Yes, says the author; therefore we must get rid of the misconceptions that dominate the theological thought of our churches
To answer this serious question properly, we look first at a profound change that has occurred on the religious scene of the Western world during the past fifty years. About the turn of the century, European—and to a certain degree even American—Catholicism was deeply stirred by a book that had appeared in 1897 and had gone through seven editions in two years’ time, Catholicism as the Principle of Progress. Written by Hermann Schell, professor of apologetics at Würzburg and author of a famous dogmatics, it gave expression to the grave concern of all educated Catholics who realized that their church had lost the leadership in all fields of human culture. Catholicism meant to modern man backwardness, cultural inferiority, while Protestantism, the predominant religion of the leading world powers, seemed to have gained the undisputed leadership not only in politics and economics but also in literature and philosophy, in historical research, and in the natural sciences and technology.
The modernist controversy which was raging through the Catholic world under Pius X seemed to confirm this verdict. A deep feeling of frustration took hold of the young Catholic academics of all faculties. University professors had to be relieved of the anti-modernist oath that was otherwise demanded from all teachers of theology. Schell himself, who was aware of the great possibilities of Catholicism in the modern world, was suspected of modernism and had to revoke some of his propositions. This he did as a faithful son of the church, but he died of a broken heart. The turn of the tide began in 1914. With the death of Pius X and the accession of Benedict XV, the modernist controversy abated, and the First World War not only changed the political scene in the entire world but also shook modern civilization to its very foundations. A great devaluation of the standards of the nineteenth century took place.
It is against this background that one must see the rise of Catholicism in the last half century—its growing influence on modern man, especially on highly educated people, and the corresponding change in the evaluation of Protestantism. In Denmark, the Catholic Bishop of Copenhagen complains of the unhealthy disproportion in the membership of his small church, with its many converts from the academic professions. Sweden was the land of a “Luther Renaissance” after the First World War. But this theological movement had no influence on the comparatively small section of the nation that had any interest in religion. Even the theologians who are looking for a “normative theology,” now that the time of a mere historical theology seems to have come to an end, seek it, not in the great Lutheran tradition of the past, but either in a somewhat nebulous ecumenical doctrine of the future or in Catholicism. Catholics can teach in the theological faculty of Upsala. The shocking breakdown of the old doctrinal standards, of church order (e.g., in the ordination of women, which is contrary to the law of the Lutheran Church as based on Scripture and the confessions), and even of the moral standards of the Ten Commandments (this church discusses seriously whether premarital intercourse must, in view of the facts of present Swedish life, be regarded as sin under all circumstances) has led the Church of Sweden to the brink of an outward catastrophe that for the time being is prevented only by the Establishment. And this may go overnight if the growing agnostic or even atheistic “humanism” wishes so.
In Germany, where this humanism is organizing itself as “the Third Church” (besides Catholicism and Protestantism), the situation is similar. The Lutheran ministry is undermined by the theology of Bultmann and his disciples, the moderates among them being the most dangerous because their nihilism is hidden behind some orthodox phrases and pietistic sentiments. It happens again and again that candidates who have passed their examination declare that they will not seek ordination. As one of these honest men declared to his bishop (this happened in the church from which Bultmann comes), “I could perhaps preach on an ordinary Sunday. But how could I preach at Christmas or Easter? I cannot preach on myths.” He is right. The gaps are filled with girls who crowd the theological lecture halls. Some of the bishops, pious and conscientious Lutherans, refuse to ordain them. But most of them have no objections, especially since the new hermeneutics (is not that the art of making the Bible say what we want to hear?) and the “evangelical” understanding of the New Testament (which makes obedience to Christ’s commandments “legalism”) support them, to say nothing of the great authority of Karl Barth, also on their side.
