16 February, 2010

More Indications from the Confessions: Lutheran Catholicity and Liberal Education

In the ears of many contemporary Lutherans, the creedal phrase, "one, holy, Christian [or catholic] and apostolic church," has a ring that is very much here-and-now, organized around and from the viewpoint of the speaker who says "I believe." That is, when I speak the phrase I mean that right now I am part of a group of people (a church) that has a unity (one) in its confession of Christ (Christian) by whom it is made holy. On this account, the view of the Church's catholicity is decidedly synchronic: if I can make the leap out of the walls of my own congregation's building, the definition embraces the Chinese, African, German, Brazilian Christians, et al., who inhabit the world on this Sunday in the 21st century.
But the confessional language of AC 7 comes at what the church is, viewed from its catholicity, in another way. It begins with a diachronic articulation, or gloss, on what "one" and "catholic" mean. German: "Es wird auch gelehret, daß alle Zeit musse ein heilige christliche Kirche sein und bleiben [It is also taught that at all times a holy, Christian church must be and remain.]" Latin: "Item docent, quod una sancta ecclesia perpetuo mansura sit. [They also teach that one, holy church shall remain in perpetuity.]"
It's these phrases, alle Zeit and perpetuo, that are of interest, because they figure catholicity not as an eternity of extension, but as a continuity of extension. Alle Zeit means "at every point in time;" perpetuo means "without interruption," and in church Latin is frequently paired with aeterne, as in the phrase perpetuo et aeterne ~ "continuously and eternally." This emphasis in AC 7 even seems to correct some earlier "egotistical" articulations of catholicity, as in Luther's 1528 Bekenntnis, where he defines the catholicity of the church against the papacy by its extension beyond the papacy (WA 26.506), and even the Schwabach Articles that, pace the eds. of BSLK, do not emphasize Luther's synchronicity, but come at catholicity diachronically, but not as continuity, but eternity. AC 7 thus conceives of the catholicity of the church as consisting in a basic diachronic continuity, recognizable at every point, even the here-and-now, as AC 7 goes on to demonstrate, on the basis of its kerygma (bei welchen das Evangelium rein gepredigt; in qua evangelium pure docetur ~ "amongst whom/in which the Gospel is purely preached/taught") and right administration of the sacraments (die heiligen Sakrament lauts des Evangelii gereicht werden; et recte administrantur sacramenta ~ "the holy Sacraments are administered in accord with the Gospel/rightly").
So what's the point? The point is that the Church of the Augsburg Confession, wherever it finds itself in space and time, whether in the U.S. today or in Norway 250 years ago, recognizes itself as part of a diachronic continuity so that it makes its confession together with the church of all ages and places. It is the height of egotism to claim contemporary novelty as an embrace of the confession of this church. It is thus the height of arrogance and egotism to do theology in a vacuum that does not recognize the uninterrupted continuity of the church. As Paul puts it, "We have not what we have also received." [1 Cor. 4.7] The Church of the Augsburg Confession thus operates with an intellectual and spiritual humility, though not uncritical, in the face of the dominical promise of the catholic continuity of the church.
The Reformers also modeled this attitude toward the intellectual and spiritual tradition of the church in their approach to higher education. Ad fontes, the famous Renaissance cry embraced also in Wittenberg, was not a haughty boast to the effect that we have finally got it right. In fact, this was precisely the criticism the Wittenberg Reformers leveled against late Medieval scholasticism. Rather, it was a humble recognition that other people at other times and places woven into the great fabric that we call humanity had thought important thoughts, stated important statements, created beautiful, just, true, and noble creations worth studying and emulating. In a very real sense, then, the education envisioned in the Reformation slogan of renascentes Musae is an embodiment, in another realm, of the attitude of the Church of the Augsburg Confession toward itself that recognized itself as something located in a specific space and time within a larger theological and spiritual framework: it was decidedly biblical, Augustinian, and Western, and this had come down to Wittenberg in 1530 as an uninterrupted continuity. It was, in a very real sense, a creature of its historical genetic material. So, too, the intellectual framework: it was part and parcel of the great web of the West, beginning with the Greeks and continuing with the Romans, embraced by Augustine, obfuscated, but not snuffed out completely, in the Middle Ages (so the thinking went), and reprised in the Northern Renaissance through a living appropriation.
The ancients had called it an ἐγκύκλιος παιδεῖα (enkúklios paideîa) a "universal education," not by way of asserting a sort of superiority over the past, but by way of laying hold of "the best ever written and thought," by now, of course, regarded as a naïve and quaint notion. But in its quaint naïveté, it recognizes a truth about itself that revels in the fact that in the here-and-now it has a share in the diachronic continuity of something much larger than itself, a formed and informing intellectual tradition that is, by the certain logic of history, inescapable.

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