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Open letter—to Presiding Bishop Hanson on response to the Vatican

by Dennis Bielfeldt, (WordAlone Institute director)

July 28, 2007

Introduction to an open letter to Mark Hanson concerning his recent response to the Vatican document, "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church"

Late in the day on July 11, I (as well as thousands of other Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastors) received this from Mark Hanson, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA:

This is to inform you I have recently released a response to the Vatican Statement, "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church"; (July 10, 2007). You will find the response here.

photo of Dr. BielfeldtAfter reading what he had written, I was prompted to write the attached open letter to Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. My concern in the letter pertains to Bishop Hanson's apparent assumptions about the nature of Church, assumptions shared by many in ELCA leadership roles these days, assumptions that have driven the current ELCA ecumenical strategy and have been ultimately responsible for the adoption of documents like Called to Common Mission and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Their fundamental assumption seems to be this: The Church is primarily to be understood as a visible assembly of believers (or the baptized).

It is true, of course, that if "church" properly refers to a visible assembly of people, then it clearly has no present unity. There are Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox, Presbyterians, Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, United Methodists and literally hundreds of other church bodies. Since there are different assemblies forming different "churches," there exists the pernicious problem of disunity among Christians. Further, if we understand that the Church either "is" or "presents" the Body of Christ, then it follows that the very Body of Christ presently is fractured. Because there is a Biblical mandate for Christian unity, the ecumenical demand is seemingly clear: We must unify the fractured Body of Christ, and in so doing make witness of Christian unity to the world.

But Lutherans grounding themselves in the Augsburg Confession have always had a different understanding of "church": "To the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments." Lutherans have always known that unity already exists wherever there is agreement on these matters. Moreover, Lutherans have always known about the reality of the invisible or hidden church. (Strictly speaking, the two are not synonymous.) Accordingly, the true Church comprises those "having faith and the Holy Spirit in the heart" (Apology to the Augsburg Confession).

In this letter to Bishop Hanson, I try to state this traditional Lutheran understanding of the hidden church as the true Church. As C. F. W. Walther has said, this Church is "the aggregate of all those who, called out of the lost and condemned race by the Holy Spirit through the Word, truly believe in Christ and by faith are sanctified and incorporated in Christ" ("Thesis I" in Kirche und Amt). I point out that dogmatic Lutheran theology has traditionally claimed that the word "church" in its proper sense refers to the assembly of those justified by grace through faith. When we use the term, however, to talk about a visible assembly we are, in fact, using the word "church" in an improper sense, for now we are using it to mention an aggregate of people, only some of whom have been justified by grace through faith. Lutheran theology, as well as good Catholic theology, has always recognized that merely belonging to a visible Christian community, and participating in the rites and practices of that community, do not mean that one is justified by grace through faith, that one has "faith and the Holy Spirit in the heart," that one is a member of the true Church. In short, to be "in the community of the baptized" does not insure that one is in the Church!

For Lutherans, the unity of the Church is a hidden unity that, because of Christ, is a fait accompli. There is no need to "heal the fractured Body of Christ" because the Body of Christ is not broken. What remains for Christians already in unity in Jesus Christ is to work towards concord with other Christians. But while it may be important that Christians have concord in doctrine and understandings, such temporal agreement can never be understood as true unity. While sin will always impede human efforts at concord, the unity wrought by the Christ has wholly conquered the powers of Sin. He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Because He is risen, Christians are free in the unity already created to enter into relevant concordances. But make no mistake: Entering into such concordances has nothing to do with the reality and extension of "the Church," nor the presence of the Body of Christ within it.

July 11, 2007

Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
8765 Higgins Rd.
Chicago, IL

Dear Bishop Hanson:

Grace and Peace to you in the name of the risen Lord:

I write in response to your remarks dealing with the Vatican document, "Responses to Some Questions regarding certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church." The difficulties I have with your remarks stem from the quite different understandings of the nature of "church" we possess. You construe Augsburg VII to say, "The Church is the assembly of saints . . . ," making the "is" one of identity such that this biconditional obtains: If there is the church there is the assembly of saints, and if there is the assembly of saints there is the church. The real trouble arises in your subsequent statement clearly demonstrating that you understand "the assembly of saints" in a visible way, for only a visible assembly can be such so as to allow that "our witness is wounded by the division that exists among Christians." This understanding of "church" as a visible assembly is consonant with "Responses to Some Questions," which asserts that "Christ ‘established here on earth' only one Church and instituted it as a ‘visible and spiritual community'[5], that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted." To understand the Lutheran notion of "church" along these lines is, I aver, to miss the distinctive genius of Lutheran ecclesiology.

