Friday, March 9, 2007

Roundtable 9: What the Church Is

Strictly speaking (proprie), the church is the congregation of saints and true believers. However, since in this life many hypocrites and evil persons (German text adds “open sinners”) are mingled with believers, it is allowable to use the sacraments even when they are administered by evil men, according to the saying of Christ, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,” etc (Matt. 23:2). Both the sacraments and the Word are effectual by reason of the institution and commandment of Christ (propter ordinationem et mandatum Christi) even if they are administered by evil men.

Our churches condemn the Donatists and others like them who have denied that the ministry of evil men may be used in the church and who have thought the ministry of evil men to be unprofitable and without effect.
(Augsburg Confession, Article VIII; Tappert, 33)

Men of the Round Table:

Article VIII guards against the charge of Donatism, which the confessors at Augsburg were well aware was being whispered by the papal representatives who intentionally sought to lump the “evangelicals” with the radical reformation. This article flows out of the dynamic understanding of the church confessed in AC VII. If the church is infallibly recognized by the divine activities of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments, and these activities are going on concretely in the world, one can reasonably expect that false Christians, unbelievers, and evil men will also be found in the vicinity of these activities, even though they are not part of the church proper. Lief Grane states, “The means of grace certainly constitute the church, as through them the Holy Spirit creates faith. Nevertheless, the do not visibly mark the boundaries of the church over against the rest of humanity” (Grane, 100). As Christ's parable of the weedy wheat field indicates (Mt 13:24-30, cited in Concordia), the church as it is in this life is always a mixed body of believers and unbelievers associated with the sacramental Word in all its forms.

The stated purpose of this article is not to endorse the ecclesiology of Augustine, who posited a true “church of the elect” hidden within the “congregation of the called,” but simply to state explicitly that the Word and sacraments are not compromised in their efficacy when they are administered by evil and wicked men. The Latin text is helpful in locating the basis of this confidence in the “institution and mandate of Christ.”

The confessors follow Augustine’s solution in his engagement with the Donatist party, rigorists who held as invalid the sacramental acts of the “traditors,” pastors and bishops who had surrendered their sacred books and office in the persecution under Diocletian and subsequently returned to office and resumed their ministry under Constantine. Augustine argued the divine monergism of the Word over and against the personal worthiness of the officient. We need to remember that the Donatist controversy dealt with the worthiness of the men ordained to hold the office of the holy ministry. It did not, and does not, speak to such modern novelties as female ordination and “lay ministry,” as is sometimes alleged.

As a sidenote, Augustine’s struggle with the Donatists brought the language of “ex opere operato” into the church, and, in this context, the terminology can be understood properly and rightly. The Donatists argued that the sacraments were valid “ex opere operantis” (by the work of the one working), while Augustine argued that they were valid “ex opere operato” (by the work having been worked), that is, independent of the worthiness of the one administering it. This objectivity of the divine Word over and against the worthiness of the administrant reflects the understanding that the sacraments are Christ’s work and not the church’s or the ministers’. Where this is denied or compromised, the worthiness of the minister, or even the congregation, becomes a criterion for the sacraments’ validity and efficacy.

The papal Confutation accepted this article without controversy; therefore Melanchthon has little to add in the Apology except to underscore the objectivity of the holy ministry by stating that the pastor does not represent his own person but speaks in persona Christi: “...for ministers act in Christ’s stead (vice Christi) and do not represent their own persons, according to the word (Luke 10:16), ‘He who hears you hears me.’” (Apology VII/VIII.47)


Paul T. McCain said...

What has always really impressed me as I read the Book of Concord is how pastoral, practical and personal it is. Let me explain.

It is pastoral because the constant drum beat throughout is the issue of the comfort and care of souls. This is not a book of theological speculations or abstraction. The times in which it was written called for pastoral care on a scale that could only be likened to that of a big city trauma center. Souls bruised and bullied by legalisms and demands placed on them outside of, and beyond, the Sacred Scriptures were healed by the healing and life-giving Gospel.

It is practical because it goes right to the heart of the key issues and only very rarely could be said to be meandering about on side paths. It is a book on a mission and that is to deliver the Gospel: purely, cleanly, correctly and practically, again, for the care of souls.

It is personal. The Book of Concord was written by people who had first-hand experience with the various theological ills they are decrying and had first-hand knowledge of just how powerfully comforting and consoling the Gospel is. Therefore, when you read about monasticism in this book, always behind those words is the man who spent well over a decade of his life in this lifestyle, tortured and tormented to no end by the lack of Gospel: Martin Luther. The book could almost be said to be a spiritual autobiography of all those who contributed to it.

William Weedon said...

My dear sister-in-law, who is Orthodox, is the first one to point out to me what should have been plain as the nose on my face (which is pretty plain, let me tell you):

The Lutherans use the word "church" in a different manner than the Orthodox do.

