18 January 2014

A reply to Fr. Eckardt

It’s perhaps inevitable that some of the same issues that led a number of us out of Lutheranism and into the Church should continue to work on newer generations of Lutheran pastors and on those who remained. By no means least of these issues is the ongoing discussion of so-called “infant communion”—a misleading designation, since infants are not communed in the Church because they are infants, but because they are baptized members of the Church. As St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea;  and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” (1Co 10:1-4 NAU, emphasis mine.)
In the last few months, another kerfuffle about communion of the baptized  (hereafter COTB) has arisen amongst confessional circles of the LC-MS. I don’t take all defenses of the LC-MS status quo equally seriously. Publishing house blogs and radio-based grilling of guests are often propaganda, not rising to the level of needing response. But two documents are worth responding to. One is the recent set of theses by Prof. John Pless of the Ft. Wayne seminary. The other is a little article in Gottesdienst by the Rev’d. Dr. Burnell Eckardt. I hope to address the Pless statement at a later time, when I have more leisure. But I would like to make a few remarks about Dr. Eckardt’s article.
The article in question does not address the issue head-on, but uses it as an occasion to reflect on the status of preaching within Lutheranism. According to Eckardt, there are two new things about this iteration of the discussion. First, one young Lutheran pastor has, in his words, “gone off the reservation” and begun actually practicing COTB. Second, the rise of social media means that the discussion runs more swiftly than it has in the past.  Dr. Eckardt is correct about the swiftness of the debate. And it will be very interesting, from the outside, to watch what happens to the young pastor in question. If he is disciplined in some way, it may help others to recognize that Lutheranism has no place for their ilk. If he is not disciplined, it suggests just another fault line along which the LC-MS may eventually split. (I mean no offense to my friends who remain there.)
One of my Antiochian brothers and colleagues has suggested that preaching, not the Eucharist, is the heart and soul of Lutheranism, and that this is symptomatic of a systemic flaw, doctrinally and liturgically. My colleague cites AC Article 24, which says, “People go to Gottesdienst to hear the sermon.”
Fr. Eckardt claims that the citation is taken out of context. And in a formal way, he may be correct. Let us grant that the intention of AC 24 was not to show the sermon is central, but to set the sermon as a key element in “the devout use of the Sacraments.”
It’s noteworthy, however, what Eckardt himself grants. He grants that “there is a flaw in Lutheran sacramental piety, but it is not the fault of the Lutheran Confessions” (p. 16). He continues, “There are all too many Lutherans for whom the Sacrament is not of critical importance for faith, and their woeful lack of piety shows this sad reality for what it is, all too clearly” (p. 16). I don’t intend to criticize Lutherans for their sacramental piety or lack thereof; I merely cite the words of Dr. Eckardt here.
But I do want to make a couple of points about his article. First, no Orthodox priest or bishop could or would quarrel about the use and value of the homily in the context of the divine liturgy. We are, after all, the church of St. John the Golden-mouthed, and even on occasions when the priest presiding might not preach, the Vespers, Matins and Liturgy are full of distilled homilies called “kontakia,” and other theologically rich verses. Each Sunday morning, for example, we sing the words of Emperor Justinian: “Only begotten Son and immortal Word of God, who for our salvation didst will to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, who without change didst become man and was crucified, who are One of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit, O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us.”
Second, what my Antiochian brother is focusing on is not the statements Lutheran documents make about the centrality of the Eucharist, but rather their actual practice. Orthodox people and theologians have a delightful empirical bent, which was reflected at one time in the Lutheran confessional documents themselves.
I recall now-Metropolitan Elpidophoros speaking to a group of us about his work in Lutheran-Orthodox dialogue. When he wanted to know what Lutherans believe about the real presence of Christ, he didn’t get into deep discussion about confessional statements. He watched what was done with the reliquae.
