Monday, January 15, 2007

Bucher’s “The Ecumenical Luther”

I recently read Richard P. Bucher’s book, The Ecumenical Luther: The Development and Use of His Doctrinal Hermeneutic (Concordia Academic Press, 2003). I found Bucher’s treatment of Luther’s hermeneutical canons very helpful. Bucher also included what I found to be a very insightful discussion of the Gospel as it is offered to us in the Lord’s Supper. I found much more problematic the way that Bucher (and Luther) deploys the canons to argue that some doctrines are in fact “articles of faith,” that is, those doctrines that one must confess to be a Christian.

I think that the canons are pretty well known; at least I’ve heard other people discuss them. Bucher identifies two hermeneutical canons, a “scriptural canon” and an “evangelical canon.”

Luther’s scriptural canon is that no doctrine can be an article of faith unless it is found in the Scriptures. (Sometimes Bucher renders it as a requirement that a teaching be “clearly” taught in the Scriptures.) Luther does not argue that Christians should not believe doctrines that are not taught in the Scriptures, only that belief cannot be essential to the Christian faith. Thus, Luther is willing to concede the papacy for the sake of peace, as long as Rome is willing to concede that the papacy is not an article of faith, because it is not taught in the Scriptures. (Bucher includes an extended treatment, and for me a helpful treatment, of what it means for something to be taught by the Scriptures. But this post will already be long enough without dipping into details there, except to note that I learned from Bucher’s discussion.)

Luther’s “evangelical canon” states that a doctrine cannot be an article of faith unless it is necessary for salvation. He asks the blunt question whether a doctrine “will make one a Christian or not.”

Bucher then discusses how Luther used these canons in “ecumenical” discussions with sixteenth-century Hussites, with Zwingli (et al.) at Marburg, and in preparation for a general council that would include both (Augsburg) evangelicals and Roman Catholics.

I followed Bucher’s (and Luther’s) arguments on most of the doctrines discussed there. There were two arguments on a doctrine constituting an article of faith, one argued by Bucher, the other by Luther, that I didn’t quite follow.

The first, argued by Bucher, concerns the ordination of women. And let me be clear about my own position before interacting with Bucher’s argument: I do not believe that women can be ordained as pastors (or pastoresses, as the case may be). My own opinion is that gendered relationships were created to image Christ’s relationship with the church. (Note the causal direction: the type is human marriage, the anti-type is Christ and the Church). That’s why human marriage passes away in the eschaton, Mt 22.30.) My comments focus only on whether Bucher provides a compelling argument that at least one of Luther’s canons implies that communions that ordain women are, in fact, non-Christian churches.

Bucher writes: “[T]he doctrine of the holy ministry is an essential article of faith. Why? Because the one preaching office is grounded on clear Scriptures and primarily because the one holy ministry of Word and Sacrament is connected to and bound up in the Gospel. It is connected to the Gospel because, by the will of God, it conveys salvation (cf., Ro 10:14-15: ‘And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”’ . . . [I]t is because the holy ministry is a necessary doctrine that the question of the ordination of women, by derivation, becomes essential” (p. 158).

While I don’t close the door on there being some argument that women’s ordination violates one of the canons, this argument – which is almost the whole of Bucher’s argument – seems to me insufficient to prove the case that affirming women’s ordination means that one is not a Christian. To be sure, preaching is essential to the spread of the Gospel, but this argument does not suggest to me a reason why a woman preaching the Gospel necessarily denies the Gospel. It seems to me that Rome could make a similar appeal: “The papacy is an article of faith because the holy ministry is a necessary doctrine. So by derivation, the papacy becomes essential.”

Bucher seems to me to expand the evangelical canon by the end of the book. He writes that “the basis of unity can only be the doctrina evangelii . . ., that is, necessary doctrine that conveys or is connected to the Gospel and grounded in the Scriptures alone” (p. 154). There seems to be a lot of wiggle room in the proposition that any doctrine that is “connected” to the Gospel is also an article of faith. I don’t see how Lutherans or non-Lutherans could apply that standard in even a relatively consistent or predictable fashion.

A second example is Luther’s argument that the real presence is an article of faith. That is, that denial of the real presence makes one a non-Christian. As with the above point, I’m open to argument. I also am unequivocally committed to the doctrine of the real presence, and believe that its confessional affirmation (or lack thereof) is a basis for ecclesiastical division. And I also think that Bucher’s discussion of Luther’s dispute with Zwingli is a helpful discussion.

Nonetheless, here is how Bucher summarizes Luther’s argument: “The cross was the source of forgiveness, the Lord’s Supper one of the means of its distribution” (p. 111).

Without meaning to be sophistical, when one thing is “essential” or “necessary” to another thing, that means that the latter does not exist unless the former also exists. But if there are several “means” by which forgiveness is distributed, and the Lord’s Supper is only one of those means, then the Lord’s Supper cannot be “essential” or “necessary” to receive forgiveness, and therefore it doesn’t seem to me that it can be an article of faith on the premises that Bucher lays out. (Jesus’ statement in John 6 might be just such a premise. But I’ve always heard that Luther denied that Christ was discussing the Supper in John 6.)

None of this is to say that I don’t think that the book is a worthwhile read. And I should underscore that I found other examples of necessary doctrines persuasive. It’s just that I needed a more argument on these examples.


Blogger CPA said...

One question I've been rolling around is, can teaching on the Law be so corrupted as to make a church no longer a church? On the one hand, this would seem to violate the Evangelical canon, but on the other hand, I think we can all think up examples where we think it would.

For example, let's take a church that seemingly held to all Christian theology, but more or less explicitly denied one of the ten commandments. (Like the MCC churches which hold that homosex is lawful.) Or like the old Family of Love and Ranters that held that obedience to the leader is the only commandment and cheating or killing those outside the church is not a sin. Is that a church? St. Paul obviously thinks not.

I think we have to remember that the legislative and executive power are simply different functions of one government. Only the power that made the law can forgive violations of the law. So the forgiveness of sins means God must be a legislature and we must recognize His legislative power. The vaguer his legislative power, the vague his executive power of pardon. At some point you have to say, distortion of the Law reaches the point of denying God's legislative power.

January 15, 2007 4:47 PM  
Blogger CPA said...

I meant to add:
And denying God's legislative power means denying his executive power. And hence there is no Gospel.

January 15, 2007 4:48 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


That's a really interesting point. It seems to me that it has to be true at some level.

After all, if there is no conviction of sin -- or if common or grevious sins are considered "good" or "neutral" -- then the Gospel would not be comprehensive "good news."

But where's the tipping point? (I'm not expecting you to have a ready made answer.)

January 15, 2007 7:14 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


By the bye, if you watch "Glory" sometime, be sure to let me know what you think of it.

January 15, 2007 7:25 PM  
Blogger Wayne said...

Wow, compared to you I look like the "poster child" for ADD. I started reading this last month and now I don't even know where I last put it down.

Thanks for the review though. I'll probably print it out and keep it folded in my copy...hey look, monkeys!

January 16, 2007 12:33 PM  

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