So half of the discussions between the two about "the Church" totally miss each other. And the Lutheran definition of Church is right here: "strictly speaking, the Church is the congregation (note the singular!) of saints and true believers."

Yes, it belongs to that "congregation of saints and true believers" to have those divinely appointed to preach, teach, and administer Christ's sacraments and those who receive this ministration. Thus, the Church may be divided into "teachers" and "hearers" a la Melanchthon/Chemnitz. That's the shape she takes on earth. But the fact is that the Church itself, properly speaking, does not know such a division: it is first and foremost the gathering of the believers around the throne of the Lamb - the Church as seen in Revelation.

Thus, Lutheran ecclesiology is eschatological. It sees the Church as she truly IS because it sees her from the END. And this seeing from the end is what enables the rest of this article: that there are those hanging around the Church properly speaking who don't belong to her. They lack the faith that makes them saints, and so members of that assembly around the Lamb.

The joy of the article is in the inability to destroy what God's up to in this assembly: the Word and Sacrament go on giving the gifts no matter how unworthy the preacher/celebrant or the people receiving. And that's a huge comfort to those - either as "teachers" or "hearers" who know darned well how UNworthy they truly are.

William Weedon said...

Also, a problem arises (and sometimes I think Walther is guilty of this) when "the Church" is defined over against "the Predigtamt" as though the Church were the laity exclusive of those in the Office. It's the inverse problem of Rome - where the Church IS the hierarchy. Thus the nonsense translation of "super" as "above" - the Church is above the clergy - in Tractatus 11, which then has the clergy be something other than Church, other than "saints and true believers." The original Concordia got that one right, following the German: "the Church is more than the ministers."

wm cwirla said...

Nicely put, Brother William! I have found in my own conversations with Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians that their view of "church" is much more static and institutional rather than the dynamic view of the Lutheran Confessions.

I would only add that an "eschatological perspective" has both a now and a not yet component. I would say that the Lutheran Confessions confess the Church as she now already is in Christ her Head, but has not yet been manifest in all her glory which is yet to be revealed. We believe and confess the one, holy Church but cannot see her. We can only see the divine marks.

This is why "hidden" is so much better than "invisible" to describe the eschatological reality of the church as we experience her now in the world.

In defense of CFW Walther, he does indeed follow Melachthon and Chemnitz (and cites them explicitly) when he states that the church "rightly ordered" (by divine command) consists of those who preach and those who hear. [I don't have Kirche u. Amt in front of me at the moment, but I'd be happy to supply the footnote, if anyone at the round table wishes it.]

Walther's difficulty, in my opinion, is that he sees the authority of the Office flowing out of the individual rights and authorities of the priesthood of believers, similar to the 17th/18th century social contract theory of government espoused by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.

wm cwirla said...

Please note: I have corrected my quotation from Tappert in the original post. I left out the phrase "since in this life." My apologies.

Paul T. McCain said...

In Concordia, second edition, the text shows both the Latin and the German for the "more than" or "above."

At first we were told to remove the "more than" but after we prepared a study showing that one of the meanings of the word "supra" is clearly also "more than" and that the German "mehr denn" is clearly "more than" we were permitted at least to show the reader what the authoritative German translation of the original Latin chose to do.

It would actually conflict with Melanchthon's entire point in this article to impose simply another hierarchy on the Church. From "clergy over laity" to "laity over clergy." The German confirms this very point.

Thanks for mentioning this, Darth Cwirla.

Paul T. McCain said...

I was talking with a friend the other day about pastors who are in fact evil men and how very, very difficult it is for people to receive their ministry. I think that is an understandable reaction. I do not believe this article should be any sort of "excuse" for the Church tolerating manifest and offensively sinful conduct among its clergy rank. St. Paul makes it very clear what the standards are for the men called to the Office of the Holy Ministry.

So, just to alert anyone following this conversation, none of us, nor the Augsburg Confession, is proposing that the Church should ever be unconcerned and permit immoral clergy to remain in office.

wm cwirla said...

In the original Donatist controversy, the issue was clergy who betrayed their office under persecution, not their bad morals. This is not to say that the sacraments are effected by the morality of the administrators, but as scandals in the church repeatedly teach us, the office is greatly harmed and undermined by bad behavior on the part of pastors. With very good reason did the apostle Paul counsel that the overseer is to be "above reproach."

Mike Baker said...

So for those of us who are more at the comprehension speed of Dr Seuss than Dr Luther...

Would it be proper to say that the existance of the church is defined by the presence of God?

Where the Holy Spirit is present in the faith of the believers, and at baptism, and the preaching of the Word, there is the church. Where Christ is truly present in the Holy Supper, there is the church.

