Authenticity, Authority and Continuity: Why I am a Catholic and not a Lutheran

I became involved in a couple of discussions on Pastor Weedon’s Blog (“Another Papal Goodie” and A most Interesting Statement), and have realised that ultimately I need to blog on this myself.

I am occasionally asked why I became a Catholic (not often–many Catholics seem to think that conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism is the most natural and self-obvious decision in the world). The question usually arises when one doesn’t have the luxury of sitting down for a two-hour conversation, and so my first response is usually that of John Henry Newman’s: “It is not something that one can easily explain between the soup and the fish course.”

But I do have a short simple answer upon which I could expound at length given time. Three words: Authenticity, Authority and Continuity. Of course I rarely have time to expound as necessary, but, dear Reader, I am going to attempt just that, ever so briefly, here in this blog.

Although first attracted to catholicism (small “c”, as Lutherans would say) in the 1980’s, I only really began to seriously question Lutheranism in the 1990’s. Two factors influenced me here: the invasion of “Church Growth” methodologies (for those of you who don’t know what the issues are here see this statement from the LCA(PDF)) and the start of the Lutheran Church of Australia’s long struggle with the issue of the ordination of women. The first raised the question of authenticity–of the Church and of the Liturgy and of Ministry, and the second raised the question of authority. It was not until my journey began in earnest in Easter 2000 (see my “Year of Grace” blog) that I became aware of the importance of continuity for understanding both authority and authenticity.

To counteract the growing attack upon confessional Lutheranism, the question of authority (or more strictly “authorisation”) became accute in the LCA in the 1990’s. Not without some controversy, the office of “President” was slowly, by successive synods, redesigned to look more and more like the office of a bishop, although the adoption of title “bishop” never received enough support at Synods to get through. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1990’s, Lutheran Presidents in Australia were to all extents and purposes Lutheran bishops, complete with pectoral crosses, but minus mitres. The Presidents exercised an ever growing authority within the life of the Church. The “President of the Church” (national president) took over the role of chief ordinator, and ordinations began to be held in single ceremonies for the whole graduating class presided over by the President.

At the same time, the authority of the Office of Pastor was clearly deliniated. No one could act as a minister of Word and Sacrament without being “rightly called” as the Lutheran Confessions required. The practice of “commissioning” lay people to a ministry of word and sacrament to serve part-time in remote areas was abandoned; from now on even these were to be properly and fully ordained, despite the lack of seminary training. The pastor received his authority from Christ through the public rite of the Church at the hands of the President and other ordained pastors. No lay person was allowed to participate in the ordination ceremony (despite there being a precedent for such things in the history of Australian Lutheranism). Anyone who tried to assume the role of a pastor without ordination was jumped on with big heavy boots from a very great height.

You get the picture. All this emphasis on authority was in order to maintain the authenticity of ministry. Don’t get me wrong. Lutheran ministry was not “authoritarian”. But Lutheran pastors had a good and healthy sense when they woke up in the morning that they were indeed authorised by Christ for the ministry of word and sacrament. They were as certain about this as they were about their baptism. They were (and still are) certain about this–not because they received a “letter of call” from a congregation–but because they had been ritually authorised for their role through the laying on of hands by those authorised to do so. Whenever a Lutheran pastor absolves someone they do so expressly as a “called and ordained” servant of that Lord. That is their charter.

Continuity of authority provides authenticity of ministry. It is important to understand that anyone bucking this system–anyone presuming, for instance, to take matters into their own hands and to claim the right to either exercise this ministry without being called and ordained to it or who claimed the right to ordain or commission others to it–would be rejected as schismatic by the LCA community.

BUT, and there is a very big BUT, anyone at all sensitive to the history of the Church knew that this was exactly what Luther did when in 1535 he finally buckled to pressure and did what other reformers had already done: he ordained a man to the ministry of Word and Sacrament on his own authority. No one had ever given Luther the authority to do this. Only the fact that Luther was aware that he had not been given this authority by the Church could explain his long hesitation. Nevertheless, in the end he convinced himself that Christ, through God’s Word, did in fact authorise him to act in this way.

