“Making Christ Known: Alive in Our Heritage and Hope,” was the theme for the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which met in Philadelphia, August 14-20, 1997. Ecumenical issues dominated the proceedings, with the focus on three major decisions: (1) the Formula of Agreement with the three churches of the Reformed tradition; (2) the Concordat of Agreement, with the Episcopal Church; and finally, (3) the Joint Declaration between Lutherans and Catholics.
C. Fields once wise-cracked about what he wanted on his gravestone: “On the whole I would rather be in Philadelphia.” I offer some musings on the Philadelphia Assembly, even though I was not there in person and I look at the events through the lens of history rather than experience. I believe the ELCA in assembly has adopted a commitment to and style of ecumenism which is acculturated American Protestantism (Kulturprotestantism). Rather than an Evangelical Catholic ecumenism which affirms the Lutheran confessional heritage and hope, the ELCA’s posture (as expressed in the actions of the assembly, not necessarily in the documents—such as Ecumenism: The Vision of the ELCA) draws from mainline American Protestant principles of consensus. I offer in this article some rumination and musings on the long road which leads us to this moment in our heritage and hope.
Musing on Two Moments Before Philadelphia, 1997
If we are ever to understand the Philadelphia Assembly, we must think long and hard about two important moments in American Lutheran history, both of which indicate how deep and abiding is the American element and how tenuous and fractured the Lutheran. Historically speaking, the struggle over what it means to be Lutheran and American traces itself back to the 1830s through the late 1850s and Samuel Simon Schmucker, head of the Gettysburg Seminary, who offered the first “ecumenical proposal” in his American Recension of the Augsburg Confession (1855). Schmucker basically said that the Lutheran Reformation had to be stripped of all Catholic trappings which were still forms of Popish error—Private Confession and Absolution, the Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, the retention of the Mass, and baptismal regeneration.
The pattern of the debate in last year’s Philadelphia Assembly is all there in Schmucker’s proposal. The “Catholic substance” of the Church needs to be refined out so that the Evangelical and Protestant pure gold will remain; this was Schmucker’s contention. He proposed language that avoided talking about anything like the “real presence” in the Lord’s Supper. Needless to say, he sparked a crisis in American Lutheranism that is still being played out. David A. Gustafston, in Lutherans in Crisis: The Question of Identity in the American Republic (Fortress Press, 1993) describes Schmucker’s proposal in the context of religious identity in Protestant America.
Another moment of crisis came almost eighty years after Schmucker when a German Lutheran who came to America in the late 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was critical of the Kulturprotestantismus in its ugly form under Hitler, as well as its tamer form in America. Bonhoeffer spoke of the need for ecumenism to take its life from confessing Christ. Bonhoeffer saw the American Protestant churches as being sub-Protestant it their understanding of justification by faith and sub-Catholic in their doctrine of the Church. In his Lutheran reading of ecumenism he advocated a more countercultural and sacramental understanding of the Church, especially in his efforts to renew the practice of confession and absolution. The priest who declares forgiveness is the “real presence” of Christ to the penitent sinner. Bonhoeffer, in great contrast with Schmucker, expressed dismay that the Protestant churches of America still seemed to have no living links to the Reformation, lacking a coordinated christology and ecclesiology. American Protestants, he noted, emphasized the process of human transformation—such as the social gospel, world missionary evangelization, and voluntary renewal—rather than the content of Christ’s life informing the vocation of the individual Christian and the community of the Church. Confessing Christ makes Christ’s “real presence” in and for the world. Evangelical Bishops were thus not a theological problem for the Lutheran Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer along with other confessing Christians, and especially the Bishops of Germany, were the exception to other ecumenical and state church groups who acquiesced under Hitler. For Bonhoeffer confessing Christ is a political act, but not one that politicizes the church. On the other hand, a Kulturprotestantismus confuses the world with the Church, and the law with the Gospel. The identity of the Church is not a question of power, but of the theology.
In Bonhoeffer we have a strong counter-point to Schmucker. The key differences in how we assess the events of Philadelphia are attributable to perspective, and nothing draws the comparison more than these two assessments of American Protestantism. What one side calls chaos and loss of unity, the other side sees as reconciled diversity. All the elements are there to compare: the democratic versus sacramental structure of the Church; the authority and identity of the pastor in absolution versus those who submit to no human authority and view the sacraments as “visual aids”; the church as a confessing of Christ in good times and bad versus the indifference to visible unity in the Church; the key and central role of evangelical and episcopal oversight and teaching office of the ordained ministry versus the organizational principles of inclusivity, bureaucracy, and so on.
