Guilt and Grief, and Relief

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 12.]

Troubled Water (2008, streaming on Amazon Prime) is really a brilliantly made film. You know the whole thing is going to collapse and fall apart between Thomas and Agnes, but you don’t know when. That tension builds and builds, even when there is nothing tense happening in a given moment. And the way the story is put together brings even seemingly unimportant events to their true significance.

It’s not that the shift in perspective in the middle of the film is unique, but perhaps it surprised me because (not having heard of the movie before) I simply didn’t expect it. Even though it’s over two hours, the two couples are so entwined and paralleled, focused on Thomas and Agnes, that I never felt the length. One has seemingly overcome her grief; one has seemingly overcome his guilt; but both have been deprived (or deprived themselves) of the opportunity to face head-on the event that connects them.

Until that happens, you can feel the troubled waters begin to stir beneath the surface. The central moment is highlighted by the caretaker asking Thomas to play “some real church music” for children on a field trip—led by Agnes—and he plays “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (!).

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Allowed to Disagree

G.K. Chesterton once wrote of George Bernard Shaw, “In some matters the difference between us seems to amount to this: that I very respectfully recognize that he disagrees with me, but he will not even allow me to disagree with him” (“Our Birthday,” G.K.s Weekly, 21st March, 1935; in The G.K. Chesterton Collection on Kindle).

Part of the difference between Lutherans and Reformed on the Sacrament of the Altar seems to amount to this: that while the Lutherans (most of the time) respectfully recognize that the Reformed disagree with us, the Reformed will not allow the Lutherans to disagree with them about the Supper.  This is not a new phenomenon.  All the way back to the earliest disagreements among the different confessions arising from the Reformation, the Lutherans made church fellowship the sine qua non of altar fellowship, and vice-versa.  One necessarily entailed the other, just as it did from the very beginning of the Church of Christ on earth (see Elert, Eucharist and Church Fellowship).  On the other hand, the non-Lutheran Reformed began, at least as early as 1631 at the French Synod of Charenton, to welcome Lutherans to Reformed tables.  Whether it was because sharing mere bread and wine does not require any agreement on what is happening to and for Christians there, or whether it was because the Lord’s Supper didn’t belong to the essential core of the Christian Faith (Zwingli), the Reformed have never understood the Lutheran objection to a shared Supper.  They will not allow the Lutherans to disagree with them.  (Regarding the myriad contradictions that serious Reformed see in Lutheran teaching, see Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand, 105ff.)

Besides the current cultural context, which inevitably reduces and minimizes confessional differences, the Reformed descendants of Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, et al. find the Lutheran position to be a loveless one.  In the uniform (until recently) and historical Lutheran practice of sharing the communion of the Lord only when confessional unity under the Scriptures is recognized, the Reformed hear only an accusation against them that they are not Christians or not “Christian enough.”  But it is at precisely this point where the Lutherans feel the exasperation of Chesterton when arguing with Shaw: we simply want to recognize the real and substantial gulf between the Lutheran and Reformed positions, and they will not even allow us to disagree with them.  The Lutherans believe that the two positions are as far apart as heaven and earth: the bare fact of whether we eat Christ’s Body and Blood with the bread and wine, or whether we do not, is–quite literally–everything.  This is why, for Lutherans, “all questions of the life and teaching of the church ultimately [lead] to the question of the Lord’s Supper” (Sasse, “Why Hold Fast to the Lutheran Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper?” The Lonely Way, I:453).

Finally, we simply want to be honest, and state that there is an irreconcilable contradiction between those who confess Christ’s Body and Blood eaten and drunk by everyone (even, God forbid, an unbeliever) who communes, and those who say that there is only bread and wine eaten and drunk by some or all.  This is not a difference in how Christ’s Body and Blood are present, but whether they are.  Lutherans have never confessed a particular mode, means, or mechanism of describing Christ’s Presence in the Sacrament (e.g., “consubstantiation”).  But Lutherans have always confessed that His Body and Blood are eaten and drunk by everyone, quite apart from an individual’s faith.  This is what Jesus says, and our horizontal unity around the altar depends on making the same confession about Jesus’ own words.  That is what “confession” means: saying the same thing.  And that is what “communion” means: union-with.  Union with Jesus in His Body and Blood (which is impossible if His Body and Blood are not actually there); and union with the other members of His Body precisely because we all share the same Christ as He gives Himself to us.  This, and nothing else, is the cause of “closed Communion.”  Closed to all who refuse to confess with us the simple words of Jesus, but open to all who receive these words with faith and joy.  We cannot force anyone to accept this confession, but we do ask that those who don’t accept it allow us to respectfully disagree with them.