Thus the Church of the Reformation perishes in the old Lutheran countries. Ranke, the great historian of the Reformation, once said: “The German nation has had one great love, and this was Luther.” It has been stated that today no one loves Luther any more. We could perhaps add: with the possible exception of some Catholics who have just discovered him. But who loves Luther in Germany, in the Scandinavian countries, and in the Lutheran churches of America, where they do not even understand him?
Will we forfeit the heritage of the Reformation? We Lutherans are rapidly doing so. We must leave it to the theologians of the other confessional groups that arose out of the Reformation, and that means first of all to the Presbyterians and Reformed and to the Anglicans, to answer the question for themselves.
What can we do about it? This question can be answered only if we are clear about the cause of this loss. This we shall understand if we realize what has been lost. It is the doctrinal substance, the confession, the dogma that belongs to the very nature of the Christian faith. Each of the churches that grew out of the historic events which we call the “Reformation” had its own confession. These confessions were not only divisive: they certainly contradicted each other in many and very important points, even to the extent of exclusiveness. One cannot confess simultaneously the Augsburg Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, the Helvetica, Gallicana, Scotica, and Belgica confessions on the one hand and the Formula of Concord on the other, or the Anglican Articles of Religion along with the dogmatic decrees of Trent (as John Henry Newman had to learn in his futile attempt to reconcile them in Tract 90). For Rome also had to undergo a Reformation, though a very different one, in the encounter with the “Protestant” Reformation, In many respects Rome was in 1563 a different church from what she had been in 1517, one of the confessional churches that had replaced the one medieval church of the West. And yet, what a surprising amount of agreement did exist among these confessions.
In the Smalcald Articles, written in 1537 in view of the council that had been summoned for the following year, Luther gives his program for what today is called the ecumenical dialogue with Rome. He divides the articles of faith into three parts. First, the “sublime articles of the divine majesty,” the trinitarian and the Christological dogma. “These articles are in no contention or dispute. Therefore we have not to discuss them at present.” Second, the main article of the Christian faith which teaches that Jesus Christ alone is our salvation and that we are justified by faith in him alone, together with the consequences of this doctrine, the rejection of the propitiatory sacrifice of the Mass, the invocation of saints, and the claims of the papacy. No compromise is possible on these articles. The third part contains the articles on which a discussion is possible and necessary with “learned and sensible men” from the Roman church “or even among ourselves.” Here all the great doctrines of the Reformation are mentioned: sin and repentance, Law and Gospel, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the office of the keys, confession, and even the doctrine of justification. The seeming contradiction between Luther’s preparedness to enter into a serious doctrinal discussion with Roman Catholic theologians and his uncompromising “No” to the papacy is nothing else but the Sic et Non of the Reformation: the Yes to everything that is in accordance with the Word of Cod, wherever it is found, even in the papal church, and the uncompromising No to everything that is contrary to God’s Word, even in our own denomination.
