Admin NB: I am not the author of this piece. It was written by my friend George, whose abilities as a theologian and prose stylist far surpass my own. Read and be blessed!
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Though you do not know me, I have acquiesced to the request that I write you briefly concerning the Lutheran understanding of The Church. Forgive me for this rudeness, and for the unpolished and likely ignorant rambling that is likely to follow. I do not mean to debate or argue, only to speak on a subject; and briefly. I am by no means a theologian, and would be flattered to even be called a Christian; however, perhaps you might be able to discern, if not a full doctrine of the Church, at least an understanding as to how we exiles comprehend our Holy Mother, the Eternal Church of Christ.
To begin, it has been said that we Lutherans suffer from several great heresies, the greatest of which is “And”. By this, it is meant that Lutherans are often too likely to say they believe “x AND y”, when in reality, they do not believe them both, at least, they do not believe both in the same way. You might hear a Lutheran say “we believe in the Bible and the Confessions” though of course, not in the same way, for one is the Word of God and Christ himself, and the other is a set of German theological statements which have become accepted as the touchstone and arbiter of the Germanic churches. Similarly, we are often heard saying something along the lines of “We believe the creeds and the confessions”, though, even here, not in the same way, for the Confessions are nothing more than a footnote and commentary to the Creeds; most notably, the Apostle’s Creed, which is to be considered nothing less than divine. It is for this reason that the Book of Concord itself begins with the Creeds, for these are the faith. The rest of the book is to be considered clarifications for the most part, or, as it were, “insights.”
Therefore, let the creed witness to us.
The third article begins with “Credo in spiritum sanctum, sanctam ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum comunionem, remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, et vitam aeternam. Amen” [I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the flesh, and everlasting life. Amen.]
Now first, there is a structure to the Creed, for, as you know, it begins with the confession of God. Everything that follows is an answer to the question “which god?”
The confessor answers in the true beginning of the First Article, essentially, “the Father.” Then, which father? “patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem coeli et terrae” that is “the father that is omnipotent, the one that created heaven and earth,” and who eternally and timelessly begets the Son. There begins the matter of the Second Article.
The entire second article explains the nature of this Son which the Father begets; it is an explication of the Father, for the Son, being of the Father, is an essential attribute to the definition of the Father, and by defining the son, one defines the Father, and therefore God. The remainder of the Second Article goes on to answer the question “And what son is this, that is begotten of the father?”
Then the Third Article arrives, it too being essentially an explication of the Son. We must understand the phrase “Credo in spiritum sanctum” [and I believe in the Holy Spirit] to be but an explication of the Holy Spirit, and all that follows the phrase to be an answer to the question “which Holy Spirit?” every doctrine that follows — i.e., the Church, the forgiveness of sins, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the flesh, and everlasting life — are to be viewed as “the result” of the Spirit of Christ who proceeds from Christ and therefore is rightly considered the personal Will and Action of Christ. The point being, from the Lutheran perspective, that all these are not to be thought of as separate and distinct doctrines, but as a many different aspects of the one doctrine; or better, the one person that is Christ.
I have no fondness for the art of explication, as I am sure you can tell. All this is to say that to the Lutheran, there are no doctrines of this and that, of the church and of Popes and of sanctification and of justification. All these are human categories used, usefully, to comprehend the single revelation given to us, the very person of Christ. There is no faith but Christ himself, and that is not to say that the faith is about Christ, but that the faith is Christ, and that Christ is present in faith. To think of faith as belief in Christ is to already misunderstand the Lutheran concept of faith. Faith comprehends, that is, embraces, contains, and includes Christ; and not in a “relational”, “epistemological” or “spiritual” way; but in a true, real, ontological way. Christ is truly present in faith. It is for this reason that Lutherans scowl at the idea of “faith being the beginning, but love the completion,” for to us, faith is Christ, and to say such a thing would be to say “Christ is the beginning, but love is the completion.” Is not Christ the beginning and the end? The ever existing? Is he not Love itself? Salvation by Faith alone is therefore synonymous with salvation by Christ alone (and even Love alone!), for Christ is who is truly within (and not just believed in or thought on or contemplated in) faith; there can be nothing before or after Him; to have faith is to be woven into Christ, to have Christ vanquish your flesh and become your life and existence. Faith is nothing else than the phenomenon of our joining into God; or, if we are to use our Eastern brother’s preferred term, our “theosis.”
In iconography, Christ has the letters “ὁ ὠν” written upon his halo, which is Greek for “The one who is.” It is for this reason that Lutherans believe that participation by the Holy Spirit in all the various “doctrines” of the Third Article of the Creed is nothing more than explications and aspects of our singular participation in Christ, for He is the one who is, and all that is. The church is not an institution or even a communion or an idea, it is just an extension of Christ. To participate in Christ is to be in the Holy Catholic Church, to have the communion of saints, to receive the remission of sins, to have a redeemed body, and to live forever.
