In the Combox to a blog below, Pastor Weedon gives us a quotation from a 19th Century American Lutheran theologian, C.P. Krauth. He gives the source of the quotation as an essay entitled “The Relations of the Lutheran Church to the Denominations Around Us”, a rather obscure paper that was published in the published proceedings of “The First Free Lutheran Diet in America” (1878). That work can be found here on the internet – and I recommend the pdf version of the original as the scanned text file is very poor indeed.
This booklet actually contains some very interesting articles. The article in question is itself worth reflecting on, especially in the light of what is understood by the term “denomination” (“a class or collection of individuals called by the same name; a body of persons who have separated, or are separate from others, in virtue of their holding in common some special doctrine, or set of doctrines, or government, or usage, or discipline”), and the kind of ecclesiology that is envisaged in it. I am only mildly surprised to recognise in it something of the sort of ecclesiology I grew up with – which I learned from another American LCMS book entitled simply “Our Church and Others”. The fact that this pre-Vatican II book is still in production and regularly used as a textbook by the LCMS speaks volumes in itself. Brought up on this stuff, you can perhaps understand why it was that the truths confessed in the document “Dominus Iesus” were so readily apparent to me. The way that Krauth uses the term “denomination” is oddly akin to the way the Catholic Church speaks of “ecclesial communities” (ie. not churches in the “proper sense”).
But enough of the idle chit chat. Let’s look at the quotation.
And this leads us to ask as preliminary to our just relations to them, on what grounds of principle do the denominations around us vindicate their right to exist? … Yet this is a great question. It is THE question. The denomination which has not raised it is a self-convicted sect. The denomination which cannot return such an answer to it as at least shows sincere conviction that it has such reasons, should be shunned by all Christians who would not have the guilt of other men’s sins. We draw a line then at once between those denominations which either give no reason for their rightful existence, or a reason so transparently false as to defy credulity; and those on the other hand which have reasons – reasons of such plausibility as to satisfy us that thoughtful men may sincerely hold them. [The Relation of the Lutheran Church to the Denominations Around Us]
In one respect, the question Krauth insists all sects should ask themselves is simply another version of the question I asked myself at the beginning of my journey into the Catholic Church, viz. “Why am I not Catholic?” For my right to exist as a Lutheran – a member of a denomination which “separated, or is separate from” the Catholic Church – depended to a large degree on the right of the Lutheran Church to exist. I believe every Lutheran (I do not speak for other denominations) should ask and answer this question if they are to go on living as Lutherans.
But let’s get to the more interesting part of the quotation:
We must also look with different eyes on those bodies whose historical record and present acts are in accordance with their official principles on which they rest their right to exist; and those which desert the principles which gave them name, creeds, and position – these bodies which exist on one principle and act on another, which lengthen their lives by abandoning what they once considered sacred, ignoring their history, concealing their confessed doctrines, or evading the necessary consequences of them, and who make their name and their very right to existence a fraud, – and whose intensest hatred is inflicted on those who remind them of their history, and of the doctrines which gave them their original being. [The Relation of the Lutheran Church to the Denominations Around Us]
At this point, C.P. Krauth sounds remarkably like Past Elder in one of his milder and more rational moments. Krauth obviously has in mind the Lutheran denominations in America, which, at the time, were “deserting the principles which gave them name”. The meeting at which this paper was delivered was intended to be precisely a “calling out” of faithful Lutherans into a new body which could and would justify its existence on the double ground that Krauth outlines in this essay. So the Lutheran Church “claims a right to exist because she is a Biblical Church”, and the new Lutheran body they were forming (the “General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America”) would be consciously based upon the “doctrines which gave [Lutherans] their original being”.
But could not the accusation be also applied to the Catholic Church, in the manner in which Past Elder argues? Is it not true that many Catholics today – bishops and priests, theologians and lay people – “exist on one principle and act on another”, “abandon what they once considered sacred”, “ignore their history”, “conceal their confessed doctrines or evade the necessary consequences of them”, and inflict their “intensest hatred…on those who remind them of their history, and of the doctrines which gave them their original being”?
Any sensible Catholic today – and I include Pope Benedict in this category – would have to (and in fact does) answer this accusation with the plea: “Guilty as charged”.
Krauth’s standard is a good standard. It is precisely NOT a double standard. I can use it equally to judge my Church and yours. You can do the same.
But I cannot agree with Krauth’s conclusion. Although those individuals who live and teach and act in this way individually “make their name and their very right to existence” under that name “a fraud”, they do not thereby invalidate the principles, sacred things, history, and confessed doctrines that gave the community after whom they are named its original being.
In other words, as Krauth well knew, the proper reaction in the face of such apostacy was not capitulation and renunciation of the original principles, doctrines, history, etc., but reformation and return to the original principles, doctrines, history, etc. The unfaithfulness of those now living does not invalidate the truth of the faith of those now past. The existence of unfaithful Lutherans does not, of itself, invalidate the Lutheran confession. Nor does the existence of unfaithful Catholics (something we have two millenia of experience at) invalidate the Catholic faith.
Krauth and his colleagues worked hard at reforming the Lutheran Church in America of his day to make it more like (what he conceived of as) Luther’s original intention. The result was a Lutheran Church in America that bore very little resemblence to the European Lutheran Churches from which it had emerged.
The Catholic Church has a much longer history than the Lutheran Church. Just as the Lutherans believe in the principle “semper reformanda”, so the Catholic Church believes in the principle of “semper purificanda” (just take a look at the number of times Benedict XVI uses the expression “to purify” in his teaching). The process of purification of the Church means that, in so far as it is successful, the Church of tomorrow will look different from the Church of yesterday. The Church will appear to have “changed her mind” on certain of her teachings – because she will have recongised (in accordance with her original divine mandate from Christ) where her teaching was deficient or required purification. Some might call this purification of doctrine a “development of doctrine” – although I think that might be putting to much of a “progressive” spin on it. Thus the doctrine of the Church’s relation to the State has been purified in recent centuries – purified precisely in accordance with her founders declaration that one should “render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s and unto God what is God’s”. Thus the Church’s teaching on justification today is modulated – yes, horror of horrors, she has learnt something from the Lutherans in this regard.
I once encounted a clergyman of the Re-Organised Church of the Latter Day Saints, now known as the “Community of Christ”. A Mormon sect, you might say. But in actual fact, this group was far closer to orthodox Christianity than it was to orthodox Mormonism. As such, despite the fact that it was unfaithful to the doctrines of Joseph Smith, it was more faithful to the doctrines of Jesus Christ and that of the rest of Christianity. Does this make this group a “fraud” or does it mean that it has less right to exist than the real “Latter Day Saints”? I think not.
Every historical ecclesial community will go through changes. What they are today will not necessarily be what they were yesterday. Change can happen in two directions – in the direction of greater faithfulness or the direction of greater unfaithfulness. When a community has been unfaithful, we thank God for the grace of his renewing Spirit by whom it is always possible for an errant ecclesial community to return to its roots in Jesus Christ.
Krauth is right. THE question is: “on what grounds of principle do the denominations around us vindicate their right to exist”? Although she has often been unfaithful to her original principle, yet the Catholic Church today confesses exactly the same original principle that she has always confessed, viz. that:
The sole Church of Christ [is that] which our Savior, after his Resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it…. This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” [LG 8#2].