Reformation Week: Loehe on the Lutheran Church


The Lutheran Church knows that the Lord gives his Holy Spirit only through his Word and sacraments, and therefore it recognizes no other effective means than Word and sacrament. …

From its knowledge of human nature it knows that men will sooner open their hearts to the truth when it is gladly but sparingly imparted than when they hear its voice speaking constantly.  Therefore it understands how to give people enough of its means but not too much.  It does not consider it an insult, nor is it eager to interpret it as an insult, when someone says, “This pastor thinks it is enough if he preaches, catechizes, administers the sacraments, hears confessions, and comforts the sick!”  It knows that even the most faithful pastors do not do enough of this.  It has little use for multiplying pastoral duties but treasures those which are commanded in the Scriptures and have been recognized since ancient times.  To many people it is something novel that a man should not be a jack of many trades but a master of the few precious means, yet this is what the church has always thought.  In a word, it accomplishes much through a few means. …

It is enough, and more than enough, if a man just carries out the ancient duties of a pastor.  Superfluous and even a hindrance is the officiousness of modern pastors.  Here the slogan should be, “Not many, but much.”  The poverty of our fathers is richer than the wealth of their opponents.  It is through alternating periods of withdrawal and public appearance, stillness and publicity, through persistent use of Word and sacrament, through giving of a quiet but full measure, through modesty and steadfastness that the Lutheran church attains its goals.

It is not concerned with new means of encouraging good works, although they have been highly praised.  It does not desire to do its good works the way societies or factories do.  It knows that works carried out in the fashion of modern societies easily displace other works, disturb the harmony of manifold good works, and make men one-sided and intemperate.  It is afraid that societies which separate from the church and act as if everything depended on them may become organizations of extravagance and intemperance, even though they carry the name “temperance” in their titles.  …

The church has various activities, therefore, even though the means through which it performs them and encourages all good things are always the same–Word, sacrament, the holy office of the ministry.

Few means–many good works!  That is the way it is with the church.

J.K.W. Loehe, Three Books on the Church, 164-166

New Traditions and Old

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Every week, it seems, I read of one or another church planted in some place.  I pay more attention to those planted as congregations of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, since that’s my home (for better or worse).  I’ve seen so many that I can describe them for you: it’s got some enigmatic name: some combination of letters and numbers, some obscure reference to a story in the Scriptures.  Either that, or it sounds like an early 2000s, upscale housing development (Eastpointe, Southpointe, Midpointe).  Second, it’s in a building that doesn’t look like what people associate with “church”: a warehouse, a storefront, some other nondescript building.  Third, they are going to play the worship music you’ll hear on the local Christian radio station, or maybe an uptempo version of an “old” hymn (e.g., “Amazing Grace.”  Although, I acknowledge, you are likely to hear both “In Christ Alone”–the ubiquitously cited great modern hymn–or “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”)  Fourth, the congregation is often going to revolve around the vision and the leadership capabilities of the pastor and the great team the pastor has developed.  Fifth, they are going to have tech and sound people producing slick slides for the pastor’s “message” (often a series of messages based on some hot topic).  Sixth, the pop culture references are going to be coming out of your ears by the end.

Personally, I wonder how effective this pragmatic, relevant, culturally sensitive approach is at “reaching” the “unchurched” or “dechurched,” but whatever.  They aren’t asking my permission to do what they want, and they don’t really care whether I like what they’re doing or whether I think it is faithful to what we as Lutherans have received or whether it can adequately convey the weight of what Lutherans have received from our ancestors in the faith.  They are much more interested in the synchronic nature of our world, than in the diachronic tradition of benighted, premodern Christians.  Fine.

