December 15, 2017

“The Church’s Richest Jewels”

Lord’s Prayer, Cranach (detail)

In 1539, late in his career, Martin Luther wrote “On the Councils and the Church.” One avenue for reformation that Luther and others had regularly called for was a church council. Over the course of time, however, Luther became disillusioned that a “free, Christian council” could be convened that would properly reform the church and the papacy. In fact, as time went on, it became apparent that any church council would probably condemn the reformers rather than the Roman church.

On a previous occasion, we ran a post sketching Martin Luther’s “marks of the church” laid out in this treatise. Today I will quote a precious passage from this work, which sets forth Luther’s conclusion that the primary way God preserves his church is not through big actions like convening councils, but through the daily faithful work of pastors and those who educate our children.

Here is yet another reminder that our God is not in the wind, fire, or earthquake, but in the quiet speaking of his word, the simple faith of his people, and good works of love toward our neighbors.

But in this empire of the church, the rule is, “The word of our God will stand for ever” (Isa. 40:8). One has to live according to it and refrain from creating new or different words of God and from establishing new and different articles of faith. That is why pastors and schoolteachers are the lowly, but daily, permanent, eternal judges who anathematize without interruption, that is, fend off the devil and his raging. A council, being a great judge, must make old, great rascals pious or kill them, but it cannot produce any others. A pastor and schoolteacher deal with small, young rascals and constantly train new people to become bishops and councils, whenever it is necessary. A council prunes the large limbs from the tree or extirpates evil trees. But a pastor and a schoolteacher plant and cultivate young trees and useful shrubs in the garden. Oh, they have a precious office and task, and they are the church’s richest jewels; they preserve the church. Therefore all the lords should do their part to preserve pastors and schools. For if indeed we cannot have councils, the parishes and schools, small though they are, are eternal and useful councils. (emphasis mine)

Comments

  1. Not to be “that guy,” because what Luther says here is quite true in the sense that those who teach children have a great task, vitally important to the Church.

    But Luther also said that Church Councils have erred. Which means God doesn’t protect them from error. And popes have erred, and in fact no person or council or group is protected from error by God. Which leaves us with the difficult question of what, exactly, we are supposed to teach our children about what is and is not divine revelation.

    So we have the situation today where tons of denominations exist, teaching mutually exclusive things to children, indoctrinating them into various truths mixed with various errors. I doubt Luther would be pleased with Jehovah’s Witnesses teachers instructing children in JW theology, or Baptist teachers instructing children in Baptist theology, and so on. Thus, teachers of children do not “preserve the Church” in Luther’s full sense of the phrase if they are teaching errors to the children.

    • > Not to be “that guy,”

      You get to be him, I didn’t post pretty much the same thing because I didn’t want to be him.

      With the powerful advantage of long hindsight most of the reformers, and certainly Luther, desperately needed a few courses in organizational behavior.

      There will be, and are, lots of defenders of them who will use pious lines about ‘God’s will and action’ but so many efforts just ended up flubbed in drearily predictable ways, and with equally dreary conclusions [including the myriad of denominations].

      I don’t want to sound dismissive of “God’s will”, and am not, but, man, there is also just not being a chucklehead. Scripture also advocates wisdom, and humans and their institutions behave in dreadfully predictable ways.

      Luther was a genius and a gifted author and theologian. Would he be pleased with how it played out? And with the dozens and dozens of micro-reformations [aka further splintering] that have followed. It turned out to be a lousy model.

    • It’s not a problem with institutions, it’s a problem with disagreement over doctrine. Denominations are just the effect in the world of having disagreement over doctrine, which is the core problem.

      Why do people disgree on doctrine? As a conservative Lutheran, I’d say folks let other concerns have priority over Scripture, and the direction one goes depends on the non-Scriptural set of beliefs str given priority over Scripture, whether rationalism, mysticism, moralism, church institutionalism, tradition, post-modernism, etc.

      One has these strains pulling within every denomination. For example, within Catholicism, what catholic doctrine does one teach? Liberal social justice Catholicism (moralism and rationalism), charismatic Catholicism (mysticism), SSPX Catholicism (traditionalism), conservatve-follow-whatever-the-church-says-today Catholicism (institutionalism), or cultural (go to mass and do whatever else you want) Catholicism (worldliness justifiied though postmodernism )? Within every denomination, you have the same camps opposing each other on various doctrines.

      So for Luther, what is taught is Sola Scriptura, elevating Scripture over every other source of wisdom or basis for knowledge, which clears the way for simple, justififying faith.

      • > It’s not a problem with institutions, it’s a problem with disagreement over doctrine.

        And then you subsequently list an institution that manages to contain a wide spectrum of practices and nuances on that dogma. And there is the byzantine tradition that remains in communion with the Catholic church [in addition to the commonly recognized Latin tradition].

        I disagree, I believe it is primarily an institutional problem.

        > Why do people disgree on doctrine? As a conservative Lutheran, I’d say folks let other
        > concerns have priority over Scripture

        So then everyone you disagree with is renouncing or demoting Scripture? This certainly draws a very recognizable portrait of protestantism.