So there is a radical disjunction between the attitude of the modern Lutheran Church and the actions of their first and foremost teacher, Dr Martin Luther. Actually, probably not that great, since even Luther himself insisted on someone being duly called and authorised. He could not abide the Enthusiasts who claimed authority for themselves. But that is what makes his action even more surprising. He went against his own better judgement in the act of ordination. If only someone called and ordained to the role could preach and administer the sacraments, then surely only someone called and ordained to ordain could ordain. Luther wasn’t and deep down he must have known it. He must finally have decided that as a leading pastor (he was never accorded the role of bishop) among the evangelical churches, he must have the same authority as the bishops of the Catholic Church to ordain. That was a very questionable decision. However Luther may have justified it to himself, or however modern day Lutherans may justify Luther’s action, it was this act–the act of ordaining a presbyter in 1535–which marks the definitive break between the Church of Rome and the Evangelical Churches, rather than the 1517 nailing of the 95 theses.

Lutherans then and today may like to cite 1 Tim 4:14, or the opinions of St Jerome, or the isolated and obscure examples of presbyteral ordination throughout the history of the Church, but that fact of the matter is that since the second century (when the roles of bishop, presbyter and deacon within the one sacrament of orders reached clear definition), the Church as a whole had decided that presbyters were not authorised to ordain. There is good reason for this. The bishops were regarded as the real “pastors” of the flock and the successors to the apostles. The presbyterate and the diaconate were, in their individually distinct ways, a sharing in that ministry, but not in the fullness of it nor in the fullness of the authority that backed it up.

And so there are two laws at work here. The first is that one cannot give an authority that one has not a) received, and b) been authorised to pass on. This is followed by a second law–a law for which I must thank Pastor Fraser Pearce for bringing it to my attention–authority within the Church is transmitted incarnationally. The meaning of this is simple: Authorisation is not a “spiritualised” gift that arrives through the spiritual ether, like an arrow shot from the bow of Christ/Scripture to land on a distant individual without touching the ground. The authority of Christ is given and received and passed on through and by concrete human beings who give, receive and pass on the ministerial office and mandate.

That mandate and office does not come through some disembodied “Word of God”, ie. a passage of scripture that an individual might choose to apply to himself, but from and through the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ authorised his apostles to act in his name and in his stead (“he who hears you hears me” Luke 10:16, “All Authority is given to me, therefore you go…” Matt 28, “As the Father sent me so I send you” John 20, etc.). Having received this authority, the apostles acted in the name of Jesus by authorising others to exercising all (in the case of new presbyter-espiskopoi) or some (as in the case of the diakonoi) aspects of their own ministry. Those to whom they gave a full share of their authority also received the authority to pass this authority onto others, again in full or in part.

This “incarnate” transmission of the authority of God’s Word is treated by disdain by many today (“the magic touch”!) but then so is the idea that the physical elements of bread and wine could be capable of bearing the substance of Christ’s body and blood, or that a physical washing with water could effect the spiritual washing away of sins. The physical act of laying-on-of-hands is not “magic” but is a clear incarnational act of authorisation by the Word of God. This is why the Church has called it a “sacrament”.

Bringing both these threads together, one must say that the continuity of authentic and authorised ministry has been maintained in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, in a way in which it has not been retained by the ecclesial communities of the Reformation. Our local ordinary, Archbishop Denis Hart, was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop etc. etc. etc. all the way back to the bishop who was ordained by the apostle who was “ordained” by Christ. In short, Catholic and Orthodox ministry is continuous, therefore authorised, therefore authentic. The ministry of the Lutheran, not to mention all the other Reformation and Post-Reformation communities, is not.

