Friday, July 28, 2006

Recognition of Sin and the Holiness of the Church

I think key to Luther's thought is that the church is holy in its "recognition" of its sinfulness. Not necessarily its sinfulness itself, but the recognition of it. I believe this is one reason why the reformers (but unfortunately not their
epigones) retained individual confession and forgiveness (penance) as a
quasi-sacrament, because the holiness of the church is dependent on its
recognition of sin.

Of course, we are "made" holy in the absolution, the declarative "you
are forgiven for Jesus' sake", so in another sense it is not purely the
recognition that makes holy, but the parallel (and identical) move to
absolve (the more Catholic minded would then go on to debate how much
"follow-up" would need to occur after the absolution is necessary, the
"I intend to do better").

I think some Roman Catholic theologians (and even a few Lutheran ones) need the church to "not sin" at least from a dogmatic perspective because it is the only way to protect the magisterium and the "infallibility" of the pope when he speaks ex
. The sinlessness of the church is a doctrinal point for
Catholics is not unlike the fundamentalist doctrine of Biblical inerrancy.
Both are truth claims of a foundationalist sort, or at least that is my
read, and both are claims not so much based in reality, but rather in
defense of a dogmatic point. So, the bible is inerrant because it is
handed to us by God (and we need this to be true for the book also to be true), never mind its origins as a book written by human hands. Or, the church is sinless because this is the only way the tradition can truly be the living voice of God through the ages, never mind that certain specific popes, churches, bishops, over the centuries
have been notorious sinners and poor theologians.

If we re-visit the comparison between the Christological doctrine of
Christ as maximus peccator (greatest sinner) and relate that to ecclesiology, I think we gain some key insights. In fact, I think it is always useful to compare
doctrines in this way. Christ is not a sinner in se, but rather, takes
the sin of the whole world on himself, for the sake of the world. So
Christ is "the greatest sinner" only in the sense that he stands as
proxy, he stands in for and takes on all sin. In this way, he is the
holy one.

The church is holy inasmuch as it participates in this reality. So, it
is holy when it a) recognizes its sin, and the once for all taking on of
this sin by Christ, and b) recognizes its participation in this divine
taking on of sin for the sake of the world. In other words, the church
can appear as sinner, can even bear the sins of the world, and bear with
one another, because of its newfound role as participants in the life of
Christ, who is maximus peccator.

I'm thinking specifically of some Pauline passages, like "we have become
the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things" (1 Cor. 4:13). Or
again 2 Cor. 6:8, "in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute.
We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are
well known, as dying, and see--we are alive."


  1. There's a lot crammed into a relatively short post. I have to think about some of it more, but let me comment on one issue you raise.

    I don't know (I need you to say more) that you give enough credit to the Catholic/catholic assertion that the Church is holy and infallible. I think that the teaching of the Tradition is that the Church is holy precisely she DOES participate in Her Lord's work of salvation -- not only insofar as she does. In fact, the Church as Body of Christ is his continuing work of salvation through time.

    On the issue of the Church as "institution" -- i.e., of her having a form and structure: Is not the holiness, fidelity, and inerrancy (indefectibility) of the Church necessary to any Christian theological structure? (On this, I think the biblical Fundamentalists -- the true ones -- are completely out of the ball game. Sola scriptura was a strong reformation principle, -- but I think they misread it egregiously to the extent that they think that the scriptura is sola outside the ecclesia.) Where else than in the Body of Christ is any assurance fo Grace available? Does not the proclamation of the Gospel depend on the human structure "church"? Even the AC (or CA, as my German friends prefer) assumes and asserts this: "For securing such faith" God has established the Holy Minstry of word and sacrament. But that ministry functions within the Church.

