Buckets and Burning Churches: Luther, the Church, and Catholicity
In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation of 1520, Luther takes aim at the Roman Church's "flimsy and worthless" claim to possess the exclusive authority and ability (by virtue of some unique spiritual gift) to interpret Scripture. "It is a wickedly invented fable," the Reformer writes, "and they cannot produce a letter in defense of it, that the interpretation of Scripture or the confirmation of its interpretation belongs to the pope alone." Against that "fable" Luther produces biblical texts that emphasize the distribution of spiritual gifts throughout Christ's entire body and equally emphasize every Christian's need to humbly submit himself to, and benefit from, insights into the meaning of God's Word that Christ's body collectively produce. He also notes how persons in Scripture occupying legitimately authoritative roles in the life of the church -- Peter, for instance -- occasionally required correction from others. So much, Luther puts it elsewhere, for the pope's claim to get wine from the same cask that gives everyone else water.
Upon the surface, it may seem curious that Luther chases these comments about Rome's presumptuous claim of some exclusive prerogative to discern Scripture's meaning with equally fervent comments denying Rome's exclusive right to convene ecumenical councils of the church. "They have no basis in Scripture for their contention that it belongs to the pope alone to call a council or confirm its actions." Against this further presumptuous claim on Rome's part Luther recalls that both the Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15) and the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) are generally regarded as "Christian" (i.e., legitimate and authoritative) despite their having been convened by persons other than Peter or pope respectively. Luther also employs some common sense, in the form of an analogy for the problems presently pressing upon the church, to suggest how absurd such a claim becomes when popes refuse to actually call councils (for fear, perhaps, that such councils might point a correcting finger at them): "Would it not be an unnatural thing, if a fire broke out in a city, and everybody were to stand by and [let] it burn on and on and consume everything that could burn, for the sole reason that nobody had the authority of the burgomaster, or because, perhaps, the fire broke [out] in the burgomaster's house?" Translation: If the building's on fire and there's buckets and water standing by, you don't wait for the fireman to show up and shout directions, you just get busy throwing water in the general direction of the flames.
Why, one might ask, the concern for a church council -- why, in other words, the concern to address the church's theological and moral failings -- once one has succeeded in stripping Rome of any exclusive right to interpret Scripture? Why not just wash one's hands of the whole Roman affair and commit oneself to doctrinal purity and proper charity with like-minded individuals who embrace Scripture as the only infallible source and norm of Christian beliefs and practices?
For one thing, because in wresting the exclusive authority to interpret Scripture from the papacy's grip, Luther didn't intend to turn it over to himself or any other individual. He intended, rather, to return that right and privilege of biblical interpretation to the church (properly defined). Luther by this point in his career freely admitted that church councils can get it wrong. But he believed they were far less likely to than any discrete individual, not just because there's safety in numbers, but because the church enjoys specific promises from God that inform (without making infallible) her efforts to understand and apply God's Word to her own corporate existence. Luther's desire for a church council stemmed, then, from his perception that the true catholic church might, in relation to his own difficulties, exercise her prerogative of biblical interpretation in such a venue and decide in his favor on the issues of authority and salvation that now separated him from Rome.
But also reflected in Luther's call for a church council -- beyond the hope that such a council might, on the basis of Scripture, decide in his favor on the controverted issues of the day -- is Luther's simple love for the church. Luther, quite simply, wasn't willing to give up on the church as a (western) whole, or to rest content in the knowledge that at least a large part of that church agreed with him. This was true even after his excommunication and the establishment of state endorsed evangelical churches throughout the Holy Roman Empire and in Scandinavia. For years beyond Worms -- even when a peaceful resolution to the Reformation controversies no longer seemed possible -- Luther continued to call for a church council.
In recently re-reading and teaching on Luther's Address to the Christian Nobility, I began to wonder whether we as Protestant heirs of Luther today possess any part of his love and zeal for Christ's bride, or specifically for her catholicity and unity. I wonder, in other words, if we haven't grown too comfortable in our fragmented Protestant existence, and in the opportunity that our stretched-thin and mobile and consumeristic lifestyles present to walk away from problems in the church (at least as such problems present themselves to us in concrete congregations and denominations). To capitalize on Luther's analogy, it seems to me that the church -- no matter what form she takes in our particular lives -- is always on fire to some extent, or at least, there's almost always a fire brewing. How often are we waiting for someone to come and shout directions, or simply walking away entirely, instead of grabbing a bucket and getting to work? Is indifference our principal response to a burning church -- indifference rooted, perhaps, in the fact that in our day we think not in terms of church but of churches, and are fairly confident when fire breaks out that we can find a different congregation or denomination where things are less hot (at least for another five minutes)? As for the fires we've just walked away from when we move on -- well, as they say, someone else's problem.
We need more bucket grabbers in the church these days. And bucket grabbing, I think, looks like greater commitment to the church in its local expression and, simultaneously, commitment to the church on a much larger scale. We need less rhetoric of "service to the church" these days -- rhetoric that often masks rather blatant exploitation of the church by "Christian" organizations and individuals -- and more genuine service to the church; service, that is, driven by love; service that might leave us with singed eyelashes and splinters in our hands, but might equally save a few people from getting burned.