The Birthday of the Church?

When I was a Lutheran, especially at the Seminary where we had a real practice of daily observance of the liturgical year, this week was always a big week: June 24th was the Birthday of John the Bapist, June 29 was the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul, and June 25 was… well… the Commemoration of the Augsburg Confession. Yes, this is a “feast day” in the Lutheran Church and, on his blog, my friend Pastor Matt Harrison (now President of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church) explains why: June 25, 1530, was no less than the “Birthday of the Lutheran Church”.

And this raises an interesting point of ecclesiology. If you were to ask a Catholic and a Lutheran “What day is the Church’s Birthday?”, they would both answer “Pentecost”. If you were to ask a Lutheran “When was the Lutheran Church born?” one possible answer might by the one Pastor Matt gives: June 25th 1530, the date of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession. But if you were to ask a Catholic “When was the Catholic Church born?” his answer would be the same as the one he gave you previously: “Pentecost”

These differing answers point out, first, that it is too simplistic to say to Protestants “Your Church was founded by X on such and such a date; but ours was founded by Jesus Christ”. Protestant Christians aren’t stupid. Lutherans know that Luther didn’t “establish the Church”. They also believe that their Church was established by Jesus Christ, in so far as they see themselves as belonging to the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”. But they do make a clear distinction between their church as a denomination (or more strictly, in the Lutheran case, a “confession”) and the “Una Sancta”, as one of my dear (now departed) seminary lecturers used to call the Church Catholic. And so they can indeed speak of a “birthday” of their church which is not synonymous with the birthday of the “Una Sancta”.

But Catholics can’t. Apart from Pentecost, we don’t have any point in our history (Dan Brown and all that nonsense about Constantine not-with-standing) to which we, or any impartial historian, can point and say “That’s when the Catholic Church began”. It is simply one long continuum, without break, from the first beginning until now. Now, of course, our Protestant friends will say “But the Roman Catholic Church has deviated from true Christianity” – but even they are at a loss to say when this happened. When – at what date or juncture – did the “Roman Church” cease to be “true Christianty” and become something else?

I do not for a moment want to denigrate the great witness or courage of the Lutheran reformers in the presentation of the Augsburg confession all those years ago. There is very much in that Confession of faith that is recognisably Catholic and, compared to many other Protestant statements of faith that came afterward (and compared even to what Martin Luther would have said if he, and not Melanchthon, had written the Confession) it is a very Christian and irenic document. And we need to acknowledge that among our friends in the world today, traditional Lutherans are foremost (see here for example). But we do have very different understandings of the nature of the Church and of our understanding of the nature of our own communions.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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14 Responses to The Birthday of the Church?

  1. Felix the Cassowary says:

    When – at what date or juncture – did the “Roman Church” cease to be “true Christianty” and become something else?

    Is that a necessary question to answer though? It doesn’t prove anything that no-one can provide a specific date or event; you can’t provide a specific date or event for when the Eastern Orthodox Church or the Oriental Orthodox stopped being “true Christianity” either, so what’s it matter?

    But because you asked, in a sense the answer is “when the first (non-divine) human person became part of it”. We’re not protected from sin in the church, not even from the sin of pride and arrogance; rather, we’re given a chance to overcome it.

    That said, Christians aren’t less than “true Christians” just because they hold to certain ideas that aren’t true. Israel included both kingdoms after the division, and Christ even preached to the Samaritans who were wrong about where to worship.

  2. William Weedon says:

    Um, from a Lutheran perspective, though, the modern Roman Church is essentially the product of the Council of Trent. It’s the time when that part of the Church’s heritage embodied in the essentially Augustinian Lutheranism was officially proscribed. You may not see that as the birthday of your Church; but we do. I hope that’s not offensive, but it’s a view “from the outside” if you will.

  3. Mike says:

    ” . . . . but ours was founded by Jesus Christ”. On one hand, it may be too simplistic to say this to Lutherans if your intention is to stump them with an unanswerable one-liner. But on the other hand, it does help to explain the difference between our Catholic understanding of our “church” compared with theirs. We really have no model of denominations, even though we have a million orders, societies, clubs, groups, and even dioceses and particular “churches”. The Catholic Church “subsists in” the “Una Sancta”

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, I admit that on the surface it is a “cheap shot” if my intention was to “stump” my Lutheran friends. But you are right, it was intended rather as a statement of the difference of mentality, rather than an ecclesiological judgement.

  4. Jon says:

    Difficulty in specifying the exact moment something happened is not a conclusive argument that it didn’t happen. Contra some of our evangelical friends, for example, one can confidently claim “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” without being able to specify (to their satisfaction) the day on which this happened (I know one possible answer is “on the day I was baptized”, but my point is that relationships, like maturity or error, may develop by imperceptible steps into something that is nonetheless evident.