Footnote: Lest Pastor Weedon et al be tempted to weigh in here with some idea that presbyters have an inherant or scriptural right “by virtue of their office” to ordain and thus pass on the authority to exercise the ministry of word and sacrament to others, they should be aware that by the time of the Reformation presbyters were not so authorised (regardless of whether they had or had not been at earlier times). In their rite of ordination, the fullness of the apostolic ministry and authority was not passed on to them. Those to whom it was were called bishops, rather than presbyters! Even if it could be argued that presbyters in the apostolic Church were also authorised to ordain, nevertheless, by the time of the Reformation this authority had long since ceased to be given to them. Luther and the other Reformers therefore acted with an authority which they did not have, could not give, and were not authorised to give.

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11 Responses to Authenticity, Authority and Continuity: Why I am a Catholic and not a Lutheran

  1. Lucian says:

    Authority, Authenticity, Continuity — ‘A.A.C.’; In my view, however, this is a classical and most typical case of ‘A.B.C.’ — Anything But Constantinople.

    Just me and my sadistic little jokes >:)

    Craciun Lucian. :)

  2. Dixie says:

    Anything but Constantinople? ;)

    And here I was about to say A.A.C. captures perfectly the three reasons for leaving Protestantism!

    Seriously, I think these are the big three. Regarding any particular individual journey one may predominate over the others but the three capture the essence of search. Although…I have seen protestants use the same three to justify solo scriptura, a particular confession and piecemeal extractions of quotes from the fathers. (I think of myself at one point!)

    As far as the protestants using the fathers to justify their current situation, to justify living out obscure historical exceptions rather than the catholic faith–it’s frustrating to hear / read but understandable from their point of view.

    I don’t know if I ever posted to your blog before…but I have been reading it for quite a while even though I am not Australian and not Roman Catholic. I have, in particular, enjoyed your chronicles in the Year of Grace blog.

  3. Schütz says:

    Hi there Dixie! Congrats on leaving your first comment! I have visited your blog once before, but I will have a closer look at it sometime today.

    Yeah, I’m not quite sure why Lucian thought that I was having a go at the Orthodox. To be sure, A.A.C. works just as well as an argument for Orthodoxy as it does for Catholicism. Both have preserved A., A. & C. in a genuine manner. (and anyway, doesn’t A.B.C. stand for “Anything But Catholic”? I find most protestants in search of A.A.C. are usually more open to the Orthodox alternative than to the Catholic).

    I must confess that I never personally considered Orthodoxy as the way for me to go. Partly because of A.A.C. To be authentic to my own undeniable Western-ness, and in continuity with my own history, Communion with the Western Patriarch (as he was still then officially known) was my own really authentic option. That is not a value judgement upon Orthodoxy (I will leave that to another blog and another time!).

    Whereas it seems to me that many Western Protestant Converts to the orthodox catholic faith chose Constantinople because their protestantism is still strong enough to make the Papacy to big a pill to swallow. I’m not saying that it was so in your case, Dixie, or in Fr Fenton’s, or in any particular case, I am just wondering if it might not be so.

  4. Schütz says:

    PS. I’ve added your blog to my blog role, Dixie.

  5. handmaid mary-leah says:

