Changing Churches: An Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran Theological Conversation

Changing Churches: An Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran Theological Conversation

by Mickey L. Mattox, A. G. Roeber


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Sharp controversies -- about biblical authority, the ordination of women, evangelical worship styles, and the struggle for homosexual inclusion -- have rocked the Lutheran church in recent decades. In Changing Churches two men who once communed at the same Lutheran Eucharistic table explain their similar but different decisions to leave the Lutheran faith tradition -- one for Orthodoxy, the other for Roman Catholicism.

Here Mickey L. Mattox and A. G. Roeber address the most difficult questions Protestants face when considering such a conversion, including views on justification, grace, divinization, the church and its authority, women and ministry, papal infallibility, the role of Mary, and homosexuality. They also discuss the long-standing ecumenical division between Rome and the Orthodox patriarchates, acknowledging the difficult issues that still confront those traditions from within and divide them from one another.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802866943
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 02/27/2012
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Mickey L. Mattox is associate professor of theology at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

A. G. Roeber is professor of early modern history and religious studies and codirector of the Max Kade German-American Research Institute at Penn State University.

Read an Excerpt


An Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran Theological Conversation
By Mickey L. Mattox A. G. Roeber

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 Mickey L. Mattox and A. G. Roeber
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6694-3

Chapter One

From Lutheran to Catholic — Justification and Holiness Mickey L. Mattox

It is often said in Lutheran circles that the doctrine of justification is the central truth of the Christian faith, or, in more traditional Lutheran terminology, the "article by which the church stands or falls" (articulus stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae). At the time of the Reformation, Catholics did not contest the Lutherans' insistence on the centrality of the sinner's justification before God, but they did most vehemently reject the Lutherans' doctrine of justification, at least as Catholic bishops and theologians understood it. The Orthodox, of course, did not participate in this distinctively Western controversy; after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, most Orthodox had problems enough of their own to worry about without looking to faraway Germany for controversies. Even in the sixteenth century, though, Lutheran theologians did initiate contact with the Christian East, so that Orthodox did at last become familiar with Lutheran theology, although from their perspective the Lutheran insistence on the centrality of the doctrine of justification was hardly self-evident. From those initial encounters down to the present day, most Orthodox see this as a controversy whose very point of departure reveals its embeddedness in the problematic "juridical" mind-set of the Western church, as well as in a flawed understanding of the relationship between nature and grace.

I defer for the moment questions of the Western church's "juridical" mind-set and understanding of nature and grace, and note simply that it was controversy over the question of justification that led to the split between Catholics and Lutherans in the sixteenth century. For every Lutheran who considers "swimming the Tiber," it is probably still the first question that leaps to mind. In the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), as will be shown below, Lutherans and Catholics have reached a theological agreement on this issue, so its power to divide their churches, and so to prohibit Lutherans from becoming Catholics (or vice versa for that matter), has largely been defused. However, in spite of extensive ecumenical contacts and, in places, close working relationships between Lutherans and Orthodox, the Lutheran doctrine of justification remains a formidable theological difficulty for Orthodox, much as theosis remains a question for Lutherans. Thus, one of the goals of this and the following chapter is to advance the conversation about these problems. The present chapter does so by digging into the roots of Lutheran doctrine. I try to show that the Lutheran doctrine of justification, particularly in the forms in which one finds it in the theology of Martin Luther, includes a rich mystical component right alongside the juridical. Indeed, Lutherans have from their earliest history employed not just juridical language but their own special mystical theological language, particularly regarding the "union of faith" between God and the believer. Luther's doctrine, his distinctive refraction of the paradosis of the faith, should be more widely understood and appreciated by Orthodox, for it has the potential not only to narrow the ecumenical gap between Protestants and Orthodox, but also, I believe, to contribute constructively to Orthodox theology and practice itself. Luther, in other words, is more than just an interesting theological partner, more, even, than just a great theologian; he is a crucial link in the living tradition as it has been handed down among the separated Protestant brethren. He and his tradition need to be known, and they need to be better known, by both Catholics and Orthodox.

As an initial contribution toward that goal, I offer below a brief historical sketch and analysis of the split between Lutherans and Catholics, together with an explication of Luther's understanding of justification that brings out some underappreciated elements of his faith and teaching, elements that should make his faith somewhat more palatable to Orthodox readers, and that will further suggest some of the reasons why, in spite of the clear family resemblances between Lutheranism and Catholicism, some Lutherans will gravitate in the direction of Constantinople rather than Rome, a trajectory that Roeber will examine in more detail in chapter 2. My hope in what follows below, however, is not only to contribute to Orthodox appreciation for Luther, but also to move readers on all sides forward toward a deeper respect and even a critical appropriation of Luther as a teacher of the Christian faith.

