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The Wisdom of the Church

by Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (WordAlone board member; Professor, South Dakota State University, Brookings, SD)

News: May 24, 2005

The new Pope brings exceptional theological skills to the highest office within western Christendom. Ratzinger is clearly a Pope who will defend the doctrine of the Catholic Church. photo of Dr. BielfeldtRecently, he claimed that, in matters of faith, it simply is his duty to obey. In fact, he claims to assume that "the Church is wiser than he is." While most Protestants are uneasy with these sentiments, I applaud Pope Benedict XVI for his candor. After all, it makes theological sense for a Catholic to say these things.

The Catholic Church has a long and rich theological heritage, and the richness of this tradition should disquiet all who seek to change or negate it. For Catholics, the Church is, and should be, wiser than any member or teacher within it. Because the tradition is presumed to be true, a teaching magisterium based on that tradition exists to sniff out heretical error. Clearly, it makes sense to defer to the wisdom of the Church if you are Catholic.

This is, however, not so for Lutherans. While Lutherans have confessions, they do not possess an institutional, normative, ecclesial teaching authority parallel to the Catholic magisterium. Lutherans simply have no one to keep Lutheran teaching pure. When the winds of change blow, traditional interpretations of the Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions are easily exchanged for those having perceived social and cultural relevance. Theologians with differing hermeneutical stances arrive at quite different readings. It is all very messy.

Perhaps Lutherans enamored of Rome wish they too could say that their church is wiser than they. Unfortunately, this is not possible, for Lutherans simply do not understand "church" in the same way as Catholics. While Catholic doctrine and law exist regardless of the number of individual Catholics holding these doctrines and laws, the individual opinions of Lutherans can and do affect official teachings of Lutheran churches. Because Lutherans have multivalent readings of Scripture and Confessions, Lutheran teaching varies to a greater degree than Catholic teaching. While it makes sense to say, "The Roman Catholic Church teaches 'p,' even if its leading theologians and members no longer believe it," it is problematic to claim, "The Lutheran Church teaches 'p' though the teachers and members of the church reject it."

While Roman Catholic social policy can be deduced from church doctrine and law apart from the views of the individual Catholics in the pews, Lutheran social policy must, finally, be a reflection of the views of individual Lutherans whose consciences are supposedly bound by Scripture and Confession. While a Lutheran could perhaps defer to Scripture and the Confessions as "wiser than she," she would also need to defer to a particular hermeneutic on Scripture and the Confessions as the correct one. Furthermore, while she might acknowledge that the traditional hermeneutic is proper, she would still have to justify its propriety without appeal to ecclesiastical authority. But in absence of ecclesiastical authority, upon what ground arises this choice of an appropriate hermeneutic? Does she simply pick the one that "seems" to be right?

For Lutherans, the visible church gathers around Word and Sacrament. Its social policy statements are not deductions from a normative doctrine of faith, but are a collective expression of those persons gathering around Word and Sacrament. There is no Church in the Catholic sense to have an opinion, an intent or a theological position. There are only individuals who can have these things.

Lutherans hold (or should hold) an ecclesiastical "class nominalism": The true church is the association of those with faith and Holy Spirit in the heart (Apology, Art. VII). Logicians would say that C (the church) = {x | x is a person & x has faith and Holy Spirit in the heart}. This makes it very clear that the real church is reducible to individuals having the dyadic [dual] properties of having the Holy Spirit and faith in the heart. All expressions such as "the Church believes," "the Church teaches," "the Church confesses," must be given a primary analysis in terms of individuals teaching, believing and confessing. There is no church qua church in the same way as the U.S. Federal Government qua Federal Government.

For Lutherans, the visible church is the hidden church as it gathers around Word and Sacrament. "Church" only can be improperly predicated of the visible church because only some members of the visible church really are members of the hidden church. Lutheran Orthodoxy understood that "church" could be predicated of this visible association only by synechdoche, that is, only by a figure of speech where a word is applied to the whole of a thing because it can properly be applied to a part of the thing. "Church" can properly be applied only to the hidden church subsection of the whole visible church. The visible church contains no ecclesial being above and beyond that afforded to the hidden church, and thus no being above and beyond that of individual members.

Much of the confusion in the present Lutheran ecumenical context derives from different understandings about the nature of "church." For Catholics the church has independent ontological status apart from those who comprise it. It is real. Just as whiteness is in (or instantiatable in) each and every white thing, so too is church in (or instantiatable in) each and every Catholic ecclesial institution and activity.

But this is not so for Lutherans. Lutherans have not usually believed that the church was a real thing that could be instantiated in different ecclesial institutions and activities. To think that the church is a thing apart from its instantiations is to be guilty of a pernicious category mistake. Just as a parade is not more than the floats, bands and horses comprising it, and just as the team spirit is not more than the a particular set of activities, events and dispositions of a group of players, so too is the visible church no more than the activities of people and the congregational actions of which they are part. I speak here of a truly Lutheran deflationary ecclesiology.

Philosophers are wont to speak of the problem of universals and particulars. Do universals exist apart from the particulars in which they are instantiated? Does whiteness exist? Those holding that universals can exist either apart from particulars, or somehow in and through those particulars, are realists in their ontology. The Catholic tradition is realist in its ecclesiology.

Those holding, on the other hand, that only particulars exist, and universals are somehow abstractions from the concrete reality of particulars, are nominalists in their ecclesiology. My claim is that Lutherans are, or should properly be, nominalist in their ecclesiology.

In regard to ecumenical endeavors, this understanding makes all the difference in the world. The Lutheran Church can no more sustain causal relations with other things than whiteness, parades or team spirits can. (Only concrete entities can be the relata of causal relations.) The Lutheran church can have no position that is not finally an expression of individual Lutherans bound by their reading of Scripture and the Confessions. There is no transcongregational "church" with which to enter into causal connection. Lutherans cannot say that the "church is wiser than they" for there is no church apart from the set of those "with faith and Holy Spirit in the heart" of which they are part. While Lutherans can be normed by particular confessions, they cannot be normed by the abstraction known as "church."