2013 Theological Reading Challenge: "The Gospel and the Church"
Ecumenical documents are not an easy read. They are the work of annual committees composed of church representatives, and the particular insights and predilections of the individual members flavor the outcome—but not in a way that is readily apparent. There is often a passion behind the document to see unity, born of the intense personal encounter between the dialogue members; translating that passion to those who have had no parallel encounters is difficult. And the purpose of ecumenical documents is multiple: they certainly offer conclusions, but they also raise questions, and on another level they simply try to provoke fresh thinking. That’s a lot to ask of relatively short writings...
Ecumenical documents are not an easy read. They are the work of annual committees composed of church representatives, and the particular insights and predilections of the individual members flavor the outcome—but not in a way that is readily apparent. There is often a passion behind the document to see unity, born of the intense personal encounter between the dialogue members; translating that passion to those who have had no parallel encounters is difficult. And the purposes of ecumenical documents are multiple: they certainly offer conclusions, but they also raise questions, and on another level they simply try to provoke fresh thinking. That’s a lot to ask of relatively short writings!
“The Gospel and the Church,” also known as “The Malta Report,” was released in 1972—less than a decade after official international Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical dialogue got underway, and still in the wake of the seismic shock that was the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). There is an optimism about the text that is surprising but also refreshing now fifty years later, when any hope of visible unity appears to have stalled out entirely. Its basic confession is: the gospel is at the center of the Christian faith, and the church is shaped around the gospel. If we do indeed share that conviction, then ultimately all of our differences should be resolvable.
The document opens by tracing the history of its meetings—a common practice in such ecumenical writings. One meeting builds on another; clarity grows over time. It is amazing that already in 1972, which is to say twenty-seven years before the signing of the Joint Declaration, the participants are confident that the historic disputes about justification can be reconciled. Whether or not this proves to be the case, the Report raises a wider issue: “Yet we ask ourselves whether the still remaining differences must be viewed as hindrances to church fellowship. Are not the differences cutting across church lines, arising from diverse responses to contemporary challenges at least as great as the traditional differences between the Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church?” (§8). In other words, one of the meta-questions of ecumenism is how we decide what differences must divide the church and what differences need not divide. Enough has changed in the past 500 years that we have to acknowledge serious differences cutting in all different directions. There is not a uniform Lutheran team and a uniform Catholic team facing off in battle—it’s more like the croquet game in Alice in Wonderland.
Another ecumenical meta-question is that of how to express newfound agreement. “Often the problems were stated in a way derived from the manner of inquiry characteristic of the tradition of only one of the two churches. To be sure, this can be challenging and fruitful to the other partner and lead him to a deeper understanding of his own tradition. Here, however, there often arises the difficulty of finding a verbal formulation acceptable to both sides” (§11). Choosing the traditional language of one side or the other will not necessarily advance the cause of mutual understanding: it will sound more like awarding one side the prize and sidelining the other. At the same time, proposing new language is a tricky job. It is, by definition, new, and therefore does not benefit from the long period of testing and refining that theology requires. For this reason, confessionally astute people are often turned off by ecumenical documents. It’s understandable, but new ecumenical language is not meant to replace old confessional language or assert itself as the new standard. It is meant to be subject to ongoing critique, evaluation, and reception.
After these opening observations, the Report goes into specific questions related to the gospel. First it deals with the gospel and tradition. The authority of Scripture vs. tradition is an age-old dispute between Lutherans and Catholics, and the Report argues that neither side of the equation, simplistically construed, can do the work it needs to do. It is the Holy Spirit Who brings the gospel to the church and makes it live: so all theological formulations, all church traditions, and all forms of ecclesial government are subject to testing as to whether they need to be reformed or even discarded in the interest of the gospel. Both Lutherans and Catholics acknowledge that this may touch on their own traditions and structures.
This last concern is taken up more critically in the next section on the gospel and the world. It was already clearly seen that the upheavals of the second half of the twentieth century had left the church nearly paralyzed in its ability to proclaim and embody the gospel in a compelling way. The Report’s conclusion is radical, though it appears to have largely been ignored all around in subsequent years: “The relationship of the world to the gospel points to the necessity of new structures for our churches. Given the charismatic total structure of the church, it was asked whether the function of the office holders could not be understood and organized in new ways and thereby enhance the importance of the priesthood of all believers. The task over against the world requires opportunities for freedom and public opinion within the church. Such new structures provide possibilities for the removal of major barriers to unity. For with the progressive overcoming of doctrinal disputes, it is now precisely structural problems which are largely responsible for continuing to keep our churches divided.”
How very true that last sentence has proven to be! There can be enormous agreement between churches on the content of the gospel, but getting that to show up in the organizational and structural life of the church is next to impossible. Whether it is primarily institutional weight or sinful human protectiveness that is the problem is not at all clear. This has continued to be an issue since the Joint Declaration. If we can agree on justification, why can we not agree on the consequences of justification?
But here in the Malta Report, far more opportunity for common ground can be seen. The historical development of the threefold office is recognized, and its mandatory nature is thereby relativized. The Catholic side further acknowledges valid ordinations within its own borders by other priests rather than bishops and recognizes the limits of “priestly character,” while the Lutherans admit to their own version of “priestly character” in refusing to repeat the rite of ordination on one person. Astonishingly, §63 argues: “Therefore, the Catholic members request the appropriate authorities in the Roman Catholic Church to consider whether the ecumenical urgency flowing from Christ’s will for unity does not demand that the Roman Catholic Church examine seriously the question of recognition of the Lutheran ministerial office.”
And this in turn leads to the argument of the final section on the gospel and the unity of the church, which suggests creating possibilities for intercommunion among Lutherans and Catholics. While there is concern for those who will be “confused” by such an act, there is equal concern for those who are actively suffering from the current impossibility of doing so—usually, in this context, couples in “mixed marriages” are in mind, since experience shows that they often end up abandoning both churches for the sake of marital peace.
But it is worth noting that an ecumenical document is not an exercise in suppression or compromise, and this Report comes with several caveats attached to it. A handful of Catholic participants were particularly uneasy with the recommendation of intercommunion and said so. A Lutheran caveat is also attached, endorsing the document overall but identifying certain areas of personal difference of opinion.
And with that, we come to the end of the 2013 Theological Reading Challenge. Thanks and congratulations to all who participated! And we hope you’ll come back for the 2014 Reading Challenge—details soon to follow!