Robert Benne of Roanoke College, writing in the November issue of FIRST THINGS, offers his take on the ELCA Lutheran churchwide assembly in Orlando. The sexuality task force did not get all that it wanted and, as a result, the ELCA has not formally departed from two millennia of Christian teaching on the disordered nature of same-sex relations. Practice is another matter, as is the operative theology by which, Benne opines, the gay and lesbian lobby will prevail. I expect that fifty years ago absolutely nobody entertained the possibility that in the mainline/oldline Protestant churches, and in ecumenical relations more generally, homosexuality would be such a decisive issue in defining Christian orthodoxy. But, as Benne understands, the division is about much more than homosexuality. That is simply the immediate issue that has forced the question of the status of normative theological truth, if indeed there is such a thing as normative theological truth, in these bodies. Many Catholics and evangelical Protestants are inclined to dismiss these controversies in Lutheran, Episcopal, and other oldline churches, simply offering a thankful sigh that it is their problem and not ours. But it really is our problem, too. Those in the oldline denominations are also brothers and sisters in Christ, and we who are supposed to think in terms of centuries should try to think at least ten or thirty years ahead, asking what our relationship will be with these Christians who are, as Vatican II puts it, in “a certain but imperfect” communion with the Catholic Church. It is hard to know what the future of these communions might be. Their reborn vitality in Europe is difficult to envision. There are strong Anglican and Lutheran churches in the Southern hemisphere, mainly in Africa. In this country, there are energetic “confessional movements” in these bodies, as well as in Methodism, but these movements know they are fighting an uphill battle. It is conceivable, and perhaps likely, that in the next thirty years the oldline denominations will continue to shrink in size, self-confidence, and influence. As the oldline continues to segue into the sideline, there is no guarantee that evangelicals and Catholics will take up the slack. Such are the ponderings provoked by Robert Benne’s report on how these dynamics are working out among ELCA Lutherans.
Robert Louis Wilken is generally appreciative of a new book by Robert Dodaro, Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine (Cambridge). But he thinks Dodaro fails to grasp the importance of the Church in Augustine’s understanding of the City of God. Wilken writes: “Without intending to, Dodaro has given us an individualistic reading of Augustine’s thinking about the just society. But Christ’s coming had issued in the forming of a new community, a social event, and Augustine insists that the City of God is a corporate body, an association of believers. The philosophers had taught that the life of the wise man should be social. We agree with this, says Augustine, and ‘how could that city have made its start, how could it have advanced along its course, how could it attain its appointed goal, if the life of the saints were not social?’ For Cicero there was only one society, de re publica , but Augustine belonged to an alternate society, and it is as another city, not just as individuals, that the people of God relate to the earthly city.” For the full discussion, see the November issue of FIRST THINGS.