This task is perhaps more urgent in relation to the Orthodox, but in spite of the heroic efforts of Catholic Luther scholars, much also remains to be done for Roman Catholics. Even among ecumenically progressive Catholics, Luther remains a problematic figure, particularly regarding the "subjectivism" some have found in his understanding of faith and justification. Some aspects of Luther's theology can be rightly faulted, I believe, from a Catholic or Orthodox perspective, especially, as will become apparent in chapter 4, his understanding of the church or his criticisms of the monastic life. But as I will try to show below, criticisms of his doctrine of justification should be set in the context of broad appreciation and even sympathy, both for the fundamental points he was trying to make and for the man himself as a Christian theologian. Orthodox are unlikely, of course, to write him into an icon anytime soon, and Catholics do not seem to be on the verge of proclaiming him a saint. Nevertheless, as a theologian Luther really should be seen as a "common doctor" (doctor communis), a resource, that is, for both Orthodox and Catholics.

The Sixteenth-Century Division: A Historical Sketch

To understand the Lutheran doctrine of justification and to recognize its place within the long development of Western catholic theology, we need to rehearse a bit of history. With the grudging agreement of the emperor Charles V, the crisis that began in 1517 with Martin Luther's posting of the Ninety-five Theses resulted in 1555 in the legal establishment of the "Evangelical" or "Protestant" churches within the Western Holy Roman Empire. The evangelical faith that was thereby established, moreover, was legally codified in the very same confession (i.e., solemn statement of faith) that had been read out in the presence of that same emperor by the "protesting" princes at the "diet," or "imperial congress," of Augsburg on June 25, 1530, that is, the Augsburg Confession, drafted (and later emended) by Luther's brilliant young Wittenberg University colleague, Philip Melanchthon. This confession still enjoys almost universal recognition among the world's Lutheran churches. Together with the Bible, and with Luther's Small Catechism and Large Catechism (both 1529), the Augsburg Confession could even be said to define the fundamental doctrines of the evangelical Lutheran churches. When we add to these documents what Lutherans count as the three ecumenical creeds and a few related documents, we have the entire contents of the classical collection of Lutheran "confessional writings" known as the Book of Concord.

Although both Latin and German versions of the Augsburg Confession were prepared and presented at Augsburg in 1529, the language in which the confession was read before the diet was German, which leads at least one scholar to conclude that "the official text is the German one." Editions of the confession, however, commonly include both the German and the Latin texts. Regardless of which text should be understood as bearing the most authority, for present purposes it is more important to note that the Augsburg Confession itself neatly epitomizes the bilingual character of the development of Lutheran theology in its formative period. In fact, in many of Martin Luther's works the two languages were so thoroughly intertwined that scholars have labeled them "macaronic." A notable case in point is Luther's last recorded words: "Wir sein pettler" (German); "hoc est verum" (Latin). "We are beggars; that's the truth."

The early Lutherans, we might say, did their theological thinking simultaneously both in Latin, the classical language of the Western church (and of the Western universities), and in the kind of German spoken and written in Luther's region of Germany, what would eventually be known as hoch Deutsch, "high German." Put just a bit differently, Latin and German provided not only the formative vocabulary but also the linguistic and conceptual structures within which early Lutheran theology developed. It was Latin in which the early Protestant reformers had come to know their Bible, in which they wrote their own great works of theology, and in which they continued to read the classic works of Western spirituality and biblical exegesis, including patristic writers like Jerome, Ambrose, and Hilary, standard theological texts like Peter Lombard's Sentences, and, above all, the writings of the bishop of Hippo, Saint Augustine. At the same time, however, most of them lived in German-speaking lands. They leaned heavily on Luther's immensely popular and hugely influential German translation of the Bible, and they carried out their pastoral tasks — preaching, hearing confessions, offering pastoral counsel, and writing catechisms and devotional works — in the German language as well.

These historical facts are important for present purposes because they accurately signal two very important things: on the one hand, the Lutheran tradition's cultural and linguistic distance from the Orthodox, and on the other hand, its deep embeddedness in Western Catholic traditions of theological reflection. To confirm the latter, we turn again to the life of Luther himself. At the insistence of his superiors in the Hermit Order of St. Augustine (OESA: Ordo Eremitica Sancti Augustini), Luther himself had completed nothing short of a classical medieval Latin theological education, including preparatory work in the arts (bachelor's and master's degrees), the Baccalaureus Biblicus (the first license to lecture on the Bible), the Magister Sententiarius (lecturing on the Sentences of Peter Lombard), and the Doctor Theologiae. Interestingly, Luther's academic pedigree parallels exactly that of Saint Thomas Aquinas, even though the two were separated by nearly three hundred years. As a result, when Lutheran theologians sat down in the sixteenth century for discussions with their Catholic counterparts, they were able to identify their disagreements with a high degree of specificity because they shared a common theological language (i.e., Latin) and history. To this day, the common Western heritage shared by Protestants and Catholics provides a helpful point de depárt for theological and ecumenical discussions.

