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So what about 'church'?

By Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (South Dakota State University, WordAlone board member)

January 30, 2004

photo of Dr. Dennis BielfeldtIt all began innocently enough. We sons and daughters of the Reformation wanted to rediscover our roots within the rich tradition of Roman Catholicism. After all, we were doing and believing basically the same things as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. While we had problems with Catholic views on Mary and the saints, and quibbled on the number of sacraments, we shared so very much. Why not, then, try to share more formally the closeness that we already had theologically? It seemed like such a good idea. The idea was, in fact, so captivating that we forgot about something that really was quite different in our traditions. Indeed, we forgot about our differing understandings of the nature and being of church; we forgot about ecclesiology.

As the years since the ELCA adoption of Called to Common Mission have passed, it has become increasingly clear what the critical presuppositions generating the CCM problem really are. We are saddled with CCM because we, as the ELCA, no longer knew or prized a most precious Reformation inheritance; we no longer knew what we meant when we used the term ‘church’. Without knowing what we had meant by the term, we started to use it like many, indeed actually most, around us were using it. We began employing it to refer to a set of individuals and structural relationships that we could see; we used it to denote a set of elements and relations that had been and were visible. We now applied the term to refer to a complex empirically-discernible state of affairs, a reality of individuals in relationship to each other.

It is not as if we Lutherans consciously abandoned our ecclesiological traditions, rather, we simply forgot how the words of our tradition were once employed. In reality, we forgot how we used to interpret ecclesiological terms and predicates; we lost our distinctively Lutheran ecclesiological semantics. Hearing others talk about church, and noticing that we used phrases very much like what they uttered, we assumed that our talk was similar to their talk. We employed the same words, so we must be talking about the same thing, right? Wrong. Because we forgot how to interpret our own ecclesiological discourse, we imported a foreign semantics that distorted what we continued to say.

The great problem in the ELCA is that many of its theologians, and most of its pastors, no longer understand that theological agreement does not come about by using similar phrases in similar situations, but rather occurs in and only if one means the same thing when using similar phrases in similar situations. Every first-year logic student knows that language is merely a formal structure of strings of symbols until it is given an interpretation. Uninterpreted language does not mean anything; it does not say anything. Only when language is provided an interpretation can its statements have a truth-value. Every first-year logic student realizes that the truth and falsity of simple sentences is a function of a prescribed interpretation. Simply put, the truth and falsity of statements in which the term ‘church’ is used is a function of the interpretation given the terms and predicates of those statements. Changing the interpretation of a term or predicate in a sentence can change the truth-value of that sentence. Simply put, when the reference of ‘church’ is changed, sentences in which ‘church’ occurs can take different truth-values.

The issue is that when Catholics and Anglicans use the term ‘church’, they refer primarily to a visible reality, an “organic unity” constituted by people having specific functions within an empirically-discernible institution. When Catholics and Anglicans use ‘church’ they refer to a visible structure extended both in time and space. ‘Bob is a member of the Church’ if and only if there is some individual Bob who is an element of a set of individuals together with all the ordered relations among these individuals.

For Lutherans, however, things are different – or at least they have been different historically. Lutherans have always spoken about a hidden church, a church that is not, strictly speaking, an institution at all. For Lutherans, the term ‘church’ primarily refers to the set of all those having ‘faith and Holy Spirit in the heart’ (Article IV, Apology). Accordingly, Bob is a member of the church if and only if he has the monadic properties of having faith and having the Holy Spirit. This set is constituted solely by individuals. All and only those are members who have faith and the Holy Spirit. To be a member of this set, it is not necessary that one be a member of a set in which there are individuals in structured relationship with others. Membership in the hidden church is entirely a vertical affair.

The traditional properties specified in the Nicene Creed of unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity are, for Lutherans, attributable only to the hidden church. It was this way within the movement known as Lutheran orthodoxy, and it remains so today. They are, strictly speaking, second-order properties, properties of the properties of having faith and Holy Spirit in the heart. Just as there can be no red without color, there cannot be faith and the Holy Spirit without unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. These four traditional church-making properties are employed by Lutherans differently than by Catholics and Anglicans. Sentences containing these terms make different claims in the different traditions. To not pay attention to this is to fall into insuperable semantic confusion.

The Lutheran understanding is that this true, hidden church shows itself visibly when believers gather around Word and sacrament. Those with faith and Holy Spirit in the heart have necessarily the disposition to gather around Word and sacrament, that is, if they were not so inclined to gather around Word and sacrament, they would not have faith and Holy Spirit in the heart. Of course, Lutherans have always admitted that many who gather around Word and sacrament are not members of the hidden church. One can visibly gather for different motivations, e.g., selling life insurance, making real-estate contacts, meeting friends, etc. Thus, the visible church, for Lutherans, is a superset of the hidden church. While the hidden church is manifest in the visible church, many, perhaps most, in the visible church are not members of the hidden church.

All of this is to say what many have sensed for some time. In ecumenical discussions confessional Lutherans sometimes feel like all the right words are said, but nothing that was once meant is still meant. Because Lutherans forgot and/or ignored their own ecclesiological semantics, they started to believe that they could apply the traditional term ‘unity’ to states of affairs beyond that of the gospel being preached in its purity and the sacrament being rightly administered (Article VII, Augsburg Confession). Instead of church unity occurring just in case the state of affairs obtained of the gospel being preached in its purity and the sacrament rightly administered, ‘unity’ now was thought to apply to situations of institutional unity where ecclesiastical unity obtained or was signed as obtaining. Because Lutherans forgot their distinctive ecclesiological semantics, issues like that which the adoption of the historic episcopate was supposed to solve could now arise.

WordAlone pays close attention to the semantic field of confessional Lutheran theology and is committed to retaining that field. The condition for the possibility of remaining within or altering a tradition, is for there to be a tradition presupposed to remain within or alter. The condition for the possibility of a common tradition is for language to have a constant and common interpretation. Without this all is chaos, and we have had chaos enough.