Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Church as tradition

After some time away reading the wonderfully thought provoking book "Silence" by Shusaku Endo, I'm back to reading theological books. My current book is "Lutheranism" by Gritsch and Jenson (see side bar). So far this has been an interesting read even with Jenson's somewhat dense writing style. I was, however taken with this paragraph:

As a community of a story, the church lives by tradition. That is, the church depends at any time on being told this story, and therefore on those who have already heard it; and the church cares for it own future by in turn telling the story. The reality of the church at any time is the reality of a link in the tradition; the reality of the church is a hermeneutic event of the move from hearing to telling. So also an individual believer belongs to the community as one who hears from others and then speaks to others: faith, to, is a hermeneutic reality, and occurs in tradition. Both the church and the individual believer therefore depend on "the" tradition, on the totality of witnesses from which, at any time, we have heard the gospel.

I thought "What a wonderful explanation of the church and why tradition matters so much!" Even if we can't define it as satisfactorily as Jenson, we know this to be the case. One would think Lutherans should the first to say "Amen" to Jenson's take on what the church is. Sadly, this is not necessarily so.

When I read that paragraph I was immediately reminded of something I saw at worship a number of Sundays ago. I was at the early service and had some time to burn. I passed the extra time by reading, waiting for Mass to start. Then I saw Dr. Paul Manz. If you are a Lutheran, you ought to know who Dr. Manz is. For those who don't: Dr. Manz was the preeminent Lutheran organist, improvasationalist and hymn writer for more than 40 years. He spent over twenty years as my churches cantor and it has been easily that long since I had seen him. He was old and bent which was a bit sad but he still looked as I remembered him so many years ago. It just so happened that Dr. Manz and his wife sat two pews in front of me that morning.

As the service progressed I wondered how much of the new worship book (ELW) Dr. Manz would know (if he knew any of it) and how much he would approve, or disapprove. As providence would have it, we used one of the hold-over LBW liturgies. Dr. Manz would have his wife help him and with some of the page flipping (for the hymns) otherwise it was by memory. I appreciated tradition that morning more than most.

Jenson's take on how the church "lives" was reinforced by my observation on that Sunday; it is this tradition of story that connects us, in every time and in every place, to all the saints before us and to those that follow.

And yet, Jenson says:

Under the authority of Scripture and the whole tradition, we will become free to worship in other ways than we have done, and, in whatever ways, for other reasons than that we have always done it so. The church cannot avoid being a social force; under the authority of Scripture and the whole tradition, the church will be a cell for the future rather than the past, and be free to alter its own social structure in order to be this. Any attempt to decree that a particular form of government, or of ministry, or of worship, or of social presence, is permanently necessary to the church is a declaration of independence from the Scripture and creeds.

Something to chew on.


  1. This is very nearly an Orthodox position.
    I'm not quite sure about the Orthodox understanding of the totality of the last comment; however, the spirit seems certainly in line with my understanding of the Orthodox concept of the church.

  2. If you're reading this book, you will soon understand that I have little original to say on theological matters. This book -- very nearly verbatim (certainly for Jenson's sections, it is verbatim) -- my Confessions class at Gettysburg Seminary. And it continues to be probably THE crucial book for forming my way of thinking about Lutheranism. I am now discovering that blessed Arthur Carl Piepkorn, the big gun of glory days of the Missouri Synod, may have held similar perspectives. (I must check that out more.) But that would be a sign of the noble company we alternative thinkers within Lutheranism keep.

    Stay at this.