At the center of the Lutheran argument with the Church of Rome stood a single doctrinal issue: the "freedom of the gospel," or, in the systematic terms Luther's followers later preferred to put it, the "doctrine of justification." Indeed, in the long centuries since the Reformation, Lutherans have focused so single-mindedly on this "gospel" (Latin evangelium) that they have often been known simply as the "evangelical" party, those, in other words, who were concerned above all else that the gospel of Jesus Christ should be believed, taught, and confessed rightly and clearly. In the present day, some even go so far as to suggest that the doctrine of justification is, so to speak, the single "criterion" of Christian truth, the one from which all others flow and by conformity to which all other church teachings should be measured. Of course, any attentive student of Reformation history would be quick to add that the early Lutherans were also powerfully concerned with other problems. They took issue with what they saw as the abuse and improper extension of papal power. They objected strenuously to the Catholic insistence that the Mass should be understood as a meritorious sacrifice, 17 and they argued against the restriction to the clergy of the right to receive the wine used in the Lord's Supper, insisting to the contrary that every Christian should receive this sacrament "in both kinds" just as Christ had commanded. They deplored the moral failings of the church's clergy and insisted on the right of priests to marry. And, yes, they were also concerned for the amelioration of Christian society, including poor relief and the enforcement of social standards consistent with Christian convictions (e.g., by closing public brothels).

In the end, however, the Lutheran church reformers based their schism with the Catholic Church in the West primarily on their conviction that the church itself had terribly compromised and even falsified the gospel itself. This was the decisive issue. "Once this has been established," Luther said, "namely that God alone justifies us solely by His grace through Christ, we are willing not only to bear the pope aloft on our hands but also to kiss his feet." In a supreme bishop who would prohibit the gospel and then persecute those who tried to preach it, however, Luther and his followers could see nothing but the Antichrist. Thus, as later generations of Lutherans would polemically insist, the doctrine of justification is, as mentioned above, the sine qua non of the Christian faith as such, "the article by which the church stands or falls," the "chief article" (German Hauptartikel) of the faith, the essential criterion for all the church's teaching. When this doctrine is under attack — when the good news of the gospel is transformed from a word of God's grace and favor toward us on account of Christ alone, into an insuperable demand that we should get right with God by means of our own good works — Lutherans have long argued, then the integrity of the Christian faith as such is very much at risk. Concerned as one may be for peace and unity in the church, willing as ever one might be to compromise on nonessentials, there can be no such peace or unity, and little room for compromise, so long as the church's witness to the justifying grace of God in Christ is obscured or, at worst, denied.

Justification: The Shape of a Classical Impasse

Even if the details and nuance remain the subject of seemingly endless theological argument and elaboration, nevertheless the classical Lutheran doctrine of justification can be epitomized neatly. Salvation is God's work and accomplishment. As noted above, God justifies the sinner by grace alone, through faith alone, and in view of the suffering and merits of Christ alone. The compact simplicity of these phrases — grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone — is deceiving, for the doctrine is based not only on Holy Scripture (particularly the Pauline epistles in the New Testament), but also and decisively — even after all these years! — on Luther's own experience, his acutely sensitive conscience and his deeply medieval search as a young Augustinian friar to find a God of grace and love, a God who could quiet his fears and set his conscience at rest. Luther found rest for his troubled soul in the righteousness of Christ, a righteousness he believed was made his own when by faith he trusted in God's promise to save. Over against this faith he very strongly contrasted the typical human tendency to understand our getting right with God as a matter of what we do or do not do. Good works or "deeds of the law," Luther and his followers insisted, do not make a Christian; still less do they make one righteous before God. Faith alone, which clings to Christ alone, gives one the assurance of standing before the inflexible demands of God's justice on the Day of Judgment.


Excerpted from CHANGING CHURCHES by Mickey L. Mattox A. G. Roeber Copyright © 2012 by Mickey L. Mattox and A. G. Roeber. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. From Lutheran to Catholic — Justification and Holiness Mickey L. Mattox....................21
2. From Lutheran to Orthodox — Theosis A. G. Roeber....................69
3. Catholic "Church," Lutheran "Community"? Mickey L. Mattox....................112
4. From the Lutheran "Marks" of the Church to the Orthodox "Mysteries" A. G. Roeber....................154
5. Untranslatable? Orthodox-Catholic-Lutheran Conversation Stoppers A. G. Roeber....................194
6. Becoming Catholic — Problems, Resolutions, Further Development Mickey L. Mattox....................224
AFTERWORD: Staying Lutheran in the Changing Church(es): Why We All Need Lutheran Theology Paul R. Hinlicky....................281

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