Friday, June 17, 2005

Dialogue With a Lutheran on Whether Lutheranism is Closer to Patristic and Early Church Beliefs (Part One)

By Dave Armstrong (6-17-05)

Kristo Miettinen's words will be in blue. My original challenge will be in green; my present words in black.

* * * * * 

Could not these new eucharistic elements in Cyril [I was responding to another paper, devoted to St. Cyril of Jerusalem] be seen as consistent developments? I would be curious to see the grounds upon which you would argue (if I understand you correctly) that they are utter reversals or corruptions of what came previously (thus, heresies), rather than merely orthodox developments. Certainly precursors of virtually everything you mentioned can be found in earlier fathers.

Furthermore, if these things are "corruptions," then how is it that many peculiar Lutheran doctrines, which seem to me to be far more radical than anything Cyril advocated, are not also radical innovations or "corruptions"?

This is your dilemma, as I see it: to somehow argue on the one hand that Cyril's eucharistic theology is new (in a negative, undesirable sense) leading to the "excesses" (from a Lutheran perspective) of Catholicism, whereas none of Luther's and Lutheranism's "changes" (to use a halfway "neutral" term) are corruptions.

For example:

1. The early Church accepted episcopacy (bishops) and apostolic succession. Luther rejected this and opted instead for the rule of the oh-so-spiritual secular German princes and a state-church (the latter of which is also, of course, contrary to the early Church). Before they died, both Luther and (especially) Melanchthon issued many statements of severe regret for having done that.

Maybe, maybe not. I'm not sure what, exactly, needs defending here.

First of all, thanks for your thoughtful, courteous reply. I'm delighted to meet your acquaintance. The larger argument I was making, is constructed as follows:
A. Lutherans claim to revere the opinions of the Fathers, too, though not quite granting their consensus the authority that Catholics do. They do not claim to be ahistorical, or to have no concern about what the early Church widely held.

B. Lutheranism (and larger Protestantism) claimed to be a "reform"; i.e., going back or restoring what was before, in the early Church, not a "revolution" (introducing sheer novelties which were practically nonexistent before that time).

C. Therefore (if Lutherans are correct in this), we should expect to see something akin to Lutheranism dominating in the early Church, over against something akin to Catholicism.

D. To the extent that we do not find such a state of affairs, the Lutheran claim of (broad) fidelity to the fathers (more so than Catholic fidelity to same) is suspect and historically incorrect.
I have suggested several such disjunctions. You essentially concede the argument by admitting that some of these things were virtually unknown among the fathers. Apostolic succession is the first such case.

After all, the confessional Lutheran churches are not particularly committed to the opinions of Luther

I didn't say they were, nor does my argument depend on this. Luther and Melanchthon were mentioned because as a matter of historical fact (whatever the confessions say on this: you tell me), they were the ones who substituted the rule of secular princes for the episcopacy which had previously been the norm. This is a radical departure from precedent, thus proving my point. Apostolic succession had always been believed in before. Episcopacy was part of that. One can't simply ditch all that ecclesiology and build a radically new Church. But of course, sola Scriptura required this. Apostolic succession was part and parcel of an authoritative Church. Sola Scriptura takes out both an authoritative Tradition and Church.

(indeed, the very name "Lutheran" is, as I understand it, a Catholic invention, specifically a neologism of Eck).

That may be, but in any event, it is now the accepted term. It isn't like "papist" or "Romanist" -- titles that some of our more hostile our theological opponents thrust upon us despite our objections. Those are pejoratives, but Lutherans themselves have adopted Lutheran. It's their accepted self-address. But that is all beside the present point.

Luther-bashing and refutation of Lutheranism are not the same thing

I understand that, having done a ton of Luther research myself. But I wasn't "bashing" Luther; I was merely reiterating an indisputable historical fact: that he instituted the rule of secular princes in the Lutheran Church.

(just as catholicism and Catholicism are not the same thing: labels do not intrinsically tie the meanings of the words used as labels to the objects labeled).
Correct, but also irrelevant to the present discussion.

Luther was more than a spiritual reformer, he was also (eventually) a political figure of his age.
Precisely part of my argument here . . .

Nonetheless, state churches exist on both sides in western Christendom.

That's irrelevant too. The question at hand is whether this was the patristic norm or not. I say it was not. So Lutherans have abandoned the early Church on this point, whereas Catholics have maintained a continuity.

Apostolic succession does as well (not that it means much today, or did in the sixteenth century).

Exactly my point again. It doesn't "mean much" to you because you apparently don't care what the early Church held on this matter. You are conceding that my argument is correct, by your very indifference towards apostolic succession, which was how the early Church always viewed ecclesiology and authority.

2. The early Church and the Fathers (particularly St. Augustine) did not believe in Faith Alone (sola fide) or imputed, extrinsic justification, whereas Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon made this one of the two "pillars" of the so-called "Reformation."

Fine, if true.

It is true that the fathers did not accept this, as I've often documented. Augustine did not believe in extrinsic, imputed justification. That's a simple historical fact. So Lutherans cannot trace their beliefs to him or any other major father, in this regard. I find that striking, and one disproof (of many) of these particular Lutheran claims of "reforming" the Church to what it supposedly was before.

I'm not asking that you refute sola fide from scripture,

Well, I've already done that, so you needn't ask. :-)

but I would be much more impressed if you could show that Polycarp didn't believe it. Now there was a man who was in apostolic succession in a meaningful way.

