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Where is the Church?

November 17th, 2006
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Swap around a few words in this post and we have here a thoroughly Biblical retort also to Eastern Orthodoxy’s effort to make certainty of the Holy Spirit’s work coterminus with their communion And these comments lay to rest any notion that we Lutherans claim to be the alone-saving Church! A point apparently which even some Lutheran pastors seem a bit confused about, for when they hear that the Lutheran Church alone teaches the Gospel in its truth and purity [which is true!] they assume this must also mean that a person is declaring the Lutheran Chuch to be the alone-saving Church [which is not true!]. Thanks to Pastor Weedon for encouraging me to post this on my blog site.

To this day the papists seek to keep the people with their Church by telling them: “You know that we are the true Church. No matter what the Church teaches, if you want to be a true disciple of Christ, you must hear the Church. If the Pope decrees that he is infallible, or that Mary was conceived without sin, or that the saints must be adored, you must accept these dogmas. The true Church has set up these dogmas, and it cannot err. If you fall away from the Roman Catholic Church, you fall away from the true Church.” This is the bait with which they hook the people.

Luther continues: “When I had disproved all the arguments against me
with Scripture and thus overcome them, I scarcely succeeded, by the
grace of Christ, in overcoming, with great anxiety, trouble, and labor,
this one final argument, that I must hear the Church. For with all my
heart I was much more in earnest and much more reverent in regarding
the Pope’s Church as the true Church than these abominable and
blasphemous perverters, who are now opposing me boastfully with the
Pope’s Church. If I had despised the Pope as those despise him nowadays
who are praising him highly with their lips, I should have been afraid
to see the earth open and devour me as it did Korah and his mob.”

Luther had already discovered the untenableness of nearly every
papistic teaching, except this one point, which, he says, troubled him
greatly at the beginning and kept him from becoming really assured of
the truth and being cheerful. The papists themselves cooked [Page 343]
the soup which they had to eat later. God’s hour had come for revealing
the Antichrist.

May God keep you from becoming entangled with this false teaching
concerning the Church, viz., that the Lutheran Church is the true
visible Church of Jesus Christ in the sense that one can be saved only
in this Church! The Lutheran Church is indeed the true visible Church;
however, only in this sense, that it has the pure, unadulterated truth.
As soon as you add the qualification “alone-saving” to the Lutheran
Church, you detract from the doctrine of justification by grace through
faith in Jesus Christ and confound Law and Gospel. May God keep you
from this error for the sake of your own soul and those that will be
entrusted to your care!

Walther, Law and Gospel, p. 342

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Categories: Eastern Orthodoxy
  1. Bill Kerner
    November 17th, 2006 at 14:42 | #1

    Thank you for writing this post, because it brings up a related question I have debated on the blogosphere, and on which I would like some instruction.
    When we say “the Lutheran Church” what do we rightly mean by that? Frankly, I have gone round and round with Fr. Hogg on this question, for (as you know) he says there is no “Lutheran Church”. And, this is a big deal to him.
    In our discussion, I argued that the “Lutheran Church” is similar to the universal Church described in the Lutheran Confessions. As you know, Lutherans recognize the universal Church (some might call it “the invisible Church” although I am not sure that’s a very good way to describe it). There are detailed explanations of the universal Church in the Apology, and Luther discusses the meaning of the “holy catholic church, the communion of saints” in the Large Catechism re the 3rd Article of the Apostles’ Creed. What it comes down to is that the “Church” is wherever believers come together in faith to preach/hear the Word and administer/receive the sacraments. But the Apology goes on to state that there will always be wicked people and hypocrites among the faithful. The conclusion I drew was that there will never be any organization that can acurately claim to be THE Church outside of which there is no salvation, and further there is no organization in which can claim that everyone in it is saved.
    I also think that the “Lutheran Church” is similar to the universal Church. That is, it exists wherever the Christians gathering around the Word and sacraments (the universal Church) also recognize the Lutheran Confessions as authoritative and as a correct exposition of the doctrines of Scripture. Lutherans, like Christians, are (I think) scattered here and there in the world. I believe there are a number of Synods in the United States that fit this description (including the LCMS), and there are probably some in Europe and elsewhere as well. But, I know of no Synod or other Lutheran “trans-parish” body that claims to be the only True Lutheran Church, outside of which there are no Lutherans.
    I think for Fr. Hogg and others who have become Eastern Orthodox, having a temporal (they would claim that it’s not really temporal) organization that can be called “THE Church” is of paramount importance. I think this concept is one of the things that is so important that they are willing to forsake the Lutheran Confessions for it.
    If I have misstated Fr. Hogg’s position, I don’t mean to, but I think this is one of the big differences between those of us who leave to become Eastern Orthodox, and those of us who stay. Do you agree? Or, is there more to it?