        > So for Luther, what is taught is Sola Scriptura, elevating Scripture over every other
        > source of wisdom or basis for knowledge, which clears the way for simple, justififying faith

        Yes, I know. But whose evaluation of Scripture? How do you answer the college freshman at bible college who just figured out what a passage means over and against all the knowledge of the scholars who came before him? I believe in the Scriptures – including their advice of charity toward others and the seeking the council of many advisors, and of patience. I do not agree with the renouncing as categorically inferior other sources of knowledge when those sources have direct bearing on a subject that scripture does not address directly. Personally I do not accept the notion of “Sola Scriptura” because I believe it is simply impossible; you are always drawing on something else ‘in-addition’. “Sola Scriptura” becomes a bludgeon and I’ve watched it end innumerable conversations between all well-intentioned and genuine participants.

        • Catholics claim unity in one institution, but it is in no way uniform, as noted. And it is not a big tent, as you admit, Catholicism refuses to include Lutherans or a host of other denominations. Lutherans did not leave, they were excommunicated and anathematized, not to mention the martyrs or wars.

          “So then everyone you disagree with is renouncing or demoting Scripture?

          While I would say there are many questions Scripture leaves open and unanswered, yes, that’s right. That’s not so hard to say when so many people claim Scripture is erroneous or subject to some additional authority. Scripture should be a bludgeon to those who add to subtract from it. What other bludgeon would you propose? Science? Tradition? Institutional decisions? Somebody’s private revelations? By which standard do you choose among those? Which institutional church? Whose private revelations? Scripture is the standard because it is Christ’s teaching.

          “But whose evaluation of Scripture? How do you answer the college freshman at bible college who just figured out what a passage means over and against all the knowledge of the scholars.”

          You have the same problem regardless. If you say the church’s evaluation holds, then whose evaluation of church teaching do I defer to? What do you tell a college freshman that figured out what church teaching means against previous interpreters of the Magisterium?

          At some point, an individual makes his own evaluation, regardless of how many authorities you put between the individual and Scripture.

    • Devin, Luther provided for pastors, parents, and teachers as well as praising them. He considered his catechisms to be his most important works.

      • Chaplain Mike,

        But his catechisms are not protected by God from error, as even he would have admitted I’m sure. So they offer nothing more than Luther’s opinion about divine revelation. Much like Calvin’s Institutes.

        So we have, in a sense, the blind leading the blind, if God protects no person or group or council from error.

        • Devin, the fact is that all branches of Christian faith DO have errors. IMO it should be pretty apparent to anyone who looks at history with any kind of objectivity that the condition of the Roman church and the papacy in the late Medieval period was rife with corruption and error, and at times, the church could not even decide who was the rightful pontiff. And I would never defend everything that Luther said either, much less the cacophonous multitude of teachings that have sprung up in the wake of the Reformation. Instead, I myself would come back to Paul: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:5). In the final analysis, this is Luther’s message and the teaching of his catechisms and that of the Catholic church. On this foundation we are one in Christ.

          The Roman church has come a long way in reconciling itself to Luther, and many Protestant groups are much more open to Catholic teachings and practices. I am pleased, for example, about the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which concludes with these words, “We give thanks to the Lord for this decisive step forward on the way to overcoming the division of the church. We ask the Holy Spirit to lead us further toward that visible unity which is Christ’s will.” This is my prayer, too.

          • I would add, however, that despite the truly evil and corrupt men who sat in the Chair of Peter at some time or another, an error in True DOCTRINE was never issued from any of those Popes….the good, the bad, and the indifferent.

  2. God is not in the wind, fire, or earthquake, but in the quiet speaking of his word, the simple faith of his people, and good works of love toward our neighbors.

    Chaplin Mike…I can’t tell you how re-assuring this must be for those in the path of Sandy. I’m as ready as I can be for this Hurricane and on WTOP they are telling us we will lose power sometime over the next few hours. I ran my last errands a couple of hours ago and I can’t believe the wind gusts I am seeing in the Northern Virginia area. For the sake of many I hope someone won’t pop up to declare “the theological reason” for this hurricane. It drives me nuts that there are people who profit off the suffering of others

    But can I ask the I Monk community to pray for all people in the path of this Hurricane?

    Thanks I love you guys!!! 🙂

  3. Luther actually believed that the Word would do to people what it set out to do.

    That the law and the gospel would create repentance in people and then by a Spirit given faith, give people new life and create them anew…over and over and over again.

    He believed proper teaching of these biblical truths to be essential to avoiding all the mischief of a self-focused, cooperative salvation and sanctification project, spearheaded by the clergy. So that the freedom from these pride or despair creating projects could liberate the Christians for the neighbor, and for rest and assurance in the finished work of Christ.

  4. But it seems like part of the splintering and doctrining that some here have mentioned occurs when people, churches, or denominations move from asking “what does God’s word say”? to “what does God’s word mean”? Sure, there is the basic interpretive level of human communication, but even a two year old is pretty good with that. Often, “interpreting” the Bible is just an excuse to find one’s pet *whatever* in the Bible.