The question arises when we muse on the long road leading up to Philadelphia 1997: Is the ELCA closer to Schmucker’s or Bonhoeffer’s reading of Lutheran ecumenical identity? Are we so focussed on providing for theological variation and exploration in our quest for Lutheran ecumenism, what I would call the voluntaristic pole of Protestant identity, that we are willing to abandon or to compromise the sacramental structure of the Church and faith?
Optimism Rather than Heritage and Hope
Why were all the ecumenical proposals considered at once? My take on this is that church planners acted out of American optimism rather than confessional integrity and modesty! The Philadelphia Assembly, combined these three proposals into a kind of two-for-one sale (the Concordat of Agreement and the Formula of Agreement), with a bonus (Declaration on Justification) thrown in. It is a market mentality at work. The jam-packed agenda was a theological and confessional overload, characterized by great optimism in the bandwagon effect rather than heritage and hope of Scriptural and Confessional understanding. The surrender to the culture occurred already in setting the agenda for this assembly in Philadelphia and goes back to the acceptance of “Ecumenism: The Vision of the ELCA” in 1991. That document supported the notion that it is possible to reach out in various directions for Christian unity all at once. The document excels when it refers to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, but it confuses the ecumenical vision when it refers to the ELCA constitutional principles of inclusivity and representation. These latter references make no connection to the confessing of Christ, but are instead borrowed from the political and cultural principles which are current in the world. They are the source of the optimism common among liberal American Protestants, people who are prone to a kind of “Ecclesiastical Fundamentalism” in their belief that once the church meets its quotas and shares power, then the Church will really be renewed and united.
Such protean efforts are typical of our American context where the first generation of lay ecumenical leaders, such men as John R. Mott, Robert Speer and Charles Henry Brent, came into their own vocation seeking Christian unity in the Progressive Era of this nation. American ecumenists were men and women who understood themselves as missionary conquerors of the world. Much good came from their vision and effort, and I am by no means dismissing their witness. For an excellent critique of this language read Douglas John Hall’s books on stewardship and a theology of the cross for North America! Optimists all, the Protestant ecumenists claimed that singleness of missionary hearts would “evangelize the world in this generation” and sincerity of their social vision would bring moral and communal renewal. Evangelizing the world in “this generation” meant the same as civilizing the world, making it safe for Christianity, democracy, and the Kingdom of God. Bearing the gift of civility and diplomacy to the Church, they were going to save the Church from its divisive doctrine and authoritarianism (“Doctrine divides, service unites,” was their motto). They favored federal unions of churches and the more voluntaristic forms of Christian unity. Both clergy and laity, these ecumenical folk, most of them also supporters of the Social Gospel, applied the best of secular political models and cultural statesmanship, convinced that in this way the Church would follow the new form of world Christian leadership.
The immodesty of our ELCA agenda, the decision to advance in all directions simultaneously, reflects our acculturated optimism, rather than our Biblical and Confessional roots. Of course, the Declaration on Justification was a bonus coupon rather than the main thing at the assembly. That which got the juices flowing were the two “full communion” proposals. The indifference and lack of attention to the Declaration on Justification indicate to me that we have turned our back on the Reformation vocation of healing the breach with the Roman Catholic Church. The struggle which touches our identity is the perceived choice between an Episcopal and a Reformed view of the Church. In this, I believe we do “tilt” to the Reformed! We have joined the American Protestant culture which has focused on models of unity and reform rather than the Scriptural and Confessional norms of faith and life.
Choosing the Two Party System
American models of Church unity exact a price. The American system of consensus is devoutly and steadfastly a two party system. Third parties have not done well in this nation. Historic evidence of this “modern schism,” as Martin Marty called it, is apparent in the church polity-based denominations (Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregationalists, etc.) who first experienced the cultural divide of the Civil War over slavery, again in the form of the battle for the Bible between Fundamentalists and Modernist, and most recently in the Civil Rights struggle and other forms of “culture wars.” The civilized and democratized Protestant ecumenical mainline has sought parachurch federations and voluntary organizations that overcome the divisions of clashing values. These organizations quickly became identified with one side or the other of the “modern schism,” as for example the National Council of Churches against the National Association of Evangelicals. The American ecumenical movement thus has “institutionalized conflict” within and among the mainline denominations and those who exert cultural importance but are more marginalized by their own choice.