    And if God will not keep the Church faithful, what hope is there for any orthodox confidence in the assurance of God's grace -- aside from a "principle" (foundationalist or otherwise) that we bring to the discussion? I grant, of course, there is sin within the Church (both among its members and in some of the almost-demonic structures she uses to continue her work), and the trend of the majority of the Church may be away from truth (but only from time to time and only for a time). But God will always recall the Church to her holiness and truthfulness and fidelity so that those who need the Gospel can count on her witness. Isn't that the real catholic position -- regardless of how some misuse it and abuse it (including Lutherans who seem to care not a whit for the Church, only individual salvation)? "We believe in ... one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church."

    Side tirade: Lutheranism has long suffered from a faulty (or absent) ecclesiology. What many seem so obviously to overlook is that the Reformation didn't deal much with the Church (except for trials and tribulations within her and because of certain errors of teaching about authority issues) because the Reformers and the Catholics didn't disagree on what the Church is and why she is important in the structure of Grace. (Lutheranism has dealt with the Church in a kind of reverse argument from silence: Because the Reformers didn't make a big deal about the Church, that issue must not be very important; what matters is what they screamed about. In fact, that is fallacious reasoning and a misreading -- I think -- of what was going on. But then remember, I view Lutheranism as a "reforming movement within the holy catholic Church and feel bound to pray for reunion with the Pope -- among other ecumenical concerns.)


  2. Dwight,

    There's a lot crammed into this comment! I think we are on the same page, that we both pray for reunion with Rome, and there is merit in the dogmatic assertion of the holiness of the church precisely because the church is "body of Christ", people of God.

    I'm not trying to argue that the church isn't intrinsic to the gospel- I'd agree that oftentimes certain hardcore Lutherans try to imply this. For example, Steven Paulson in W&W praises Leif Grane for this quote in the recent Festschrift to Forde: "those who want to add any special dignity to the external church as something essential to being Christian ought to be ashamed of themselves. It is the gospel they are obscuring."

    This is NOT the direction I am trying to go. I am trying to respond to recent presentations I have heard arguing for the "sinlessness" of infallibilty of the church that sound exactly like Grane's argument in reverse. They seem to want to abstract the Church (visible or otherwise) from the realm of reality, it ends up functioning as an idealized construct either as something sinless (and therefore available for faith) or pointless, since grace is going to have to come in, now apart from the creaturely reality of the church.

    What I am trying to do is parallel the biblical understanding of Christ as becoming sin for us with an ecclesiology that acknowledges the relationship between sin and the church in a way analogically related to the relationship between sin and Christ.

    Does that make sense?

  3. Anonymous1:30 AM

    would like to add an additional nuance on the Church's "recognition of its sinfulness".
    I will never forget the comment of a Jewish member of an interfaith graduate seminar I once attended who said he had discovered the big difference between Judaism and Christianity was that Jews excelled at recognizing sin in other people, whereas Christians excelled at recognizing sin in oneself. Isn't this also the big difference between Law-religions and Gospel-religions in America today? As the song says, "It's me, O Lord,…."

  4. Clint,

    I have been wanting to respond to this post for some time, but am still gestating my reflections on this topic, which is pretty dense. I want to read more about the Christological doctrine that you mentioned. Which of the patristics talk about Christ as "maximus peccator," or is that an idea unique to Luther?

    In thinking about your post, I ferretted out an old issue of Pro Ecclesia that had an essay by David Yeago called "Ecclesia Sancta, Ecclesia Peccatrix: Martin Luther on the Church." It is an excellent article, and I highly recommend it, but I need to read it again and let it sink in some more before I say more about it.

    I hope that you pick up this strand of thought again, because it is, of course, always relevant for the Church and those of us who want to be servants of it.



  5. John H.,

    Sorry to differ, but I think that is a bogus way to differentiate Judaism from Christianity. It verges on being anti-semitic. No, in fact, I think it is anti-semitic.

    I think we need to work with different categories, and assume continuity between the God of Israel and the gospel proclaimed to the Gentiles. This is the only way to maintain the fulness of the whole Scriptural witness.

    Nate, I will pick this line up again per your request.

  6. Yarrrr!!!