For Lutherans, while the finite bears the infinite, the finite cannot become it. To construe "church" as a visible assembly that might achieve unity is to misunderstand the qualitative difference between time and eternity, it is, finally, to risk a transubstantiation into the infinite of the finite ecclesio-institutional activities of men and women. While Lutherans must allow that the Body of Christ is "in, with, under and beyond" temporal ecclesial structures, they cannot say that the Body of Christ is, or even in the sense of "Responses," "subsists" in these temporal ecclesial structures. To be "really present" is not to "subsist" because while the former suggests a paradoxical presence, the latter, as used in "Responses," denotes a subset relationship: The Body of Christ is a set of temporal ecclesial orderings, of which the paradigmatic element is the Roman Catholic Church. It is crucially important to understand what "Responses" mean by "subsists;" we cannot simply declare that it means what we Lutherans might want it to mean. It is a technical theological term demanding precision in its employment.

The problem of "semantic slippage" of key theological terms also makes possible your praise of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, a document that clearly does not "resolve a bitter 500-year dispute." In actual fact, this document leaves Lutherans wondering how they have reached ecumenical agreement on justification when "justification" is understood by Catholic dogmatic theology as consistent with the assumptions in the Council of Trent that after justification no sin remains. That Lutherans have always claimed that "x is justified and sin remains" displays clearly that Lutherans are not working only with a "visible" transformational notion of justification. Just as mischief arises when we claim agreement on "subsistence," so it emerges when we claim agreement on "justification." Technical theology demands precision, and precision is only possible when terms are clearly understood.

In that you remain committed to the project of visible unity with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, recall the conclusion of the just-issued "Responses" that you did not quote:

According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities [churches born out of the Reformation of the 16th century] do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called "Churches" in the proper sense.

The problem here cannot be clearer. Many Lutheran theologians and leaders no longer know, articulate or care about the central ecclesial category of the Lutheran Reformation, the notion of the hidden church. For Lutherans, unity is not something to achieve, but is already given as part of participation in the hidden community of those extended across space and time, in the community of those justified by grace through faith. It is the genius of the Lutheran ecclesial tradition that the Nicene predicates are taken not to apply to visible communities of faith, but rather to the hidden collection of those justified by grace through faith. The great orthodox Lutheran theologian Johann Wilhelm Baier said it beautifully:

. . . However the church is one partly absolutely and in itself, through the internal unity of faith in Christ, which is joined with love of God, but also love of our neighbor by an individual joining; partly exclusively and in opposition to many assemblies of the same species or plan, either coexisting or alternately succeeding to themselves.

. . . The church is properly called holy, first indeed, because its head is holy; then, because the members also are all holy both by imputed righteousness, and by inherent righteousness, however which last sanctity is imperfect.

. . . The church is and is said [to be] catholic, not in so far as it is orthodox, but as far as [it is] universal 1. of places, peoples and races, 2. with respect of persons, namely all the faithful, 3. by reason of time.

. . . Further the church is said to be apostolic, because it embraces the apostolic doctrine by faith and holds it complete.

Within the Lutheran tradition generally, "church" is predicated of external assemblies only improperly and by synecdoche [a figure of speech used to denote a whole by calling it a part: all hands on deck means all sailors on deck; or a part by the whole: the law arrived, meaning a police officer arrived]. Because there are those within the institutional church that are justified and thus members of the true church, one legitimately, but improperly, applies "church" to the visible organization by metaphorical extension. Properly, however, "church" applies only to those justified by faith in Christ.

For a Lutheran, "church" is finally what Melanchthon confesses in the Apology: "The true church is comprised of those with faith and the Holy Spirit in the heart." These justified ones are already unified. Overcoming misunderstandings among the historical church bodies is an important activity, but it can never lead to unity, for that is a gift already given by Christ to those who believe.

In Christ,
Dennis Bielfeldt, Ph.D.
Director, The WordAlone Institute of Theology