Revisiting the Summit III

On the 9th of March, 2001, I and two other pastors of the Lutheran Church of Australia were summoned to St Paul’s Lutheran Church in Box Hill by the President of the Victoria District to give an account of our Roman ideas to 18 other specially invited pastors.

You will find my complete submission here, on my Year of Grace Blog, along with the reply that was given by Pastor Peter Kriewaldt, a senior and well-respected pastor.

In this series of posts, I am “revisiting the Summit” almost a decade later to see what, if anything, I have learnt since. This post deals with the second question in my submission and Pastor Kriewaldt’s response. Click here for “Revisiting the Summit I”.

My Third Question:

3) What is the locus of Christ’s authority in the Lutheran Church? Who can claim to be the “you” in Luke 10:16 today and on what grounds? How is this authority validated, ie. communicated incarnationally from Christ himself? Whether authority is claimed by the presidents, the pastors conferance, the synod, the local congregation, the confessions, the Theses of Agreement or the theologians of the church, on what grounds would we regard such authority to be validated?

Whenever someone asks me “between the soup and the fish course”, “Why did you become a Catholic?”, I always reply with three words: “Authenticity, Continuity and Authority”. These are not, of course, in any particular order, since they are all inter-related, but Authority is key here. Actually, to be perfectly honest, Authority is the key issue in the entire matter of the unity of the Church (aka ecumenism). Whatever form of Christianity you may ascribe to, the issue of Authority will be central. This is because all Christians believe that they are followers of, ie. disciples of, Christ. To follow a discipline implies a source of Authority. ALL Christians agree that Christ is that authority (can you imagine someone who calls themselves a “Christian” and yet who denies the Authority of Christ?). The crucial question is: “How is the Authority of Christ manifested to me here and now today?”

In Luke 10:16, Jesus says to a group of seventy “others” whom he “apostles” to go ahead of him: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” There is something pretty clear here about how Jesus exercises his Authority: he does it through real human beings whom he “apostles”/sends out into the word, and who exercise his Authority in his name. The same is reflected in the famous “Great Commission” passage (Matt 28:18-20), which is addressed to the 11 apostles: “All AUTHORITY in heaven and on earth has been given to me [ie. God the Father has given all Authority in heaven and on earth to me]. THEREFORE GO [ie. with this same Authority which has been given to me and which I give now to you] and MAKE DISCIPLES of all nations, BAPTISING them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, TEACHING them to observe all that I have commanded you.” And just to rub it in from another Gospel yet, we have Jesus commissioning the apostles in John’s gospel on Easter Eve (John 20:21): ““Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send (apostle) you.”

In all these cases, the authority of Christ is communicated directly and personally to his apostles. His authority is INCARNATED in their very persons. Now, it is the teaching of the Catholic Church that this authority, which the Father handed to his Son, and which the Son handed to the Apostles, is in turn handed on by the Apostles to their successors, the bishops of the Catholic Church, and that THESE bishops in THIS Church continue to speak and teach with the Authority of Christ: He who hears them hears Christ.

But the Lutheran Church has other ideas, and these ideas are eminently outlined by Pastor Kriewaldt in his reply to my question at the Summit in 2001:

3) The locus of Christ’s authority is the word (Jn 8:31-32). Christ gave his keys to the church. The church also receives from Christ pastors who exercise Christ’s authority of the keys in the church. No one in the church claims authority; authority is a gift of the risen Christ to his church through his word. For Lutherans the word is interpreted by the great consensus of pastors, theologians and laity and given to us in the confessions, which always remain for us the ‘norma normata’. Tradition is also an important feature of this interpretation (cf my concluding remarks). LCA Synods do not create doctrine, they give assent to scriptural doctrine that comes to them through the confessions. Cf TA V.11; CRCR Statement: ‘Gospel and Scripture’.

While most Lutherans today would understand the term “the Word” to mean simply and exclusively “the Scriptures”, nevertheless the use of the tem “the Word” in the Lutheran Confessions is has a broader sense. Pastor Kriewaldt replies to my question “The locus of Christ’s authority is the word” and cites John 8:31-32 “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” This would seem to imply that “the Word” is “the teaching of Jesus”. But in fact Jesus Christ is “THE Word”, the “Logos”. The “Word” cannot be “the locus” of Christ’s authority because Christ IS the Word! The question is: Where is the Word heard today and through what channels? Through the Scriptures? Certainly the scriptures ARE authoritative; and certainly the Scriptures ARE the inspired and inerrant “Word of God” as a whole and in all their parts; AND YET there is nothing in the Scriptures to indicate that Jesus intended his disciples to commit his Authority to writing and to collect it in a book and that thereafter this book would be the full repositry of his Authority. Even if this was his intention, a book cannot exercise authority on its own!