  2. Holger Sonntag
    November 18th, 2006 at 14:31 | #2

    If I take AC VII as my point of departure, then I have to conclude that the church, strictly defined, is the assembly of believers gathered around the word rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered according to the gospel. This church, according to that article, has the glorious promise to remain forever.
    The church in the narrow sense is thus not a “platonic republic,” some ideal community that only exists in our minds. It seems that if the error of the papists consists in putting too much emphasis on the visible church, Lutherans, especially “under the influence” of unlutheran thinking, can easily place to much emphasis on “faith in the heart”, with the result of the church’s total evaporation into inwardness.
    The genius of Melanchthon’s definition of the church is that it ties the “invisible” church and the “visible” one together. He doesn’t first talk about the invisible church and then lowers himself to talk about that imperfect entity we call the visible church. No, he addresses them both in one sentence: the church is the assembly of believers gathered around the word purely preached and the sacraments administered accordingly. These qualifications are important — only this church gathered around the *pure* word (the bible rightly understood and preached) and the *pure* sacraments (the sacraments rightly used and taught) has God’s promise that the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. If we apply this promise only to the invisible church, and then right away add that there are believers in other communions too, then right doctrine does have no promise of permanency — in other words: in our struggle for pure doctrine we’re on our own. Then pure doctrine is a neat add-on we may or may not have, but it’s kind of fallen out of the definition of the church.
    Now, are there believers in other communions, that is, in churches that persistently teach error? We can’t deny that, I think, even though the classic proof texts (1 Cor., Gal.), in my mind, don’t readily apply: was the church in Corinth and Galatia really one that *persistently* taught error? I don’t think so — they weren’t perfect, but persistent in error? Paul caught them before that happened, not?
    Melanchthon, in later years, admitted that where there is genuine baptism, there are also Christians, even though the rest of teaching might be corrupt. And Luther said that baptism works till folks are seven years. I take away from this that when we move away from the word *purely* taught and the sacraments *rightly* administered, there’s not much we can say with any degree of certainty. We rely mostly, it seems, on the notion of felicitous inconsistency (people say/hear one thing and believe another).
    Luther, we remember, also had this funny notion, throughout his career, that God’s word doesn’t have parts. You mess up in one place, the whole thing is messed up — this is how God’s word becomes man’s word. It’s all a matter of interpretation, rightly (or wrongly) understanding it. As Rob. Preus points out, in his first volume on Post-Reformation Lutheranism (p. 267f.), Lutheran dogmaticians placed great emphasis on the distinction between the formal and material aspect of the word (not to be confused with the (more recent?) formal / material principle): the material aspect are the letter, syllables, bare words of Scripture; the formal aspect is the meaning of the Scriptures. In other words, both letters and (one) meaning residing in the letter are inspired by God, the latter obviously being the more important aspect of the deal (this is why we, unlike certain Reformed, believe that sermons, creeds are God’s word even if they use different words than the ones given in the bible). The meaning matters most. Following this line of thinking, having Scripture readings in church doesn’t necessarily mean that God’s word is there to create saving faith (AC IV-V).
    So, my take on this whole debate would be: let’s not neglect outward things (primarily true doctrine) and let’s not be too ready to spiritualize the church. The Lutheran confessions have directed us accordingly: the church is neither (primarily) a political organization nor a platonic idea. It is, first and foremost, the assembly of blievers gathered around the pure word and sacraments.

  3. Erich Heidenreich
    November 19th, 2006 at 12:17 | #3

    FC SD XI on Predestination:
    This article also affords a glorious testimony that the Church of God will exist and abide in opposition to all the gates of hell, and likewise teaches which is the true Church of God, lest we be offended by the great authority [and majestic appearance] of the false Church, Rom. 9, 24. 25.

  4. Rick
    November 21st, 2006 at 12:55 | #4

    I definitely relate to Luther when he felt that Scripture disproved Rome’s arguments against him, but he was scared that what if Rome really is THE Church and he must listen to her. I still struggle with this today.

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