Far from the popular perception of an outraged monk inciting riot and rebellion in the church, it was on October 31, 1517 that the Rev. Martin Luther did a rather ordinary thing for a Doctor of Theology. He publicly posted 95 theological propositions or theses challenging the propriety of the church’s system of Indulgences. Luther intended to debate his theses with other church Doctors according to the prescribed format for scholarly disputation.
The Indulgence question, at its core, however, went deep. It was the scab which, when torn away, revealed systemic abuses and errors threatening Christendom’s catholicity. Luther’s theses challenged non-scriptural assumptions about church teaching that many agreed was long overdue. Ultimately at issue in the Lutheran Reformation were the evangelical (gospel) nature of salvation and the catholic character of the church.
Vincent of Lerins defined the church’s catholic character as the faith “believed everywhere, always and by all”. The catholic faith is therefore the universal faith received from the Apostles and practiced in unity to the present. Faith and worship are two sides of the same reality of God’s real presence with his church. If godly reformation were to occur, after centuries of abuse and error accreted under Roman stewardship in the West, then both doctrine and worship were in need of restoration consistent with which was handed on by the apostolic faith.
It is a Lutheran mentality to reject all that is erroneous, harmful, and disparate to the gospel in matters of faith and practice; as well as to retain developed universal practices in support of the evangel and not contrary to the norm of Scripture. Thus Lutherans of the Reformation insisted on retaining the church’s restored liturgical traditions, orders, and ceremonies, especially in what our Lutheran Confessions call the “Mass”. It is in the Mass, i.e., the chief Liturgy of the church, whereby Christians are connected, from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day, in the substance of the gospel (which is Christ) now and with all generations. This universality of ancient belief and agreed worship over time and place is the essence of the church’s catholic character, from which Rome had diverged by infidelity to Scripture as the norm of faith.
It is in the Liturgy, the church’s common worship, where God in Christ is present with his people, delivering through the gracious means of word and sacrament, Christ’s broken body and shed blood, the substance and source of our New Testament forgiveness and on-going life. Salvation thus understood is not a private (“me and Jesus”) affair. God calls to himself a “royal priesthood”, “a holy nation”. Thus the catholic faith holds that salvation is of Christ with his bride, the church, outside of which there is no salvation.
The ancient maxim, semper reformanda ecclesia est, i.e., “the church is always being reformed”, expresses a vital reality for the on-going life of the Church. The 16th century Lutheran Reformation was not the first movement seeking to return the church to her evangelical and catholic character. As the Spirit of truth calls the church to institutional repentance (i.e., reformation) the Lutheran Church continues in her confessional faith. In every age the church has confronted persons, beliefs, false movements, and heterodox practices that compromise, marginalize, or deny the evangel, given once to the saints. Ironically the early successes of the Lutheran Reformation, in returning, from Roman errors, the pure gospel to the preached word and in the proper administration of the sacraments was also the occasion that emboldened a destructive Protestant spirit taking the church in directions beyond beneficial reformation.
If Rome had corrupted the gospel by a non-scriptural theology that led to works righteousness (exemplified by the Indulgences scheme); then the excesses of the Protestant spirit sought to radically redefine the church and her role in the salvation won by Christ. Where Lutheran Reformers sought to retain the worship handed on in the New Testament church not contrary to Scripture through its 1500 years; Protestants (of various stripes) operated from a different perspective, of literally and figuratively throwing the Babe out with the (baptismal) bath water (as well as the other sacraments).