    “Western Christianity in general has tended to conduct missions across cultural borders more easily than Eastern Christianity, which has not shown itself to be very capable of adapting to new cultures.”
    This comment was made from November and I just couldn’t let it pass, I picked up on it from the link left on Dixie’s blog…
    The tradition in Orthodoxy has always been to spread the gospel in the language of the people it is evangelizing, this is the tradition of Ss. Cyril and Methodious and it is the lasting legacy of Holy Orthodoxy. This is why we seem to be an ethnic church, when in reality we are not. We all have the same Divine Liturgy (with a few exceptions, the Oriental Orthodox) and each country says the service in its language, the USA is unique in its jurisdictional sinfulness, Australia, may have a similar situation because it was a colony too, (I don’t know) because of the Communist revolution and immigrants. These are unique situations in history and need to be dealt with. What Holy Orthodoxy has always known and respected with regards to missions is that God doesn’t only speak Latin and the Trinity respects the cultures of the people of God. He made them afterall!
    I found this earlier statement to be utterly false and made without knowlege. Please, get some facts before tossing out opinions based on falsehoods like this one.
    The Holy Orthodox Church has evangelized her people with great care, the saints are a testament to her, St. Herman, loved his native Aleuts, St. Innocent worked hard to put the gospels into their Native language.
    I am frankly stunned.
    BTW, I am an American Orthodox Christian, we celebrate the Divine Liturgy in English; I didn’t convert into the Russian, Greek or Arab Church, although I am grateful to the immagrants who brought their faith here to the United States!
    enough, I have lost my peace…
    with love in Christ,
    the handmaid,

  6. Dixie says:

    Whereas it seems to me that many Western Protestant Converts to the orthodox catholic faith chose Constantinople because their protestantism is still strong enough to make the Papacy to big a pill to swallow.

    This is quite an interesting observation…maybe so. In my case I did look West but only briefly…Holy Week 2005 to be exact. Orthodoxy was already in the picture by then but I wanted to make certain I wasn’t overlooking the other obvious choice…besides, I am a John Michael Talbot groupie. My husband also pleaded with me to consider Rome…he is a diehard Lutheran but thought Roman Catholicism made more sense since I was brought up in the Roman Church…he thinks the Greek thing is totally off the wall. “But you are not Greek!” he keeps saying. :)

    But there were a few stumbling blocks…the pope (rather the unilateral assumption of supremacy), the evolution of doctrine and infant communion.

    PS. I’ve added your blog to my blog role, Dixie.

    Thank you very much! I am quite honored.

  7. tonybartel says:

    One of the difficulties for those considering Orthodoxy in Australia is the ethnicity issue.

    From my experience in the States, this is not such a hurdle, especially in the Orthodox Church in America and the Antiochean Archdiocese, in which many parishes use English and have a large number of converts.

    However, the situation is starting to change in Australia. In Melbourne there are now two parishes that use English exclusively (Antiochian Archdiocese of Australia and Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia) and another parish in Sydney (Antiochian) which does the same. These parishes are all mission oriented.

    A major difference between Australia and the U.S. is that tlarge scale immigration from traditionally Orthodox countries is a more recent phenomenon. I would imagine that in future generations English will become the most frequent language of worship.

    The ethnicity issue can create some funny situtations. I recently met a subdeacon in the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia who is an Aboriginal. He attends the Divine Liturgy in Church Slavonic. He said that once a woman came up and started speaking to him in Russian. He apologised that he could not speak Russian. The woman replied, “Shame on your mother for not teaching you Russian.”

  8. Schütz says:

    At the risk of increasing your pain, Mary-leah, I will just observe that Ss. Cyril and Methodious were a long time ago and, though Eastern, come from a time when the Western and Eastern Churches could still call eachother one in the sense that they had the same saints and same mission. In a way, the East can also claim as their own the mission of St Augustine to Canterbury. I’ve never heard of Ss. Herman and Innocent, so there’s a chance for you to enlighten me.

    Secondly, despite the use of Latin until very recently (as the language of the mass, not of evangelisation), the Catholic Church has been astoundingly successful in spreading its message across the whole known world. I acknowlege that the Churches of Orthodoxy have been rather limited as to their freedom in the last 500 years, but then the Catholic Church hit some real low points in the centuries following the Reformation too. It has always bounced back with mission and evangelisation among the nations (and I rather think we might be seeing another such period even now).