But could they please just acknowledge that they have a tradition and that it’s about 15 years old?  It’s the post-modern, clever, ironic, casual tradition of recent American consumerism.  It’s not the Lutheran tradition of 1800 years, reformed 500 years ago to bring the Gospel to the forefront.  I know, I know: they believe Lutheran theology, and they highlight free grace and mercy.  I suggest that holding to the sound pattern of teaching might be more than just saying the right things.  Language matters and every action teaches something.  I suggest they (since they employ the novelty) give an account of their traditions, and how they better and more adequately convey the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners.  I suggest they show why the liturgy that we have received (not just the “order of worship”) is deficient, even though it has been used in multiple languages and cultures, East and West, and for centuries.  I wonder if they have actually delved into the depths of the Lutheran liturgy and found it lacking, or if they observed merely the externals of it (organ, lackadaisical singing, little enthusiasm) and decided it wasn’t worth examining.  Can they see that from the perspective of the centuries, their complete jettisoning of the liturgical tradition of the Lutheran church for the trappings of modern evangelicalism infused with some Lutheran clichés appears a little arrogant?  As if what has been developed and strengthened and worked out for generations suddenly doesn’t “work” any more, and now they’re going to get it right?

Let me put it this way: nothing comes from nowhere.  From where do the songs come?  From where do the thoughts about the texts come?  From where do the ideas for how to set up a “worship space” come?  From where does the language come to talk about what is happening when congregations meet together?  Does it all have to come from Lutheran sources, as if there is nothing good outside of our tradition?  Of course not.  But when none of your language and none of your songs speak in a Lutheran voice, is it possible–maybe–that you’ve given up more than just the “style” of the Lutheran church?  I realize this discussion is acrimonious, but it’s not just because I’m a jerk who won’t let you “be all things to all people;” it’s also because we can’t be honest with each other about what we’re really doing.  If we could define what we think the gathering of the Church is for, we might have better success talking about what that gathering should look like.

[Just don’t tell me it’s all about preferences.  If you think that’s so, you simply haven’t understood the issues.]


“The Unity of the Church…Will Not Be Seen By the World”

If you want the clearest and most succinct explanation of why orthodox Lutherans declare church fellowship before they share in altar fellowship, read Hermann Sasse’s “Theses on the Question of Church and Altar Fellowship” in The Lonely Way, vol. 1.  Sasse distills down to their essence the Scriptural principles of unity and confession by which the Church lives in this world.

There is only one Christ, so there can only be one Body of Christ, the Church.  But the “unity of the church, and with it the indissolubly connected unity of the Supper, will not be seen by the world.  For since the days of the NT, where people believe in Christ and desire to belong to his church, they have been rent asunder by schism and heresies into various fellowships, and there have been division and separation at the Supper” (332).  Sasse emphasizes again and again in his essays that there never was a golden age of the Church, where there were no divisions and everyone agreed.  This is why every attempt at restorationism, or returning to such a golden age, only ends in more division.

Sasse is not afraid to deal with the scandal caused in the world by what the world views as a destroying of the bond of love among and between Christians.  But:

The worst difficulty which the splintering of Christianity has brought can never be overcome simply by declaring that the barriers between the altars are no longer present, and by pronouncing a general altar fellowship.  Altar fellowship is only possible where a real church fellowship already exists.  Should altar fellowship be pronounced, as was the case in the Unions of the previous [Nineteenth] century, as the means and beginning of a prevailing church fellowship, not only is this fellowship not established, but the church is also destroyed.  Such measures make the church a human religious society, and the Supper is made a mere religious celebration of such a society.  This thesis has been confirmed by the experiences of all unions, which treat altar fellowship not as goal, but as point of departure for ecclesiastical unification (333).

The divisions among the churches are caused, on the one hand, by the sin of “lovelessness, which lead[s] to schism and division of the congregation,” and, on the other hand, by “the intrusion of heresy into the congregation, which leads to the formation of sects and necessitates the separation of pure doctrine from false, the church from the sect” (333).  Here Sasse gives examples of both from the Scriptures: on schism, e.g., 1 Cor. 1:1ff.; 11:18; Eph. 4:1ff.  On heresy, e.g., 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1ff.; Gal. 1:7ff.; Titus 3:10; 1 John 4:1ff.; 2 John 10ff.

He who destroys the unity of the Christian congregation sins against Christ.  He who causes divisions of the congregation about the Supper celebrates the Supper unworthily and eats and drinks the body and blood of the Lord to judgment. … [And] Christianity has the duty to strictly avoid every church and altar fellowship with heresy, to examine individual believers, to instruct the erring in love, and to most strenuously advance church and altar fellowship within orthodox Christianity.

6. The fulfillment of this duty presupposes the clear knowledge of what pure and false doctrine, what church and heresy are” (333).