One need only try a couple of thought-experiments to see whether, in fact, the Eucharist is the heart and soul of Lutheranism. Imagine a regular Sunday morning across the entire range of those who call themselves Lutheran. Let us narrow the universe of this discussion to that range of Lutherans who call themselves “confessional”—i.e. those who take a quia subscription to the Confessions seriously. Does that group of Lutherans, in fact and not in theory alone, mark the Eucharist on that given Sunday? A “heart” that does not, in fact, beat is not a heart in any meaningful sense.
Again, if on a given Sunday a parish did not mark the Eucharist in a Lutheran context, would the people who attended still claim that they had been to church? What if the sermon were omitted? It seems to me beyond dispute that of the two elements, sermon and Eucharist, sermon clearly predominates.  It is, in any meaningful sense, the heart of Lutheranism.
I recall a discussion a colleague of mine and I had with a visiting German Lutheran professor back in the days when I taught at a Lutheran seminary. The visiting scholar claimed that no one could properly distinguish Law and Gospel in less than 30 or 40 minutes of preaching. I replied that if I had thought through what needed saying, I could preach a decent Law/Gospel homily in under 10 minutes. As the visitor’s face began to redden, my friend said “I think the homily is so special we should only have one four times a year.” We had to work hard to calm the visiting German down and explain we were--mostly--joking.
The problem for many who remain in Lutheranism is that the confessional documents are no longer what they started out to be: a description of what actually takes place “on any given Sunday.” Note the claims of Augustana 24. They are not “we’d like to” or “we used to,” but “we do” and “we practice.” When Dr. Eckardt cites AC 24’s saying that “none are admitted except they be first examined,” does he forget that the examination in question was individual and private confession? It is ironic that for Lutherans, who pride themselves on the centrality of the Gospel, their confessions have changed from a description of evangelical practice to a Decalogue of distant memories.
Fr. Eckardt also addresses the question of whether the problems diagnosed are “systemic.” His claim is that “the best of Lutheran sacramental catechesis and piety demonstrates that they are not.” He cites AC 24 to support his case. Lutherans refuse to commune baptized infants because, he says, it is “…an integral part of what constitutes the dignity and use of the Sacrament, namely, instruction and examination.” If he worries that defenders of COTB are “charging the entire Western Church, including all of Lutheran history, with the same ‘sin’,” may it not be countered that he himself charges the Eastern Church and the pre-Fourth Lateran Council Western church with the opposite sin? Robert Taft, an eminent Roman scholar who has no axe to grind in this discussion, says “…the plain facts of history show that for 1200 years the universal practice of the entire Church of East and West was to communicate infants” (Liturgy in the Life of the Church).
Eckardt cites the plague of pietism as the cause for present Lutheran distress. Pietist movements did not simply affect Lutheranism; they also had an impact on Orthodox practice. But it is noteworthy how that impact differed. In Lutheranism, pietism led to an abandonment of the weekly Eucharist—making it so rare that, in the end, Luther’s statement of the importance of communing minimally four times a year was taken as a de facto maximum practice for many years. The Eucharist itself was offered only four times a year. In Orthodoxy, pietist strains led to less frequent communing on the part of the laity—but never to the abandonment of the Liturgy itself.  I leave it to the reader to judge which was a relatively minor and accidental impact, and which a major and substantial one.
It has now been a little over a decade when, after the Synodical Convention of 2001, I phoned a number of Lutheran pastors whose Internet posts suggested we were on the same wavelength. I asked them two questions: first, do you agree that the LC-MS has significant problems? All of them answered “Yes.” The second question was, “Do you believe these problems are accidental or genetic?” Nearly all of them said “genetic.” And nearly all of those men are now Orthodox.
Two men, an optimist and a pessimist, were sitting on a park bench. The optimist said, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” The pessimist sighed and answered, “I’m afraid you’re right.” The election of Matthew Harrison as president of the LC-MS instituted halcyon days for those who call themselves confessional Lutherans, like Dr. Eckardt. It doesn’t get any better than this. Whether in the end the optimist’s perspective or the pessimist’s perspective is correct, remains to be seen.