Reading DW #3: Where are We About the Church?

If you want to know where you’re going, it’s critical to know where you already are. As a fairly new transplant to South Texas, I rely on my GPS regularly – and a couple of weeks ago, as I was headed to a new part of town, it started spitting out directions as if I were about ¾ of a mile behind where I actually was. Needless to say, I got hopelessly lost, and was late to my meeting.

The Declaration on the Way (DW) is a new genre of ecumenical dialogue that attempts to accurately orient the Lutheran Catholic relationship as to where it is in via towards unity. This post will be the first of three that looks at where DW locates Catholics and Lutherans on the path towards unity on a particular subject. The satellites that the GPS is pinging here are the dialogues of the last 50 years, and from these DW gathers both principles of agreement and areas of ongoing disagreement.

Today’s post will examine the first topic that DW examines: the Church. It finds twelve agreements on the church, which it gathers into the areas of

  • The Church’s Foundations in God’s Saving Work
  • The Word, Scripture, and Means of Grace
  • Communion, Visibility, and Hiddenness
  • Preservation of the Church and Union with the Saints and
  • Eschatology and Mission

I would encourage you to read the agreements themselves, which I won’t reproduce here. The agreement proceeds from the insistence of God’s enduring priority over the church, and therefore the absolute gratuity of God’s gifts to the church of himself through Word and Sacrament. The church is understood to be an eschatological, or in the language of DW, anticipatory reality, oriented to God’s final remaking of the world.

As a creature on the way itself, the church has to both proclaim its fundamental connection to its origins (in “the whole event of Jesus Christ” §2) and its destination (“God’s ultimate gathering of his people in their entirety when Christ returns and when the Holy Spirit completes the work of Sanctification.” §11).  Of course, this also means recognizing the distance that lies between the church’s experience of itself and both the purity of God’s self-revelation in Christ Jesus and the fullness of God’s final gift.

As the explanation in Chapter III spells out:

While the church is already a partaking (koinonia) in the saving gifts and conditions deriving from the common life and merciful approach of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it has these in fragmentary and incomplete ways. They now instill hope and joy but also anticipation and longing for them in the manner of their consummation in the final kingdom of God, when the triune God will be “all in all” (1 15: 24–28)

DW also recognizes that there is not yet complete agreement about the church between Catholics and Lutherans. It sees five principle areas in which ongoing conversation will be needed.

First, whether the church may only be designated “congregation of the faithful” or also “sacrament of salvation.  Catholics use both of these descriptors, while Lutherans remain more wary of designating the church to be sacramental. They fear that describing the church in sacramental terms might give it more of a status as a mediator, or even a controller, of grace than as a recipient of that grace. Both groups can agree that the church is both a “creature” and a “minister” of the word, and a sign of God’s saving will and instrument of grace through word and sacrament. The ongoing conversation needs to attend to the ways in which the institutional church has used the theological status of the church as a tool of power over others. This idea recurs in several of the remaining areas for ongoing conversation and mutual conversion.

Second, DW sees a need for further conversation about how the church can be understood as both holy and sinful. This topic is, in a sense, the converse of the previous. Where Lutherans call the church both “holy” and “sinful,” Catholics “refrain from calling the church itself ‘sinful.’” This doesn’t mean that Catholics deny that “the power of evil is at work in” the church, but that they tend to think of the church triumphant as the most proper term of the word ‘church’ and to speak of the aspects of the church in this world that are not holy as belonging not to the church, properly speaking, but to that which God will purify the church from.

There is an important parallel here to how Lutherans and Catholics talk about sin in the baptized. Where Catholics insist that baptism removes everything that is sin “properly speaking” they also admit that baptized Christians, even in a state of grace, are not yet the fullness of what God will remake them to be. They are concupiscent and their desires often works against the will of God, even when they do not act on those desires. Where Lutherans want to name that reality “sin” because it belongs to what God will purify out of us, Catholics worry that doing so would mean that we are saying that baptism has no effect on people. In the JDDJ, Lutherans and Catholics agreed that their understandings were not contradictory, and perhaps a similar way forward can be found in speaking about the mixed reality we experience in the church

The Third, and Fourth points have to do with the teaching authority of the church. While both Lutherans and Catholics teach that the church, by the Holy Spirit, distinguishes the truth of the Gospel, and therefore teaches in a binding way, there is remaining difference about how precisely this is done, what the relationship of the bishops to the rest of the church is, and how the church responds in practical ways the historical truth that being made a bishop is not an absolute guarantee against heresy. Also involved in these disagreements is the related question of how God works in the church, what rights and responsibilities belong to various kinds of Christian office holders, and how the church rightly judges and therefore teaches what the Gospel requires in particular times and places.

Finally, the document points out that Lutherans and Catholics conceive of the local church differently. Lutherans tend to assume that the congregation is a complete local church, while Catholics point to the diocese. Of course, this difference relates to the point above about the different understanding of the necessity of bishops in conceiving of the church. As the document concludes, however, this difference leads to structural patterns that are nevertheless quite similar. Most Catholics’ primary experience of church is in their parish, and most Lutheran bodies are structured with regional synods that are also described as “churches.” How the difference in theologies and practices are resolved will probably have more to do with responding to the concerns related to authority and teaching, but will have to be cognizant of this more basic difference.

The Declaration on the Way describes a strong basis for dialogue moving forward on the topic of the church, and also describes a number of differences that may be church-dividing, or not. One thing that we have discovered is that we are often wrestling with the same difficulties that arise from living a life structured by God’s work in the world, but still effected by the all-too-common structures of sin that we also experience

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