In the political realm the two-party system has a civilizing function, training the parties to participate through democratically established principles of freedom and justice for all. The playing field is level and the rules of conflict are parliamentary procedure (interestingly Robert’s Rules of Order came into common use in 1876, about the same time as the precursor movements of the Protestant ecumenical movement were emerging). John R. Mott, “Mr. Ecumenist” was a master at parliamentary procedure. The Enlightenment tradition on the one hand and the Revivalistic and Puritan traditions on the other meet amicably, sometimes warily, in this American model of finding a Christian bipartisan consensus.
It is my contention that the Kulturprotestantismus of American Protestantism has worked well by American standards of democracy and civility, however it was not meant for the Body of Christ. Americans prefer a system of consensus which gives maximal power to the voter by the presentation of choices between Democrats and Republicans, Liberals and Conservative, and so on. We seem to have chosen how we will name our parties in the church. Not prone to fight over Biblical interpretation, as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod did in the 1970s, or to divide over those who are poorest of the poor and defenseless (unborn children), we have selected a confessionalist versus ecumenist axis to dominate our next assembly in 1999.
Continued Waffling on Ministry
Early in its history the ELCA recognized that if it did not affirm a theology and practice of ordained ministry, the ELCA churchwide would lose its own fragile consensus, which has been shifting away from confessional and ethnic ties. Church bureaucrats, many of them untrained theologically and therefore unaccountable in Church order, are but one challenge to the Lutheran experience of a compromising of Lutheran confessional integrity on the issue of ministry. The lack of agreement on this issue in those early years signaled a widening rift. Thus, in those formative years of the ELCA, the sacramentalist understanding of the Church and the ministry of the Gospel squared off in conflict with the functionalist. The ministry study, which lasted for the first eight years and the term of Bishop Chilstrom, did not resolve many of the key questions.
So, the ELCA has declared at Philadelphia that we will give to both sides and not worry about the “contradictions” and “inconsistencies.” The power to set the agenda and to advertise the Concordat and the Formula together is a compelling and appealing affirmation of the new two party system. All the efforts to mitigate this two party system—voting for both electronically at the same time, waiting for results and urging prayerful response—these are commendable; however, they fail to come back to the structure of Christian faith, which lives not by technique but by telling the truth and patient, loving response. Votes on Christian faith are not simply taken and counted in the Church; the confessors of every age also have a vote. Likewise, votes are not only counted, but they are also weighed! The presumption is that the Scriptures have the final vote.
The Result: The Ecumenism Which Divides
The result of this democratic (and cultural) process at Philadelphia is that we have discovered the Ecumenism which divides as well as unites. Call this the Law of Unintended Results. In this we face the persistence of sin and self-deception; we reckon with Christ the Crucified and our need always to find grace in Him alone.
The irony of history is that ecumenical movements can and do become just another denomination or human division, confirmed now at the turn of the millennium in our own Lutheran confessing movement, seemingly now just another mainline Protestant denomination. The Philadelphia Assembly clearly points to the “tilt” of our ELCA to the Protestant mainline denominations who have functioned as custodians of the American, pluralistic, individualistic, and democratic spirit. The preference for “healing the breach” with the Roman Catholic Church is now definitely in demise among us. The ascending way in the ELCA is to emphasize our ecumenism while the LCMS stresses her confessionalism
What is Our Hope?
After Philadelphia the relationship between confessionalism and ecumenism has become even more ambiguous and tenuous. As Harding Meyer has said, an ecumenical movement which avoids consensus in confessing the Gospel “has no promise” (Pro Ecclesia, Vol. III, No. 1; Winter 1994, p. 26), presumably this applies to the ELCA itself, to Lutheranism as a confessional family, and to the whole communio sanctorum! A non-confessing ecumenism is an impossibility, for the church to live Christ must live in the community (Bonhoeffer).
Although subscription to the Lutheran Confessions has never been the requirement for being in the Lutheran consensus and world fellowship (e.g., Batak Church of Indonesia is a member of Lutheran World Federation on the basis of its own confession of faith, without subscribing to the Augsburg Confession or any of the other confessional writings), one nevertheless presumes of Lutheran churches of the world a common confessing of the Christian faith in the Triune God. It is clear that the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA faced important ecumenical questions about “full communion” and doctrinal consensus with this broadened, ecumenical understanding of the Lutheran Church as a confessing movement within the whole Body of Christ. Unclear now is the understanding of the Lutheran confessions and confessional subscription. The Reformation in the 16th Century was understood as an ecumenical proposal for renewal and unity in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Confessional subscription was not understood as restrictive or constrictive, but as the most hopeful act for proclaiming the Gospel of Justification and for the preserving of the catholic substance of the Church. Protest was not for the sake of protest, but for the sake of return to the catholic substance of the faith. Luther himself posted his 95 theses for the sake of disputation and debate to arrive at the truth of the Gospel in pastoral practice!
