For many years (500 + 21 days), Rome has been telling the Lutherans that if we want to be church, we must submit to the authority which Christ has instituted in the papacy as the successor of Saint Peter. We have been saying for the same 500 years + 21 days that Christ instituted no such thing, and that Rome is really placing all authority in one person that is decidedly not Jesus. (The debauchery of the popes in Luther’s day is well documented.) Now, Rome has invited the head of Swiss Planned Parenthood to speak at the Vatican. It turns out, vesting infallible authority in a sinful person was maybe not the best of ideas.
Friends who have crossed the Bosporus assure me that our arguments over worship style are offensive, and in their own churches they never argue about such things. And, for those willing to give up doctrine for the sake of liturgical peace and quiet, it must be tempting. I like doctrine. Jesus taught it. He told us to teach is.
Historically, there are a number of models regarding authority in the church.
Rome goes with the “Popes and Councils” model.
The East uses “Ceremony”.
Calvin had Reason.
The Baptistic groups use Conscience.
Lutherans could credibly be charged with having the Lutheran Confessions. Are those the Word of God? Of course, the answer is yes, but not everyone will agree; it depends who you ask.
Lutherans can not even agree on what it means to be Lutheran. Do you need a quia, or quaetanus subscription to the confessions? (In the ELCA, they ask the same question about Holy Scripture). What confessions do you accept? Augustana only? Augustana and the Catechisms? The entire Book of Concord? It’s easier in Rome. You are either in or out, and the pope decides that. “Splinter Catholics” (groups that pretend to ‘ordain’ women priests, for example) is another word for “Not”. They are excommunicate, not part of Rome. For Lutherans, we can’t say, “ELCA can’t use the word Lutheran.” There is no real authority that can decide who is, or is not, Lutheran. Rome would use this as an reason to discount us entirely as church. We can’t discipline ourselves. Of course, even Rome can’t stop people from using the word “Catholic.” And no one – neither Christians nor scientists, can stop Christian Scientists from making a mockery of both words.
The best the LCMS can do is protect our Missouri designation (which is weird, since I live in Wyoming) and our cross (which is also weird, because it doesn’t.) So what is the source of authority?
Well, the Word of God, obviously. But that is really creating a straw man out of the other churches. Rome does use the Holy Scriptures. As does the East. And Calvin. And the Baptists. It’s not like none of them use the Word of God, any more than Lutherans ignore the Word and just look to the Confessions (or as we are accused by Rome, looking only to Luther.)
If everyone has the Word, what is the difference? It’s the place given to the Word that becomes a problem.
For Rome, the Word of God is subject to popes and councils. (See the “infallibility” thing above.) For the East, the Word is used for the liturgy, which is Divine, not for doctrine (except the first seven councils). There is no formal method for evaluating competing doctrinal claims, or even for making them. “What the church has always taught” only works if the church never changed its doctrine or worship. There is evidence that the East has changed its doctrine. And the idea that the liturgy, as it exists now, dates back to the time of the apostles is laughable. Ceremony may shape and teach doctrine, but it is not the doctrine itself. That’s not me saying that, that’s a biblical teaching.
What of the Reformed, both Calvin and Baptistic? Calvin subjected scripture to human reason. A God that eternally predestines some to damnation and excludes the atonement from them is monstrous. For the Baptists, they are bound to their conscience. But without any guiding principles that is just another word for “whatever feels right.” And feels are not a safe guiding principle. (For a great example of this, John Rice “Bible Baptism” contains one of the best collections of eisegesis available today.)
So what authority do we have? We have the Word of God. But not “the naked Word, as if it just fell from heaven without any sort of guidance and we just need to figure out what the bible means for me today.” The Word, as interpreted by the church. Specifically, the Book of Concord, but it’s amazing how often that book quotes the early church. So, we accept the teachings of the early church, as long as they agree with the Word of God. The book of Concord does agree, so we accept it in its entirety. As for later teachers – Gerhardt, Walther, Preus, etc. – they are helpful insofar as they agree with the Word of God. When there is a disagreement, we are bound to that Word.
How do we know if someone agrees with the Word of God? We use plain reason. Not reason above the word, but reason bound to that Word of God. My reason tells me that it can not be both bread and the body of Jesus. My reason can take a hike, because the Word of God declares it. But plain reason tells us that “we are justified by faith, apart from works of the law” means that we are justified by faith alone. Rome denies this. Luther – following Thomas Aquinas – sees the logical implications of the statement. Faith, apart from works of the law, means apart from any work we can do in faith toward God or love toward our neighbor. By process of elimination, that must be faith alone. The pope is not infallible, because even the first pope, Saint Peter himself, was called “Satan” by our Lord. Anyone can err. This isn’t heresy; it’s plain reason applied to the clear word of Scripture. But when we apply reason against the word of scripture (“It depends what the meaning of the word is is.”) then reason has become a whore, as Luther calls it.
This leaves conscience. Luther said, “To go against conscience is neither safe for us nor open to us.” And yet, in the very same speech, he also said, “my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” The conscience is not a guiding principle because we feel a certain way about something. Personally, I’d prefer if pastors weren’t judged more harshly than others. I don’t feel like that’s a fair way of doing things. Fortunately, God does not care how I feel. He has declared it to be true. Our conscience is inviolate, but only insofar as it is captive to the word of God. Otherwise, we are just about the feels.
It isn’t just the traditions of the church, although we acknowledge what has been called “the democracy of the dead.” It isn’t just the ceremony, although we use those to instruct and keep good order. It isn’t just reason, although we use the brains God placed in our heads. It isn’t just conscience, because the conscience can be either dulled or overly sharpened. In all of these, it is under the Word. Tradition, subject to the everlasting Word. Ceremony, subject to the orderly reading of the Word. Reason, subject to the clear and certain Word. And conscience, bound to the Word of God.
Otherwise, we leave the certain things of God for the shifting sands of man’s opinion. True, the ELCA claims to have a word from God as well. But then, so does the Episcopal church, the Eastern Church, the Roman church, and for that matter, so do Hindus. How can we be assured that our interpretation is the interpretation? Because whatever method we choose to interpret is subject to, bound to, under the authority of the Word. It is messy in this world. We are not as good at getting rid of false teachers as we should be. From time to time, we have to re-invent the wheel to show that someone is a false teacher, even though we just told someone else that was teaching the same things that they were teaching falsely. It’s maddening. But yielding to some other way of doing things – a Magisterium, or a doctrineless liturgy, or Reason run amok, or personal conviction set adrift – no thank you. I will take our messy and inefficient clinging to the Word of God any day of the week. And twice on Sunday.
If you found this post helpful, you will love What Every Christian Must Know: pure Word of God from Luther’s Large Catechism, summarized in outline form. Great for personal, small group, or Sunday Morning Bible Class.