If we men of an age that has lost the deep sense of religious truth look back at the confessional era of Europe from Augsburg 1530 to Westminster 1647, we are inclined to see only the disagreements and splits. No one should ever try to minimize the shame of these divisions, the sins from which many of them arose, and the human tragedies that followed them, though we should not indulge in the dreams of a golden age of an undivided Christendom (before 1517, or 1054, or 451, or 325, or before the last of the apostles died). But we must not overlook the strange unity that underlies all these contradictory confessions and binds together the confessors. It is not only what sociologists call “the solidarity of the loyal” (as, for example, the solidarity among Catholic priests, Lutheran pastors, Communists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses in Hitler’s concentration camps) that united the martyrs of various faiths in England and on the Continent. These men went to the stake to die for the Reformation or for the pope because they wanted to be loyal to Christ. They died with the same psalms on their lips. Their aim was, as the preface to the Augsburg Confession says of either side in “the dissension concerning our holy faith”: “to have all of us embrace and adhere to a single, true religion and live together in unity and in one fellowship and church, even as we are all enlisted under one Christ.” This was the great common possession of all Christendom in the age of the Reformation, the basis of all its confessions: the firm belief in the Triune God, as it is expressed in the ancient creeds, the Nicene Creed of the Church Universal, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Symbolum Quicunque for the Western Church. They all believed “in one Lord Jesus Christ,” as the Nicene Creed confesses him, “begotten of the Father before all ages, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” They all believed that the words, “who for us men and for our salvation descended from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man, crucified also for us …” meant that this Jesus is our only hope of salvation. Even the Council of Trent speaks the anathema against any one who “asserts that the sin of Adam … which is in every man as his own sin can be removed either by man’s natural powers or by any other remedy than the merit of the one mediator our Lord Jesus Chris.…”
When this great common heritage of all Christians was lost, the heritage of the Reformation was also forfeited. We cannot relate here the tragic history of the dissolution of Christian dogma which began in England. When the last great confession of the Reformed churches was written at Westminster, the feet of those who would bury the heritage of the Reformation together with the common Christian faith were at the door. The great religious revolution began in the form of a highly spiritual piety. It was the revival of that “enthusiasm” in which Luther and Calvin had recognized the great enemy of the biblical faith of the Reformation. It is deeply related to the mysticism of earlier times, which, incidentally, was at the same time revived in the Roman church. According to the Reformation, my salvation rests entirely on what God has done for me in the history of salvation, in the incarnation of his Son, and in the atoning death of Christ and his glorious resurrection and ascension. Of this I can know only from Scripture and from the scriptural preaching in the Church, from the objective outward Word. In the external means of grace, the Word and the sacraments, the Gospel comes to me, the great promise, “for you.” In these means of grace there comes to me the Holy Spirit, who, “where and when it pleases God,” works faith, the saving trust in that promise. The revolutionary change consists in this, that the decisive encounter between God and man takes place no longer in the events of a sacred history about which I read in old books but in the immediate experience of my soul today. What matters is not that Christ was born in Bethlehem (so this may be regarded as a legend) but that he is born in me today (of this I am sure, for I trust my pious feelings).
The early Pietists regarded this change of emphasis from the objective facts of history, which they did not deny, to subjective experience as a mere clarification of the Christian faith. But the history of the Quakers, whose influence on the Continent cannot be overestimated, shows what is really involved in this shift from object to subject: the devaluation of Holy Scripture, which is now no longer the firm rock it was for the Reformers; the abolition of the sacraments of Christ as means of grace; the destruction of the confessional church and its replacement with what henceforth is called “undogmatic Christianity”; the beginning apotheosis of man, first the pious, the religious man, then the enlightened man whose reason becomes the supreme judge of everything and everybody, including God.
No one, of course, had wanted such a development. Such a religious revolution may begin with almost imperceptible changes in thought and terminology. If the theologians try to correct this, they are accused of hairsplitting. However, there are crucial situations in the history of the Church where theology must do some hairsplitting, fight for an “iota,” as the world calls it, namely, when only a hairbreadth separates the saving truth from pernicious error. In such cases, the Church needs theologians who with prophetic clairvoyance, or better, in virtue of the charisma of discerning the spirits, see where the narrow path lies between truth and error. Such a man was St. John, the Apostle, at the end of the first century, when the border between Church and pious Christian Gnosticism had become blurred. Such a man was Athanasius, in the middle of the fourth century, when, as the consequence of the constant interference of the emperors, even the greatest saints were not clear about the border between orthodoxy and the moderate forms of Arianism. Such a man was Luther, in the sixteenth century, in his fight against Rome and the enthusiasts for the sola fide, when he predicted what it would mean to the Church if people no longer understood the “crucified for us” of the creed in its full biblical sense. From the ranks of such men, he said, “will now come (and many of them are already at hand) those who will not believe that Christ has arisen from the dead, or that he sits at the right hand of God, and whatever else follows concerning Christ in the creed. These will knock the bottom out of the barrel and put an end to the game. For therewith the whole Christ will perish.…”
“Undogmatic Christianity” has replaced the Christian faith of the Reformation. This was the fate of Protestantism. The long line of its prophets and witnesses stretches from Fox and Penn to Francke and Zinzenclorf, Kant and Goethe, Schleiermacher, Ritschl and Harnack, Troeltsch and Tillich, Rauschenbusch, Fosdick, and the Niebuhrs. For three centuries Protestantism has followed this way that leads, and perhaps has led already, to the end of the Protestant churches. This is what Rome has seen for some generations. The Roman church is today reaping the harvest that Protestant theology has prepared for it.