He goes on to discuss both the Roman and Reformed communions, on either side of the Lutheran “lonely way.”  He says that the “judgment that another church is a heretical church, with which one may not have church fellowship, in no way entails that this church must then be treated only as a synagogue of Satan, or a ‘devil’s church'” (334).  So: “One may see therein an unbearable contradiction: that, to be sure, heresy comes from the devil, but that also among heretics the church of Christ may yet exist.  Yet he must grant that this contradiction stretches through all of church history, from the controversy over Baptism by heretics to the struglle over the Baptism of rationalists” (334).  Nevertheless, the Lutherans have never drawn from this fact (that there are truly Christians in other communions) the conclusion “that one may thus commune at Roman altars” (334); nor is it possible, though the Reformed may indeed have Christ’s Supper, “there is for the Lutheran Christian no possibility, not even in the peril of death [periculo mortis], of taking part in the Reformed Supper [nota bene ELCA!]. … Altar fellowship with the Reformed churches would only be possible if they were to deny Calvin’s doctrine and teach the bodily presence of Christ under the forms of the bread and wine” (335).

Here Sasse highlights how the Reformed and the Lutherans accuse each other of the two opposite causes of division: the Reformed accuse the Lutherans of lovelessness and schism; the Lutherans accuse the Reformed of heresy.  “The situation is this: that either the Lutheran Church can surrender to the Reformed doctrine, or the Reformed Church to the Lutheran doctrine of the Supper, but there is no higher unity transcending both” (335).  For the Lutherans, there can be no church or altar fellowship with the Reformed unless and until the “Reformed churches have renounced their errors” (336).  And if a Reformed Christian wishes to receive the Sacrament at a Lutheran altar, he or she must confess “the doctrine of the Lutheran Catechism. … Therefore the participation of a Reformed [Christian] in a Lutheran Supper means his joining the Lutheran Church” (336).

Finally, Sasse answers the objection that his theses “can ‘no longer’ be carried out in the practice of churchly life.”

To this we must immediately answer: If strict churchly and confessional principles can “no longer” be carried out in our time, then there is no point in maintaining an Evangelical Lutheran Church.  But then we would do well to ask ourselves whether the truths of the Reformation still apply.  Luther did not ask how the truths of the Reformation would play out.  What is really true and right is just as difficult or easy to carry out in the twentieth [or twenty-first] century as it was in the sixteenth (336, emphasis added).

“We will even have to learn,” he writes, “to improve the diminishing abilities to think through ecclesiastical questions and to come to the correct conclusions.  Certainly any new arrangement will not be brought about quickly.  What has been neglected for centuries cannot be made good in a few years.  We must think in terms of decades” (336-337).

We know today what a perverted doctrine of the Supper and its corresponding practice has produced in our churches.  It has nearly robbed us of the Sacrament and thus nearly destroyed the church.  The renewal of the doctrine of the Sacrament, which we are experiencing today with astonishment, will be followed by the renewal of the correct celebration of the Holy Supper.  And if this renewal is carried out first in a few places, and in smaller circles, if it is really the rightly understood and rightly celebrated Sacrament of the Altar, then the church will necessarily be renewed through it.  For the church, which is the body of Christ, is built on earth when Christ feeds his community which truly believes in him with his true body and blood (337, emphasis added).


What Is a Lutheran Church?

American Lutheranism became an enigma to its environment.  For with the exception of a few remnants of old Reformed Churches, American Protestantism is not familiar with a doctrinal type of Christianity.  Only by means of this “rigid” (as the world calls it), firm, and clear position was Lutheranism able to maintain itself.  There was no Lutheranism that was receptive to the influences of the world, that was broad-minded, liberal, and modern.  There were indeed Lutherans who became liberal.  But then they ceased to be Lutherans. …

What is Lutheranism without the actual incarnation, without the miracles that belong to the enfleshed God-man, without the real presence of the body and blood of Christ, without the washing of regeneration?  There is no Lutheranism save that which is “orthodox.”  Anything else may be a beautiful, congenial humanitarianism and Christianity, but it is not Lutheranism.  That must be kept in mind, even when one is, with an all-embracing love, gathering those who adhere to the Church of the Augsburg Confession.  Our Church does not burn heretics or judge consciences.  But it does concern itself about true doctrine and must concern itself about it.  A Lutheran Church that would not do that, a Church that would not train and guide its pastors to this end, a Church that no longer shields its members against false doctrine is no longer a Lutheran Church. [Hermann Sasse, Letters to Lutheran Pastors, vol. 1, 167-168]