  5. Chris Jones says:

    Felix is right. Just because an historical change cannot be pinned down to a single event on a single date does not mean that the change did not happen. Sometimes the answer to “when did this happen?” can only be a longer description of an historical development.

    The classic instance of this in Church history is the Great Schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Although it is conventionally dated to the mutual excommunications between Rome and Constantinople in 1054, it is well-known that 1054 is only one event among many in a much more gradual deterioration of relations between Rome and the Eastern Patriarchates. Notable events before that included the promulgation of the filioque at Toledo in 589, the schism between Pope Nicholas and Patriarch Photius in 863 (and the condemnation of the filioque by the council in 879 that ended that schism). And notable events after the conventional date of 1054 include the failed attempts at reunion at Lyons in 1274 and at Florence in 1439. A case could be made that the schism did not become permanent until the formal rejection of the Florentine union by the Eastern patriarchates in (IIRC) 1484.

    So the “Great Schism” was more of a gradual unraveling than a clean break at a particular time. But the fact that the two Churches are in schism is no less a fact for all that.

    It is simply one long continuum, without break, from the first beginning until now.

    I think that is an over-simplification to the point of being substantively inaccurate. There have been numerous and undeniable points of discontinuity in the history of the Catholic Church, starting from the New Testament: the crisis over Judaizing, that temporarily split Sts Peter and Paul and necessitated the first Church council (Ac 15); the conversion of Constantine and the peace of the Church (which, even if it did not constitute the “founding of Catholicism” as Dan Brown and others might say, certainly radically changed the external circumstances of the Church and led to great changes in the Church’s polity, liturgy, penitential discipline, and popular piety); the Iconoclastic crisis; the Great Schism; the Western schism and the Conciliarist crisis; the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (for, although as a theological matter one may defensibly describe the Reformation as a schism “from the Church” rather than a split “in the Church,” the Counter-Reformation that it provoked made the post-Tridentine Catholic Church recognizably different from the Church of the Middle Ages; and many others. Indeed, I would argue that we are currently in such a crisis point of discontinuity, as European-based Western Civilization is moving into a clearly post-Christian period and the Constantinian synthesis has finally and definitively collapsed. Surely things like the reforms of Vatican II, the traditionalist rebellion against those reforms (typified by the SSPX), the current Pope’s “Reform of the Reform,” and the rumblings of rebellion by groups like the Austrian “Call to Disobedience” are symptoms of just such a crisis. Who can doubt that the Catholic Church of 2050 will be quite different from the Catholic Church of 1950 or 1850?

    Of course, one may plausibly and consistently argue (and a faithful Roman Catholic must argue) that, through every one of those crises the Catholic magisterium, guided and guarded by the Holy Spirit, has preserved the Apostolic deposit of faith. But it is one thing to argue that the faith has been preserved through the historical discontinuities; it is quite another to say that those historical discontinuities do not exist.

    • Schütz says:

      Hi, Chris. Thanks for your fullsome consideration of the issue. I wonder though if we can make a distinction between “internal” and “external” change? By this, I mean that there can be a change which takes place through internal development, where the change takes place with the full authority and internal agreement of the body itself, and a change which takes place “externally”, that is, which involves division from the parent body, which is what took place as a result of dissension and results in the development of an external body? Thus neither Trent nor Vatican II can be seen as bringing something new into existence, despite the fact that these councils did radically change the way in which the Catholic Church acted and taught. The Augsburg Confession, on the other hand, did bring something “new” into existence.

      Alternatively, another way of view this would be to consider the issue of ordination. I think the real break between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church actually took place when Luther ordained the first “Lutheran pastor” without the authority of the Catholic Church. In much the same way, the real division of the SSPX took place when Archbishop Lefebvre ordained those four bishops (which earned him and his bishops excommunication).

      • Chris Jones says:

        I wonder though if we can make a distinction between “internal” and “external” change?

        Well, yes, one could make such a distinction, and it (or something very like it) is necessary to make the case for the essential continuity of the Church amid a great deal of historical change. But once you begin introducing distinctions like that, the case you are making becomes much more complicated. You find yourself saying something more like “through a lot of historical change, some of it accidental and ultimately unimportant and some of it legitimate and necessary development, the essence of the Catholic Church and her teachings remains.” That is a more complicated (and more realistic) case to be making than “It is simply one long continuum, without break, from the first beginning until now.” You can make the case that the Church and her teachings have remained the same through all of the historical changes — but you have to make that case, not just glide over it with an assertion of “one long continuum.” That is why I called it an “over-simplification to the point of being substantively inaccurate,” and I stand by that.

