Saturday, November 10, 2007

Clarifying Luther's Bowling Skills

Martin Luther was born into the world on this day in 1483. The day is not exactly marked by great celebrations around the world. That is unfortunate, though not unexpected. The greatness of the Blessed Reformer is invisible to much of the Church in this world, where her vision, even of herself, is so blurred.

What ought to be less unexpected, however, yet is true nonetheless, is that one won't hear much about such celebrations on Luther's birthday even from the great centers of Confessional Lutheranism. There is something about the present state of the modern Confessional Lutheran movement that strikes me as bored (or at least boring), lazy, and uninspired. I lament this, and I pray for genuine Catholic and Evangelical renewal among the children of Luther's Reformation, renewal that will build on the past without a fear of boldly stepping ahead.

The Confessional revival of the nineteenth century, inspired as it was by the great Lutheran anniversary years of that time, struck a cord particularly with the university students of the day. Just so, I believe that renewal in our time can and will happen at the grass roots level, if you will, among students (not all the students, but among them), at the universities, especially those independant of ecclesial bureaucratic control, where scholarship will once again shake itself free of the clutter, and open its eyes afresh. It will also take place in the parish, not all parishes, but among the ostensibly Lutheran ones there are even now precious embers that are glowing in the pile, trying to feed themselves upon the clean air of the Gospel. They are scattered and insignificant at first glance, stretched out in places like Gretna and Suring and Khartoum and Riga. They will strengthen also by building upon each other. The bureaucrats may have forever ruined the fire analogy, and I hasten to clarify that I do not envision the Catholic renewal of the Church ever becoming a great overwhelming, all consuming movement. The slow burning, fragile embers in and under a much greater pile of ash is an apt picture of the way the Church will always be in this world. Nevertheless, once in a while the Lord breathes His Spirit over the face of the mess, which sustains and renews it. Indeed, this can and will happen again in our own time. This is my constant prayer.

Meanwhile, I didn't want this day to pass without offering some sort of comment on the holy, blessed, and pious doctor of the Church, Martin Luther. One way of doing so would be to compose a thought or two on a slight annoyance I have been harboring lately. I hate that which is utterly cliche, though I am surely as guilty of it as anyone. Cliche is that to which the writer and speaker at times almost can't help but resort. Lutherans are often more guilty of it than anyone. When we recognize it, though, we ought to take aim at it, and thereby refresh and renew our discourse. One cliche I hear a LOT lately, especially in the Catholic world, is to blame Luther for all things Protestant by saying that, whatever his own intentions may have been, he is the one who "got the ball rolling." I'm serious. Not only is the notion cliche, but more and more I am literally hearing that very metaphor being employed. "Luther got the ball rolling."

Let me state this as clearly as I can. Martin Luther was not a Protestant. We also ought to get away from the notion that there was one great Reformation in the sixteenth century, and that Luther, therefore, was its pioneer, and leader (the one who, yes, you guessed it, got the ball rolling). Rather, there were several so called reformation movements in that era. They had differing aims, goals, concerns, and visions of the Church.

To take a case in point, one cannot appreciate Luther's reformation without understanding that one of it's great pillars was his defense of the true presence of our Lord Jesus in the Blessed Eucharist. From the 1520s through 1546 this is abundantly clear. Luther demonstrates in his eucharistic writings, and at Marburg, that his position is the truly Catholic one, and that it has nothing in common with the leaders of the other confessions of his day, the other "spirits," as Luther was wont to call them. There is no brotherhood between Zwingli and Luther, as became manifest in 1529. The Lutherans need to be reminded of this at times. There are Catholics who need to learn it. The Protestants have always known it, especially when they have seen Lutherans being Lutherans.

Luther didn't get any ball rolling, except maybe in his back yard. There are good scholarly Luther scholars, even in the Roman Catholic Church, who see this. To name just one off the top of my head, there is a man like Franz Possett, who penned an outstanding doctoral dissertation at Marquette University, Luther's Catholic Christology, centering on the Johannine lectures of 1527. I would love to see more of Possett's style of level headed discussion, and less of the silly perpetuation of nonsensical cliches. Let us all, all of us, that is, who care deeply about the Gospel and the unity of the Church Catholic, commit ourselves to thoughtful, reasoned, and Christian discourse, which at times includes repentance and conversion. In other words, sometimes we need to stop, assess what we've been doing, and then get the ball rolling again. Oops. Did I do that?

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