First of all, why would you think that Polycarp (d.c. 155) is an important dividing line? By what criterion do you contend that he is important as a witness to what the early Church believed, but not later figures such as Irenaeus (d.c. 202) or Cyprian (d. 258) or Athanasius (d. 373)? Do you think the Church was already "off the rails" and corrupt by the 4th century? That said, we don't have very much information about Polycarp, so I'm unable to comment any further on what he thought about justification and salvation. We have a lot more extant writing from St. Ignatius of Antioch (d.c. 107).

Anyway, I'll not leave it at that, but offer the following: faith, in the Lutheran understanding (as it has been taught to me - undoubtedly there are other Lutherans who were taught differently) contains its own intrinsic action, acts of charity and love and Christian universal brotherhood. "Sola fide" as a disputational position is only the denial of any salvific (ugh! I know there's a better adjective out there, and I once knew it, but it's not coming to me) need to add sacramental acts, acts of law, to these free-flowing acts of faith. This sacramental simplification has ample support from the first millenium of the church. This is not to say that we should abandon the sacraments (especially those instituted by Christ), only that the sacraments are among the tools of faith, rather than complements to faith.

I think that you are describing sola gratia more so than sola fide. Catholics agree with Lutherans that salvation is entirely by grace. We only deny an absolute separation between faith and works, and justification and sanctification. Since you (and Lutherans) have sought to make some intrinsic connection between faith and works, our positions are not all that far apart (not as different as Catholic vs. Reformed soteriology). But it remains true that the fathers did not hold to imputed justification, which is antithetical to infused justification.

3. The early Church and the Fathers (particularly St. Augustine) did not believe in Scripture Alone (sola Scriptura) as its Rule of faith, whereas Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon made this the other "pillar" of the "Reformation."


So with one word you again concede the point: the early Church did not hold what Lutherans and Protestants hold as one of their "pillars" (along with sola fide). This is quite a remarkable admission indeed.

but in Augustine's time there was no need for a yardstick against which authority could be tested.

There certainly was such a need, then, as always. The Fathers always appealed to apostolic succession, Church authority, and Tradition, in determining who was orthodox and who was not. 

Augustine was comfortable challenging contemporary popes on his own authority. By Luther's time, no bishop could stand against a pope the way Augustine could stand against Zosimus.

That's a long discussion, and far from the matter of Scripture and Tradition per se.

On reflection upon how things stood in the 16th century, and especially after his exchanges with Cajetan and Eck, Luther found that only scripture could stand between councils, popes, and error. This was a novel position at the time,

You said it. Let the reader note (as this is exactly what my argument is: that Lutheranism in many respects was a sheer novelty). And you guys wonder why the Catholics at the time objected to it; this being the case?

when conciliarism was thought to be the only alternative to papalism. Cajetan attempted to steer Luther toward conciliarism (a position out of favor in Rome, but not heretical); Eck swept the conciliar rug out from under Luther in their debate. Luther was left with nothing but a double negative position, neither popes nor councils being authoritative, and from this he eventually developed sola scriptura.

I agree entirely; couldn't have stated it better myself. What I want to know (what I always ask) is: why would anyone accept Luther's "novel position" (again, your description, not mine), over against the entire history of Church opinion? I think this is the $64,000 question for Lutherans, but I have the greatest difficulty finding any who want to discuss it. We've made a great start here. I hope it can go to the second "round" of the dialogue (which is always more interesting than the first round).

4. The early Church and the Fathers (particularly St. Augustine) believed in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Luther and Calvin threw it out as an abomination, sacrilege, and idolatry.

Absolutely. This is sola scriptura in action.

Now you have conceded all four points of my argument, so this has really been no dispute at all, in terms of what my original contention was. You haven't disputed any of that. You've only argued (very nicely, but firmly) that Lutheran positions were superior on other grounds. Here, you are willing to base a rejection of an ancient, universal belief and practice, based on a "novel position" developed by Luther under duress and the stress of debate, when the inconsistencies of his position were pointed out to him (which has been exactly my opinion as well, of the historical origin of sola Scriptura). So, in effect, Luther has more authority than the entire Church of the previous 1500 years. It didn't and doesn't matter what that Church held, if Luther disagreed with it. That's why I have referred to Luther as a "super-Pope." No Catholic pope ever had remotely this much authority, to overturn so much of what existed previously.

Christ's sacrifice was the one sacrifice sufficient for all. To continue to offer new sacrifices (even if they are, in some mysterious sense, the same sacrifice in a new location) denies the totality of the original sacrifice on Golgotha.

It does not at all, but that's another involved argument, too. The relevant thing presently is to understand that the early Church taught this, and Protestants rejected it. As Catholics, we would normally want to understand the grounds for such a radical change. We deny that Luther or Calvin or any other early Protestant had the right to do such a thing. They were acting no differently than early heretics did; those heretics were renounced and rebuked based on past doctrinal history and what the Church held in its Tradition, based on apostolic succession. Scripture Alone could not and did not settle these disputes. Same with Luther. He disagrees with the Church? He is a heretic, then, inasmuch as he does so (he didn't dissent in all areas, of course).

Now this is not to suggest that Luther and Calvin agreed on sola scriptura; they did not. Luther sought to expunge from Latin practice those things that contradicted Gospel in letter or spirit; Calvin sought to retain those that were scripturally affirmed. There's a lot of murky territory between those two positions.

I agree, but it is beyond our purview.

Thanks very much for your thoughts. I hope we can continue this discussion.

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