Unfortunately, the burden of this article is to suggest that the ELCA in its assembly, passing what should have been rejected (the Formula of Agreement) and rejecting what should have passed (the Concordat of Agreement), put further strain on the coherence and hopefulness of its own ecumenical vision and the Lutheran confessional heritage. Perhaps most poignantly, the widening breach with the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod signals that all Lutherans agree to disagree on what being Lutheran means. I fear the cynical result is people already say to themselves, and even to others, “who cares?” One has to ask whether this is not the major casualty of 1997. The naive optimism, so common in American political and cultural life, is turning sour for the losers (there were losers!) and becoming even worse among the winners.
Confessionalism is becoming an enterprise separate from ecumenism in both the ELCA and LCMS. Both Missouri and the ELCA are perilously close to having given up in despair on the Lutheran Reformation proposal for Church unity. As Meyer has pointed out however, and the example of LCMS and ELCA most poignantly illustrates, when disagreement over a “church-dividing issue” happens, the schism or separation spreads throughout the Body of Christ. The division metastasizes, becoming tightly woven with and concealed within other aspects of the faith and “cannot possibly be dealt with in isolation.” The systemic and sacramental nature of the Church, indeed the living and dynamic character of all Christian dogma/doctrine, means that subtle divergences in the separation of churches can reflect gross ones later on, or they can be connected to major disagreements in other areas of life. By contrast, agreement in faith also has a way of spreading into a lively fellowship (koinonia), which becomes the basis of a new-found solidarity in suffering and in service—worship, evangelism, stewardship, and so forth.
William G. Rusch concludes his book Reception: An Ecumenical Opportunity by quoting Meyer, who compared the work of the ecumenical dialogues to the discovery of a new land. The suggestion is helpful because it points us to the biblical and confessional hills from where our help in God comes and to the horizon of hope in the promised land. The evidence of Philadelphia, however, is that reception of the ecumenical vision of the unity and mission of the Church has become dependent on models of unity rather than on the normative sources and resources. Confessions, and congregational life of Word and Sacrament are not being preached, taught, or received ecumenically. Robert Jenson correctly asserts that the Ecumenical Movement as a whole is deeply flawed because theologians and leaders are avoiding the explication of the doctrine of God. In our fear of Catholic forms of idolatry—especially evangelical and confessing Bishops—we neo-Protestant members of the ELCA have joined the blasphemy which tramples on the mystery of the Gospel, especially the sacramental structures of faith, all of which we have in earthen vessels.
Recently I presented a series of “ecumenical surprises” found in the Lutheran confessions (The Book of Concord) to indicate how intrinsic and extensive the sacramental understanding of the Church and the ministry of the Gospel is in our Lutheran confessional heritage. For example, Luther advocated three or four sacraments, depending on one’s enumeration. Melanchthon accepted four. Out of pastoral and theological concern, both desired to maintain the sacramental life of promise and faith. The addition of Private Confession and Ordination point to the Reformation agenda of maintaining the catholic substance of Church unity. Lutherans maintained that Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Private Confession, and Ordination were sacraments, fulfilling the three requirements of sacrament (commanded by God, promise of salvation, and embodied in earthly or created means). When asked to explain what happens in the Eucharist, in Baptism, in Confession, and in Ordination, Luther attested that a “change” happens to the giver of the sacrament, to the sacramental vehicle or gift itself, and to the recipient. The mode of that gospel transformation is not defined by a philosophical explanation, but by a scriptural and confessional promise. The bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. The ordinary water in Baptism becomes a washing of regeneration. The human words of the confessor become life-giving forgiveness in the hearing of the one who confesses sin. In Ordination, a layman becomes a pastor [or a bishop].
The proposal for the Formula of Agreement lacked this sacramental understanding of the ministry of the Gospel. The Lord’s Supper is the true “body and blood” of Christ given for sinners to eat and to drink. At Marburg, Luther disagreed with the position that one can “split the difference” between a “symbolic presence” and a “real presence” position. The reason for this was that Luther definitely and confessionally “tilted” toward the healing of the breach with Rome by maintaining the catholic substance of the Church.
