for where the Gospel is proclaimed.
    Where the Gospel is, there the church is.

  18. Mark Louderback
    February 20th, 2006 at 11:29 | #18

    I would like to respond to a few statements now:
    Dr Sonntag says “God’s word has to be pure for us to have certainty that it really is from God’s mouth (Is. 55:11!).”
    That is not my point and not pertinent to the discussion.
    My point is, if what you are hearing is NOT solely from God’ mouth, why do we believe that God will not act through His word–His poorly proclaimed, set next to error Word–and bring about His work?
    This has nothing to do with how God speaks–it has to do with how we mess up how God speaks–and how yet, even though we do mess up, yet His Word does not return empty.
    Then Dr Sonntag asks about the Gospel and about how it can have different meanings. Yes, that is why we distinguish between the Mormons and the Methodists. To blur the two church bodies and pretend as though the difference is slight is problematic.
    But certainly where the Gospel is undercut, there we must point and say “This is dangerous and wrong.”
    Dr Sonntag remarks:

  19. Karl Amo
    February 22nd, 2006 at 14:48 | #19

    Pastor Louderback wrote in his Feb. 20 5:29 pm post: “This has nothing to do with how God speaks–it has to do with how we mess up how God speaks–and how yet, even though we do mess up, yet His Word does not return empty.”
    Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” – Matthew 23:37-39
    “…your house is left you desolate.” – His Word did not return empty, indeed.
    Here’s an excerpt from another passage that shows that the Word of God does not return empty: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. – Hebrews 4:12 ESV
    I see a church as being falsifiable, where it no longer allows God to be God and therefore rejects the Gospel (but yet claiming, as Paul calls it, “another gospel”.) The above verses suggest that a falsified church does not cause God’s Word to return void.
    I also see a church as being verifiable, where it gives indications of being under the cross by letting God be God.
    Yet, the belief in the “holy, catholic church” is by faith. Because of our human limitations, we cannot know with certainty where this church is. I think though that we can evaluate where the church is more likely to be, and go there. May we endeavor to be part of it.

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