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.


Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Pavel Butakov wrote on Facebook:

Since you welcome responses from your Lutheran friends, I guess I qualify for that.
I’m afraid there is not much to respond to. Your arguments are based on the reality which exists in your imagination ("Imagine a regular Sunday morning..."). Even if you add that you've been through this, I still cannot refer to that, since I haven’t.
Your experience consists of bad things in American/Canadian Lutheranism within a couple of decades, and good things in the American Antiochene Orthodoxy within a decade. My experience of "Lutheranism" and "Orthodoxy" is quite different. Instead of arguing on a common ground (e.g. the Confessions, which are available for all), you rely on your experience that is common to none but you (and a few unhappy former Lutheran pastors). We cannot find a common ground here.
This type of argument, which you chose for the epigraph, is typical for Florensky, Lossky and their type. It means: "I don't have to provide any arguments. The insiders already agree. The outsiders won't get it no matter what."
I’m afraid there is nothing to discuss. Yet.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Dear Pavel,

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the term "thought experiment"? Or perhaps I wasn't using it in a way you had encountered before.

I'm wondering, too, if you had read Fr. Eckardt's article. If not, it's rather like coming in the middle of a conversation.

Part of the problem here is the intended audience. As you say, you can't refer to a regular Sunday morning in America, because your regular Sunday mornings are in Novosibirsk.

But the case I make is not a mere matter of my subjective experience. It should be easily verifiable across, for example, the LC-MS as to how many parishes have weekly communion. It likewise should be easily verifiable to determine whether private confession is now, in fact, the norm it was in the confessional writings. My argument *did* engage the Confessional texts--noting, for example, that the verbs are not "we'd like to" or "we used to" but "we practice".

Nor is it a matter of my experience alone to say that whatever is truly most important in a person's life--assuming their freedom to act--will actually take place.

You wrongly characterize my experience, by the way. I had many good things within Lutheranism; I have had struggles within Orthodoxy, and my experience is not limited to Antioch.

I hope that all is well with you and your family, and that your studies of philosophy are progressing.

In Christ,

Fr. Gregory

Dixie said...

I do understand why Lutherans don't have infant communion - even though the entire Christian Church held to this for over 1200 years. It is a practice inherited from the Western Church of Rome after Rome changed the communion age and then the Lutherans just continued the Roman practice and provided biblical justification (examination) for it. But clearly that interpretation of scripture wasn't understood in the same way for the first 1200 years of Christianity...so that would make me nervous. (In fact it did!)

But what I think is the most compelling assessment you make is the one regarding centrality and practice. If the Holy Eucharist is central in the Lutheran Church Communion would be offered every Sunday, every little Pascha. But what is offered every Sunday and would be inconceivable to not have instead? The sermon. Therefore, practice clearly reveals what is central. I still think Dcn. Gregory Roeber's talk , "Will No One Rid me of this Troublesome Priest?" is one of the best I have heard on the subject of the centrality of the Eucharist in Lutheranism.

Pastor Peters said...

Without entering the discussion itself, one of the things that is often minimized is that at the time of the Reformation and the Lutheran Confessions, it was the sermon that was weak. The Mass was firmly entrenched (though distorted because it was a spectator event and not a sacramental participation) but the sermon or homily was largely absent. If Lutherans and their Confession seem to emphasize more greatly the preached efficacious Word, it might well be to strengthen the weak pillar of the foundation of the Divine Service.

The frustration of those who have left Lutheranism and found it wanting is often a frustration of time as well as anything else. What centuries of erosion has done to distort the face of Lutheranism will not be easily or quickly undone in practice. The Confession has not changed and therefore what is being restored is not the doctrine and faith but its practice. Easier on one hand because the doctrinal authority of the Confession remains unchallenged but difficult because it means addressing things hidden and entrenched in the popular perspective of folks in the pews.

My parish hosts an OCA mission in our small chapel, an act of charity when they were asked to leave the military post where they were housed when their priest/chaplain was stationed there. I have watched over the last three years the ups and downs of this group and found, not surprisingly, the same struggle to recover the piety of Orthodoxy among a people who insist they are Orthodox but do not act much like it. I could by the same observation suggest that Orthodoxy and Lutheranism share the same weaknesses.

There is much more to this issue than has been written here but my point is that Lutheranism must first be judged by its Confession and only secondarily by the failure of some to embody in practice all of that identity.

BTW though I have brought the weekly Eucharist back to the two parishes I have served (from twice monthly observances), if you asked the people before I came they would say (rightly or wrongly) that they did not devalue the Eucharist as the center of the Church's life and their piety but reserved its uniqueness for something less common. In essence they are then saying that in their eyes the sermon may be a more ordinary means of grace but the Sacrament of the Altar an extraordinary one. Flawed yes but certainly different from the idea that the Sacrament was incidental to their piety and idea of worship.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Pastor Peters,
You seem to be saying two things:

1. The problem with Lutheranism is not its confession but its practice of that confession.

2. Because it has taken centuries to erode that practice, it will take a long time to fix it.

Have I fairly summarized your points?

123 said...

There's a reason Word comes first when Lutherans speak of "Word and Sacrament". To argue otherwise is pious revisionism.

That said, in becoming Orthodox I actually had to get used to Orthodoxy's lax eucharistic discipline, which is a surprise to most RCs and Protestants. Most Orthodox in America basically commune anyone who looks like they are Orthodox (know what they are doing, cross themselves the right way, etc.) The WELS and ELS congregations I grew up in used to require us to sign in and acknowledge we understood what Communion was, for instance. I don't think that was the practice of the early church, however.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Dear 123,

Thanks for your comment. I would respectfully request that you use your real name when commenting on my blog. You may email me privately if you have some pressing reason not to do so. stoic 1348 at gmail dot com.

Jake said...

In my own experience of Lutheranism I have benefited from Pastors teaching and extolling the Lord's Supper and encouraging the offering of the Supper every week. I know from studying the Book of Concord that the Reformers definitely seem to be saying the Supper was offered every week in the evangelical churches.

However, as I was reading Kurt Marquart's dogmatics on the Church (p. 21) I noticed he pulled this quote from Luther that seems to prove your point about what is at the heart and center of Lutheran theology.

Luther says, "Truly the Gospel is the one most sure and noble mark of the church, much surer than Baptism and the Bread, because [the church] is conceived, made, nurtured, borne, trained, fed, clothed, adorned, armed, and preserved only through the Gospel. In short, the church's whole life and being consists in the Word of God [tota vita et substantia ecclesiae est in verbo Dei]." WA 7:721.12. English version cited in Walther, Church and Ministry, 70.

I'm not sure I necessarily agree with Dr. Luther here. It made complete sense to me when I was told that one of the benefits of a weekly celebration of the Supper is that if the Pastor fails to rightly preach the Word of God, the Gospel, that the benefits of the Supper are NOT dependent on the pastor, so they are actually more sure and certain way to receive the Gospel than the "verbo Dei" which is dependent on the abilities of the preacher to proclaim it rightly.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

This gets back to something I noted in the post. Pietism affected both Lutheranism and the Church. But in the case of Lutheranism, it led to the less frequent offering of Communion. In Orthodoxy, it led to less frequent communing. And that is a significant difference.