All three questions before the Philadelphia churchwide assembly required a respectful and knowledgeable appreciation of the systemic and interlaced nature of Christian history and the life of the Church through the ages. The Concordat with the Episcopal Church was explosively “wired” to many historical, doctrinal, cultural, and emotional issues in the American cultural subconscious, none more explosive than that of bishops in apostolic succession. We must never forget that one of the sparks that led to the American Revolution was the threat of new bishops from England. American Lutherans have always asked questions such as the following: How can the teaching office of the bishop be reconciled with the Lutheran experience of the freedom of the Gospel? How can apostolic succession as a sign of Christian unity be understood as an integral aspect of the whole Church being conformed to Christ? In the context of the proposal of the Concordat we further ask: How can Lutherans and Episcopalians alike set aside their faith claims in order to reach consensus? For Lutherans who speak and believe all matters of dogma bind the conscience, this “setting aside” proposal is a deft and devious form of diplomacy. Is the consensus that results from the Concordat a theological consensus of the whole church or is it a diplomatically achieved human accomplishment? Questions such as these may seem foolish to those who point to the almost two-thirds consensus of those voting for the Concordat, but the widespread lack of clarity still exists about the nature of the Concordat. People want to know how it might be possible to find evangelical, pastoral Bishops who are truly apostolic witnesses to the unity of the Church.
Visiting the proposal again and again over the next two years may clear up the mess. There is no guarantee that matters will not unravel even further!
The Formula of Agreement passed overwhelmingly, but remains the vaguest of all three proposals, and is in my view, the most problematic. The idea of a joint commission “to work it out” betrays the loose ends which need resolution. We are back to diplomacy, much of it by those who have no call from God and certainly no accountability to the Church. Here are some of those uncertainties which trouble many who oppose the Formula: Do the Reformed Churches practice the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ or as a symbolic meal? For that matter, do Lutheran Churches practice the Eucharist as the sharing of the true Body and Blood of Christ, as the “Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament” passed in Philadelphia commits them? Viewed from its worst possible scenario, perhaps Philadelphia 1997 is telling us that the unity of the Lord’s Supper is not as important as we once thought. Related to difficulties with the practice of the Lord’s Supper is the integrity of the confessional life in the Reformed Churches. Do the Reformed churches, especially those of the United Church of Christ, commit themselves to recover theological and confessional discipline and accountability among clergy? What concrete and visible assurances have they given of this commitment toward confessional integrity and accountability? Declaring “consensus” is not the same as confessing Christ and living in the visible unity we share. Appointing a commission to find ways to implement the proposal is not a helpful way to discover the unity of the faith on a churchwide or local congregational level.
Supporters of the Formula of Agreement point to the Leuenberg Agreement to assert that doctrinal agreement has been found on the most nettlesome problem of the Lord’s Supper. However, the Leuenberg consensus presumes a European context where pluralism has not run rampant over the consensus and where the old networks of the State Church still provide vestigial support. That context has experienced the confessing Church and the memory of Bonhoeffer more powerfully in Leuenberg than the American one, which is closer to Samuel Simon Schmucker. The Formula discusses the different practices of the Lutheran and Reformed celebration of the Eucharist as if these are a matter of “differing emphasis,” not explaining where the “breaking point” is between practicing faithful and unfaithful Eucharist.
Philadelphia’s Churchwide Assembly was a myopic one, not because anyone lacked sincerity or good intentions. Lutherans have been struggling since the Reformation for an ecumenical and confessional “big picture.” This is not the time to panic or to point the finger in disdain. The Formula of Agreement and the Concordat should never have been proposed at the same time. The old argument about which direction the ecumenical agenda of the ELCA should tilt, to the Catholic or to the Protestant side, was simply ignored in the agenda. The Protean grandeur of our ecumenical agenda, that we can do all things for everyone, led us into the position of passing what should have been rejected (the Formula!) and rejecting what should have been passed (the Concordat). This is a set up for the ecumenism which divides while it unites!
An analogy may help. Satellites from hundreds of miles above can see water in the underground aquifers beneath the Great Plains that people who are on the ground cannot see. I suggest that we not spend so much time digging into this speech or that motion at Philadelphia, or portraying the anguish of our pain on the cover of The Lutheran, but that we look more at the whole. What we lack in the telling of the story of Philadelphia is the big picture.