    Yo, Dixie! I am rather keen on Talbot myself. If it were based on experience of liturgy alone, I would chose Orthodoxy any day. But (apart from infant communion, which generally I think could be a good idea), the reasons you cite (the Pope, development of doctrine)are key reasons why I was compelled to be Catholic. Also the other day I was talking to my friend Fraser, and while we could understand historically why the doctrine of original sin didn’t really take root in Orthodoxy, we can’t understand their continued rejection of it, which (as Western, Augustinians–one Lutheran and one Catholic) we find essential to the faith. Interestingly, it hasn’t been a key issue in the dialogues up to this point.

  9. handmaid mary-leah says:

    St. Herman of Alaska,
    St. Innocent;
    Here is you chance to learn something about the evangelisation of America and its native peoples and it is was done correctly by the Orthodox. This is a long tradition and as we are celebrating the repose of St. Mark of Ephesus; Defender of Orthodoxy, read the Battle for Orthodoxy, this little escapade of the Latins was enough to sour my stomach and make me not have anything to do with Rome. Locking up Bishops, depriving them of food, water and in general coercing them to sell their faith; though they must ultimately answer to God for that, only St. Mark stood firm and saved Holy Orthodoxy in its fullness and Truth. Know the history, learn both sides, I am from “the west” but my heart sees and knows the Truth, Glory to God!
    I am not a polemicist; I only want my Church to what she is and to stay what she is, everyone else can do and be what they want. But don’t spead falsehoods, there is planty of good information if you want to find it.
    with love in Christ,

  10. Anonymous says:

    “Even if… presbyters in the apostolic church were also authorized to ordain, nevertheless, by the time of the Reformation this authority had long since ceased to be given to them.” But this is essentially arguing that an illicit ordination is ipso facto invalid, which conflicts with Roman Catholic teaching and practice. To take the most obvious example, Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated bishops over the express objection of the Holy See, yet the validity of these ordinations is not denied. Apparently a bishop does have the power to ordain “by virtue of [his] office”, even when such ordinations are not authorized, even when such ordinations are prohibited. Granted, the Lutheran argument requires the additional premise that presbyters have the same inherent power. But if you deny this, you need a better argument than “they are not so authorized.” Since a papal mandate is required for lawful episcopal consecration in the Roman Catholic Church, the equation of unauthorized with invalid argues against the validity of any non-Roman episcopal ordination. Rome herself does not claim this is so.

  11. Schütz says:

    Hmm. Interesting objection to my argument. Bit of thought. Umm…

    Right. How about this:

    I was perhaps using the term “authorised” a little loosely. A bishop receives “power/authority” (in the sense of the Gk Exousias) to ordain at his ordination. He does not need the pope’s “permission/authority” to ordain deacons and presbyters within his own jurisdiction. It is only when he ordains another bishop that he requires the “permission/authority” from the Holy See, and then it is for the sake of maintaining communion. This “permission/authorisation” is not what empowers the bishop to validly ordain. Thus, as you say, if a bishop ordains a bishop without this kind of authority, the ordination is simply illicit, not invalid.

    But presbyters do not have the “power/authority” to ordain by virtue of their office as bishop does. If (for eg.) a presbyter tried to ordain someone, that ordination would be invalid, because he did not receive the “power/authority” to ordain when he himself was ordained. In fact, he could not validly ordain even if the pope gave him “authority/permission” to do so, because he does not have the “power/authority” to do so. The only way he could receive the power/authority to do so would be if he himself were ordained a bishop.

    So… I guess what I should have said is:

    “Even if… presbyters in the apostolic church were so ordained that they were themselves empowered with the authority to ordain others, nevertheless, by the time of the Reformation the ordination of a presbyter had long since ceased to convey such empowerment.”

    So, I guess I am saying that just because the same name “presbyter” was used in both cases doesn’t mean that the office and power/authority of presbyter in the apostolic church was the same as the office and power/authority of presbyter in the 16th Century Church. Nor could such power/authority be revived in the office of presbyter without it being expressly given to them (via ordination, and not just permission!) by the ones who had that power/authority, namely the bishops.

    Does that make better sense?

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