The catholic imperative of the Lutheran Reformation comprehends Scripture in its natural context of the church’s tradition, i.e., the historic Liturgy or reformed Mass. Thus Scripture can only be rightly comprehended as it is embedded in and is proclaimed by the church’s word and sacrament ministry, drawing unbelievers to repentant faith and Baptism; and believers to the Absolution and the Lord’s Supper. This essential relationship of Word and Liturgy was torn asunder by the Protestant spirit. Protestants discarded worship practices which they could not find spelled out in the New Testament. The Protestant spirit abstracted Scripture from its liturgical moorings, thus losing the incarnation reality of God in Christ really present with his people. By this liturgical deconstruction, Scripture was consigned, in part, to functioning as proof text for the conduct of a now “optional” Liturgy. Finding no detailed description of the Church’s tradition in “Scripture-cum-textbook”, the Protestant spirit found no reason to continue the church’s historic Worship, the Mass, at least in its catholic understanding. Scripture unhinged from its historic liturgical context reduced Protestant worship to a collection of optionally more or less irrelevant forms where the mere symbols of Christianity are on display rather than the heavenly reality of the church’s raison d’être, the real presence of God in Christ in her midst by word and sacrament. “Sola Scriptura”, Luther’s battle cry, was perverted by Protestantism to being the ground of, “every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes” (Deuteronomy 12:8, Judges 17:6 and 21:25) depending on how Scripture is read independent of the community worship life.
Thus blinded, the Protestant spirit fails to comprehend a catholic Baptism from Scripture, especially John 3:5, Ephesians 5:26 and Titus 3:5; and deny its gospel essence.
Re-interpreting the church’s ancient understanding of John 20:21-23 and the Office of the Holy Ministry, the Protestant spirit shook its fist at the universal church, and proclaimed, “I will not receive forgiveness from any man (called pastor), but only from God above.” This rebellion denies the church’s identity as bride of Christ present with her and sharing all gospel authority given Him by the Father (Matthew 20:18-20). To this end our Lord established the Office of the Holy Ministry precisely that a called man stand in the congregation as Christ’s proxy (“in His place and stead”) and declare His gospel forgiveness, without qualification or condition. It was necessary that the Lutherans reform the Holy Absolution (which our Confessions call the “sacrament of Penance”) to right administration and gospel purpose against Rome’s erroneous theology of human works which required contrite souls to perform “satisfactions” already won by Christ alone. The Protestant spirit, on the other hand, altogether denies the sacramental notion that Christ (a Man) comes to us as the very fruit of the cross and resurrection by the means of his word spoken by men in the Liturgy, and called precisely to announce and sacramentally apply in pastoral care Christ’s forgiveness.
As regards the Sacrament of the Altar, the Protestant spirit by one rationale or another, continues to argue over the meaning of “is”: “This is My body” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26); in all cases denying the clear testamentary meaning of our Lord’s words about the bread and wine of His on-going Supper in the church. For the 1500 years prior, the real presence of Christ (fully Human and Divine) in the Sacrament had been the universal and essential expression of the church catholic’s faith and unity.
Both Rome and a Protestant spirit have variously marginalized and compromised this gospel, and the proper role and true meaning of the church’s Liturgy. By Roman errors, the Liturgy became a commercial enterprise trafficking in spiritual matters (Indulgences, satisfactions, sale of Masses, and re-sacrifice of our Lord by the Canon of the Mass). By a Protestant spirit, the opposite extreme was the result, in that, the Mass was denuded of the proclamation of the evangel leading to Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar as the means by which God in Christ is mercifully present for the forgiveness of sins and sustaining his people by His holiness in the communion of His flesh and blood, through which we approach our heavenly Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.
In celebrating the festival of the Reformation, it is appropriate that we Lutherans pause and take stock of our identity; recalling the high cost, to those before us, of confessing and seeking Worship in the pure gospel. Today, we increasingly observe congregations of the LCMS “worshipping” by “doing whatever is right in (their) own eyes” (i.e., various Protestant “Contemporary Worship” exercises and experiences) in utter ignorance of the tradition of Liturgy entrusted to the church, and without the agreement or concord of sister congregations. Thus rather than a unity grounded in a common faith and practice we are observing in our midst mere outward unity in being programmatically “Ablaze” for the old pietisms by the new Church Growth methods according to a Protestant (and distinctly Charismatic) spirit.
By the festival of the Reformation we rejoice in our fellowship with sister congregations celebrating the restored gift of the evangel in true catholic unity, vigilant and faithful to repentance. “Reformation” is the churchly expression of corporate repentance according to the ancient maxim, “the church is always being reformed”. In this spirit Lutherans affirm the evangel and the catholic character of the church as we pray for the life of the world and especially for our own church body, the LCMS.
22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 2008