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Table Talk: “That’s Too Catholic!”

October 15, 2018 No Comment

In A Tale of a Tub, Jonathan Swift tells the story of three brothers who receive coats from their dying father. His will explains that they are not to add or subtract anything from these coats, and gives careful instruction as to their use. At first, they follow the instructions of the will carefully. But over time, the eldest brother—Peter—convinces the other two to adorn their coats with all sorts of decorations in keeping with the latest fashions.

It is only after the coats are dramatically altered that the younger brothers—Martin and Jack—realize how far they have strayed from the terms of their father’s will. Jack violently rips out the additions to his coat, and in the process nearly tears the coat to shreds. Martin, by contrast, works slowly and methodically to remove the additions little by little, constantly looking to the will for guidance as he attempts to return the coat to its original state.
The brothers represent the three streams of western Christianity: Peter stands for Roman Catholicism; Martin reflects Martin Luther and his spiritual descendants; and Jack stands for John Calvin and the Protestant traditions arising out of the radical Reformation. The father’s will, meanwhile, represents the Holy Scriptures, while the coat represents the Church’s teachings.

Christ handed down the faith complete and inerrant to the early Church; but over the centuries, there arose doctrines and practices which obscured and even contradicted the teachings of Scripture. These are the baubles added by Peter and the other brothers. But as Christians reexamined these teachings in the light of Scripture during the Reformation, many realized correction was necessary. Some in their haste to remove error basically rejected everything, in a sense tearing down the Church in order to build a new one. But Luther and his coworkers took a different approach: they affirmed the ultimate authority of Scripture, of course, but also recognized that the history of the Church was a good guide in determining faithful interpretations of the Bible from flawed ones.

In fact, there was much good and beautiful that had been built in the Church over the centuries. To throw it all away without reason was, to Luther, not only wrong but a sin. The Lutheran Reformation was therefore a “conservative Reformation” (to use Charles Porterfield Krauth’s words).

The Church had certainly heaped up many errors in the centuries leading up to the Reformation, “till the foundation upheld little but perishing human traditions, and the precious things were lost in the heaps of rubbish,” as Krauth says. As noted earlier, there were two basic responses to this situation. “The revolutionary spirit of the radical Reform proposed to leave nothing but the foundation, to sweep from it everything which had been built upon it,” Krauth explains. But the Lutheran response was more careful. Like other Protestants, it accepted “the foundation which has been laid once for all.” But it also “proposed to leave on it everything precious, pure, and beautiful which had risen in the ages.”

“The one proposed to pull down the temple,” Krauth summarizes. “The other, to purify it, and to replace its weak and decayed portions with solid rock.”

It is for this reason that Philip Melanchthon can write in the Augsburg Confession that “the churches among us do not dissent from the catholic [i.e., “universal] church in any article of faith.” And again: “There is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church, or from the Roman Church, insofar as we can tell from its writers.” Melanchthon is saying that the teachings of the Lutheran reformers was grounded in the Scriptures and in keeping with the witness of the Church throughout the ages. Lutheran objections to Roman teachings at the time weren’t because Rome was “catholic,” but precisely because, in its errors, Rome had departed from the purity of the catholic faith. The early Lutherans considered themselves faithful catholics; it was Rome that called them “Protestants” and “Lutherans”.
To be Lutheran then is to be catholic. It is to accept the good of the Church down through history while pruning away errors on the basis of the authority of Scripture.

This edition of The Canadian Lutheran discusses issues that some Protestants—perhaps even some Lutherans—find objectionable about us: our use of sacred art, our reception of the historic liturgy, and our understanding of the sacraments. Some look at these things and accuse us of being “too catholic.” But what they consider a slur, we ought to embrace: we are indeed catholic.

Like the earliest catholics, we affirm the Bible as the great and ultimate authority in the life of the Church. And we embrace the treasures He has bestowed upon the Church down through the ages. One need not choose between the two. We wear our coat of faith proudly, trusting in the heavenly Father who has given it to us, Who instructs even now through the will He has left us—the Holy Scriptures, the very Word of God.

Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine and communications manager for the International Lutheran Council.