For there is not such a thing as “undogmatic Christianity” because Christianity is essentially a dogmatic religion, perhaps better, the dogmatic religion. None of the great religions of India or of the ancient world has known anything like a dogmatics. Not even the “testimony” of the Mohammedans or the “Hear, Israel” of Judaism (Deut. 6:4; cf. 1 Cor. 8:6) is “dogma” in the sense of the Christian Church. We cannot enter into the question of the nature of the Christian dogma. Suffice it to say that it is the binding doctrinal content of that confession which Jesus demands from all men—from his disciples when he asks them, “Whom say ye that I am,” and from his adversaries when he asks them, “What do you think of Christ? Whose Son is he?”
We shall have a long way to go if we who claim the heritage of the Reformation are to get rid of all misconceptions that have grown up in three centuries and still dominate the theological thought of our churches. We shall have to rethink the doctrines that have been the common heritage of all Christians since the age of the Reformation. We shall have to study again the great creeds of the ancient Church, which are a product, not, as Harnack believed eighty years ago, of Greek philosophy in the Church, but of deep biblical studies. Through every clause of the Nicene Creed one can still hear the passage from the Bible on which it is based. We have to learn that der Sitz im Leben of the creed is the liturgy, as shown by the Te Deum, which is one of the greatest confessions in the twofold sense of confessio as praise of God and confession of the faith, dogma in the form of praise and prayer. And we have to learn that, according to the Old and New Testaments, the liturgy of the people of God on earth is inseparably connected with the eternal liturgy in heaven (Isa. 6: Rev. 4). If in this respect we have to learn from insights regained by the Catholic churches in East and West during the last two generations, they have to learn, and are beginning to learn from the Reformation, what the Bible means as source and standard of the prayer and the doctrine of the Church. To take one example, Lex orandi lex credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith) is valid only if it is also inverted: Lex credendi lex orandi. Nothing is correct in the liturgy, the worship of the Church, that is not doctrinally correct.
These pages are written on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, the old feast of the koimesis, the falling asleep, the death of Mary. In 1950, Pius XII declared it to be “a revealed dogma that … Mary … when she had finished the course of her earthly life was taken up, body and soul, into the glory of heaven.” Where has this dogma been revealed? Not in Scripture. It was unknown for many centuries. Hence even a proof from tradition cannot be given. What, then, is the source of the “infallible oracle,” as the breviary calls the papal definition that puts the Assumption of Mary dogmatically on the same level as the Ascension of our Lord? Not God but man is its source. “Enthusiasm,” piety that does not stick to the Word, “clings to Adam and his descendants … and is the source, strength and power of all heresies, including those of the papacy and of Mohammed,” says Luther in the Smalcald Articles (III, 8).
In the sixteenth century the Church of the Reformation stood lonely in a hostile world and gave, over against all forms of enthusiastic religion, its witness to the truth, the power, and the sufficiency of the written Word of God. Will we retain this heritage? Will we be able to give the same witness over against the new and much more powerful manifestations of the same old foe that have entered and almost destroyed our own churches? This depends largely on whether we still know the deepest nature of the Reformation. It began, as did every great new epoch in the history of the Church, and as did the Church itself, with the mighty call to repentance: “Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in saying, ‘Repent ye, etc.,’ meant the whole life of the faithful to be repentance.”
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