        I don’t agree that the ordination of pastors for the Lutheran Church was the definitive breakpoint between Lutherans and Catholics. As an historical matter I think the decision of the secular rulers in Germany to back Luther was much more important in making the breach permanent. But for that Luther would surely have gone to the stake (as Hus did) and there would have been an end to it. And as a theological matter I think Luther was right in asserting that local Churches have the right to ordain pastors for themselves; the involvement of the central authority of Rome in choosing local pastors is not (even on the Roman Catholic view) a constant and essential feature of the Church’s polity. Obviously Luther’s ordinations were irregular from a canonical point of view, but that does not touch their theological reality, nor the pastoral necessity of providing shepherds for the congregations in the Lutheran territories.

        • Schütz says:

          The reason the canons regarding ordination are there is for the maintanence of communion. Because the Church’s communion arises out of Baptism and is sealed by the sharing in the one Eucharistic, the Church’s communion is – for better or for worse – concretised in the sharing of the Eucharistic ministry. The ancient practice of having at least three bishops acting in the ordination of a new bishop was an expression of this. When local churches act unilaterally in the choice and ordination of bishops/pastors who have the power of ordaining ministers of the Eucharist, you end up with a broken communion. Currently, the Eastern Rite Churches of the Catholic Church do choose and ordain their own bishops, but an act of communion with the Bishop of Rome is made and accepted immediately upon their election in order to maintain the communion that exists within the Catholic Church.

  6. Chris Jones says:

    I have to add that, as a Lutheran, I would not say that the presentation of the Augustana (or any other discrete event) is “the birthday of the Lutheran Church.” I would say that “when was the Lutheran Church born?” is a meaningless question. On the level of genuine ecclesiology, there is no “Lutheran Church” as distinct from “other Churches.” There is, as the Creed tells us, only one Church, whose birthday is Pentecost. There is a Catholic Church of the West, rightly reformed; and the “tragic necessity” (per Pelikan) of her reformation may conveniently be dated to the presentation of the Augustana. But that is not the birthday of a “new Church” (as if there could be a new Church any more than there can be another Gospel), but an important juncture in one of the many, and inevitable, historical crises in the history of the Apostolic Church.

    • Schütz says:

      I agree with you, more or less. The “Lutheran Church” is not a “Church” on the level of genuine ecclesiology. I disagree with the idea that the Reformation division was a “tragic necessity”, and while I cannot speak for Pelikan (he has since departed this world), I don’t think that he himself would have continued to believe in the “necessity” part of that phrase to the end of his life.

      • Chris Jones says:

        It is a mistake to presume that, as an Orthodox, Pelikan would have taken the Catholic side vis-à-vis the Reformation. From the Orthodox point of view, the Western Church was very much in need of a Reformation (or, as Orthodox would no doubt more pointedly put it, in need of repentance and return to the Church). Of course from the Orthodox point of view Lutheranism is deficient, both because it continues in some Roman errors and introduces some of its own. But that does not mean that the Reformation was not, in some sense, a necessity.

        Indeed, I should think that if Pelikan would have revised his view, it would be to change the content of the adjective “tragic.” He might have thought it tragic not because it split the Western Church, but because it failed to complete the Reformation by returning to the Orthodox faith.

  7. Stephen K says:

    I’ve just discovered this thread. Questions of ecclesiology are pretty important I think. But of all the comments posted so far, I think Chris is making most sense. I think the proposition that the Church is Catholic, let alone Roman Catholic, is like saying America is New York. Across the full sweep of Christian history, a great turmoil of ideas and emphases and arguments has taken place in a continual stream of individual understanding and commitment and desire for spiritual fulfilment in Christian faith. I am continually bemused and sometimes exasperated by the insistence of particular ‘schools’ of theology and discipline that ‘theirs’ is THE pure and completed and perfected version of faith.

    I find the arrogance of such assertion breathtaking. The ‘Church” has never been ‘one’, ‘holy’, or ‘catholic’ in historical terms. If it is these things, it is as an aspirational theological entity only, a ‘thing-to-be-aimed-for’. I liken it to the perfect Communist state, which Marx saw as the result of an evolutionary dialectic, but which has been thwarted by the usurpation of the socialisation process by human ego and greed and fear. Rather like the Church, the great assembly of the kingdom of God Jesus appears to have preached but which so many of us throughout the centuries either do not understand or feel sufficiently committed to. (I include myself, of course). Roman Catholic theology is no less a ‘micro-theology’ than any of the others. If the Gospel is to be believed, there is only one baptism, one Christ. Chris rightly draws our attention to the radical and fundamental discontinuity that operates in all human affairs over time and has operated in the Christian context in particular.

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