So now, let it be stated clearly. What is the Church?
The Church is the body of Christ. What do we mean by His body? We mean his glorified, physical, mystical and eternal body. His actual body. This is the only “body” that matters, for it is the only one that is everlasting; it is the only one “that is.” To be in the Church means to be joined into his true body, the same one, though now glorified, that hung on the cross, the same one that is consumed in the blessed Eucharist. His body is universal, and therefore rightly called catholic; His body is entirely set apart from all Creation as something assumed from creation into the uncreated, and therefore is rightly called “holy.” Since Christ is without blame, so in Him there can be no blame, and so, being forgiven, we are joined to that which is righteousness and blamelessness, so we too are truly, and no longer “only forensically” righteous and blameless. Our bodies being joined to the eternal body are glorified by Christ’s body, that is, acquire his glory, and so are resurrected by virtue of this. Having been joined to that which must ever be, we too shall ever be, and so we have “life everlasting.” This is what Luther called “the blessed exchange.” All that is Christ’s, that is, His righteousness, His immortality, His divinity, etc., is ours (though as something eternally derived), all that is ours, that is, our sinfulness, our guilt, our weakness, etc., is His (though, again, as something taken away); for we are one body.
How then, do we gain this “joining to Christ?” By the “communio sanctorum” which is rightly translated as “the participation in the Holy Things.” And what are these Holy Things? The mysteries, which can be understood as the epiphanies or manifestations of Christ Himself. They are the Word of God, which must also be understood as Christ who manifests Himself in language, and the Sacraments (or, if you prefer, the two chief sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). By the hearing of the Word, Christ enters into us. By Holy Baptism, we are baptized into Christ and participate in all His works: in His death and resurrection, His life, and His suffering, as Paul himself tells us. By the Holy Mass, we are given His very body, that, though we eat Him, He may truly devour us into Himself, that, just as the Adam once looked upon Eve and said “You are flesh of my flesh”, so the New Adam, our Christ says “You are flesh of my flesh.” Just like Eve, the Church is drawn from His side, and in Holy Communion, we are returned into it, and thus become His body. We are His bride, for we are made “one flesh”, and no man can tear such a perfect union asunder.
There is, properly speaking, no Roman Church or German Church or Eastern Church. There is but one body forged by the Word and Sacraments. Wherever these things exist, there, by definition, Christ is, and there His body is manifested, or better, there, men are assumed into his body. These things exist within the institution known as the Roman Catholic Church, as well as in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and therefore, the Church is most assuredly there, for Christ is in the mouths of their priests and on the altars of their churches.
I have finished. I pray you will forgive me for the length and obtuse nature of my explanation. As I said before, if, by my fault, you are unable to discern a “doctrine of the Church” from my remarks, hopefully you might at least see the categories and assumptions within which the Lutheran theologian operates.
To finally conclude, I will answer the questions you put out briefly and simply:
Am I a member of your Church, even though I am in error?
Yes, for you are a member of my Christ.
How big is the sheepfold?
It is as big as all those who cling to the Christ given to them in their baptism.
Who is the visible head?
Christ is the visible head.
Or do we have an invisible head with visible members?
He is not invisible, for he is made visible for us in every priest, pastor, bishop, and pope; as well as in the Sacraments; for when we witness the elements of the mass, we must acknowledge that there on the table, and not in Rome or Wittenburg or Constantinople, is our head, our Lord, and our God. Christ has not left us. We see Him every week.
Are there a church triumphant and a church militant, as there are in the Catholic tradition?
Yes, there is; though by virtue of the communion which exists in the Church, the Church triumphant participates in our struggles, and so is, to some degree, still participating in our “militancy” just as we, in Christ, participate in their triumph.
Is the Church everyone who adheres to scripture?
The Church is all who adhere to Christ, Who is present in the scriptures.
Who chose scripture?
The scriptures are a manifestation of Christ, Who is manifested in the Church. The Church, who, it could be said “chose scripture” is nothing else than the body of Christ recognizing Christ; that is, Christ knowing himself.
Is it a process of Evolution?
The scriptures were perhaps recognized in an evolutionary process, no one would deny this. But Christ, Who is the Word, is, was, and is to come. In Him there is no “evolution.”
At the beginning of this little writing, I noted that we are strangers to one another. However, let it be known that, by virtue of our Holy Mother, the very bride and flesh of Christ, the Church, we could not be closer, for both you and I and all the saints participate in one life and one work.
May you live forever.