So, the church is not defined by certain people and external acts, but rather by the presence of God who is present in true believers and at the places where He promises to be (i.e. in the Gospel purely taught and the Sacraments correctly administered.)

Is this what you mean by revealed? Is this anywhere close to what you are all driving at with this concept of "the church"?

William Weedon said...

Now, Mike, I think Dr. Seuss is VERY profound, and to top it off - he was a Lutheran! So if you're at the level of Seuss you are doing fine. :)

One thing that my friend Christopher Jones alerted me to is that sometimes the way we speak of Church makes it sound as though the Church pops into and out of existence with the Divine Service - and that's nonsense, of course. The Divine Service MANIFESTS the presence of the Church, because hidden under that visible assembly is the invisible assembly of all saints around the throne. But just because the Church is not gathered together at a given moment does not mean that the Church has ceased to exist.

Church exists - to borrow from Dr. Hogg - both "gathered and scattered." And though most of our life as Christians is spent in the scattered state, Church remains because we remain united by faith to the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world. The indisoluble connection to the assembly is that such faith is something we can neither create nor keep going on our own - it depends entirely upon the Holy Spirit's ongoing work in our lives through the means of grace. So, the Church scattered can only remain Church if she continues to gather - to manifest and live from the grace God pours out on her in the assembly.

So does the presence of God define the Church? Yes! For Christ is present to faith and where the Head, there the Body. FWIW.

wm cwirla said...

Again, we're on the same page, paragraph, and line number, William. (I'm starting to worry here!)

You can see how the choice of words is so important here. The Gospel and sacraments are the "marks of recognition" (Kennzeichen) of the church (or Church, as Weedon likes to put it). As such, they manifest the Church's presence at various times and places. The Church in its essence is a mystery (corpus mysticum), something hidden from sight that is revealed to faith through the Word and confessed by faith ("we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church").

The Church consists of all believers of every time and place united in Christ through baptismal faith and is visibly/audibly manifested in various times and places where believers are gathered about Word and sacraments among whom the Triune God is pleased to make His dwelling.

I especially appreciate the gathered/scattered distinction. The Church does not cease to exist after the benediction, but becomes hidden as the priesthood scatters into its various vocations in the world. Yet without the Church gathered, there is no concrete evidence for the existence of the Church, and therefore the reign of Christ, in the world.

Paul T. McCain said...

So, is it so bad to talk about the Church becoming visible when people are gathered around Word and Sacrament? I still am enjoying Dr. Nagel's "And where does this invisible Church worship?" quip.

William Weedon said...


Not wrong at all. That's it exactly. Look at the gathered assembly and you are looking at as much of the Church as can ever be visible this side of eternity. And yet the utterly cool thing is that what is visible is put the tiniest portion of what is actually there. Hebrews 12, dude. Angels and the spirits of the just made perfect and all gathered around that Lamb whose blood speaks better things than Abel's. And thus, the way we conduct ourselves should in all things confess this great reality - that we are receiving a KINGDOM that cannot be shaken, and so we offer to God acceptable worship in awe, in reverence. What's VISIBLE is a bunch of people attending to the invisible realities around which they gather, and it doesn't take long to realize - when looking at a given assembly - whether they are in fact attending to those invisible realities or attending just to themselves. And if the later, it becomes rather pointless. Not nearly as cool as worshipping with the saints and angels and all around the Throne of the Lamb.

William Weedon said...


One more thought. To show what an utterly clear grip the Apostle had on this whole notion, think of how he could tell the ladies to cover their heads. Why? Well, we wouldn't want to be offending the angels. Or how he can tell the Corinthians to excommunicate that man: "when you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus *and my spirit is present*, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord."

Paul T. McCain said...

Professor Kurt Marquart, may He rest in peace, was fond of reminding us that God and His saints are merely in another dimension of reality, not beyond it. I was always, and remain intrigued by, his keen insights. When He spoke on these issues you could in fact nearly see these realities, so beautifully and eloquently he described them.

wm cwirla said...

The question, as I understood it, was framed around whether the Church "existed" only as it was gathered, or whether its "existence" was defined in terms of the visible gathering around the Word.

What I understand brother William saying, and what I also see the Confessions saying, is that the Church always "exists" in union with Christ her Head, but that existence is made visible by the visible gathering around the visible/audible Word. Even then, as William notes, only the marks of recognition are visible, since we can't really tell the "true believers" from the pious hypocrites. Nevertheless, the "fullness" (yeah, I got to use that word again!) of the Church is always manifest, even in so humble a gathering as "two or three."

RevFisk said...

While we are venerating the resting Dr. Marquart, I'll chime in to add that there were 4 books that defined my Seminary education: (in order of encounter)

1. The Book of Concord
2. On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Luther via Forde)
3. The Quest for Holiness (Koeberle)
4. The Church (Marquart)

That's fine company!