But this isn’t the direction that Peter Kriewaldt wished to take this answer. He responded that “Christ gave his keys to the church” and that “The church also receives from Christ pastors who exercise Christ’s authority of the keys in the church.” Well… is this accurate? Does not the Scriptural witness rather show us that “Christ gave his keys to his apostles (particularly and explicitly to Peter)” and “The church also receives from Christ successors to the apostles who exercise Christ’s authority of the keys in the Church”?

Peter replied that: “No one in the church claims authority; authority is a gift of the risen Christ to his church through his word.” Oh, really? What then was the Synod of the LCA trying to do in 2000 and again in 2006 when it set out to vote on the matter of the ordination of women? Was it not “claiming authority” to do so? And what of the Presidents of the Lutheran Church in their oversight of the districts? Do they not “claim authority”? And what of the Pastor who announces on Sunday morning “I as a called and ordained servant of the Word announce the Grace of God to all of you…and I forgive you all your sins”? All these acts “claim” authority. Okay, so that authority is said to be a “gift” – of course it is! But once it is given it is like the talents that the rich man gave his servants to use and invest: it is to be claimed and exercised. So let’s not split hairs over whether authority is “claimed” or “given.” Even if we dropped the ridiculous idea that anyone in the LCA actually “claims” authority, we would still be left with the question: to whom is Christ’s authority “given” and by whom is it validly exercised?

Pastor Kriewaldt says that authority is a “gift of the risen Christ to his church through his word” – but this still begs the question: How is “his word” communicated to his Church? This is where Pastor K. falls back on the narrow understanding of “the Word” = “The Scriptures”. “For Lutherans,” he sas, “the word [read: the Scriptures] is interpreted by the great consensus of pastors, theologians and laity…” There are definite similarities here with Catholic teaching (which distinguishes magesterium, theologians and sensus fidelium), but one might have asked for greater clarification. Do Pastors exercise authority differently from Theologians? How do the laity exercise their interpretative authority? And what is this “great consensus”? Who exactly is to be counted in “the great consensus”? How it “the great consensus” determined?

This same lack of clarity is in evidence in the reference to the LCA’s Theses of Agreement V.11 in Peter’s answer. This reads:

The congregation is therefore truly ecclesia and is endowed by the Lord of the Church with the Power of the Keys, that is the same power which is given to the whole Church and to the individual Christians, whom God has made priests and kings through Christ. Matt. 18:17f; 1 Peter 2:9. Tractatus 24, 66f. According to the New Testament the smallest congregation is as truly the Spiritual Body of Christ as the Church Universal is. Matt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 12:27.

This also begs the question: WHICH congregations are “truly ecclesia” and therefore have a valid say in “the Great Consensus”? All Christian congregations and sects (even “the smallest”)? Only those who are members of the Synod of the Lutheran Church of Australia? Or only those who hold to the Book of Concord?

Perhaps it is the latter, as Peter Kriewaldt explicity identifies “the Great Consensus” on the interpretation of the Word as “given to us in the confessions, which always remain for us the ‘norma normata’.” God knows why. I have never received a satisfactory explanation of exactly why those books contained in the 1580 Book of Concord should be accorded the status of any kind of NORM of Christian doctrine. No “Great Consensus” exists among the Christian congregations of the world on this matter. No “Great Consensus” exists even among Lutherans today on this matter. No “Great Consensus” existed even among Lutherans at the time in which the book was put together.

Pastor Kriewaldt acknowledges that “Tradition is also an important feature of this interpretation”, but this is left to a later question for fuller discussion. He then goes on to say: “LCA Synods do not create doctrine, they give assent to scriptural doctrine that comes to them through the confessions.” Well, yes, of course he would say that. We Catholics also say that the Church does not “create” doctrine, it only gives assent to that doctrine which it has received from the Apostolic Deposit of Faith. And yet, Lutherans say we have invented lots of doctrines. Catholics say the same of Lutherans. I have even experienced the process by which a significant proportion of LCA Lutheran Synod Pastors and Delegates (about half on both sides) attempted to create a doctrine that allowed women to be ordained. Of course, they SAID they were only giving “assent to scriptural doctrine that comes to them through the confessions”, but one half disagreed with the other half about exactly what this “scriptural doctrine” was.

The real fact is that Authority, its source, its validation and its exercise, remains a crucial question for any Christian seeking to “continue in the Word of Christ” and “truly be his disciple”. So, we come back to the question: When Jesus said “He who hears you hears me” – who was he exactly talking about?

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One response to “Revisiting the Summit III

  1. Whatever form of Christianity you may ascribe to, the issue of Authority will be central.

    It was when I realised this – when I asked myself ‘to whom did Christ give Authority for my times’ – that I realised all the other questions and issues I had were irrelevant. This question is the key.