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“This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.”

So spoke many of us while confessing the Athanasian Creed a little while back on Trinity Sunday. But for those of us who are not “Roman” Catholic, speaking this way inevitably leads to a few raised eyebrows. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard fellow Lutherans ask the question: “Why did we say those words today? After all, we’re not really catholic... are we?”

The word is all the more striking for Lutherans of my tradition (ie, confessional Lutheranism) because our liturgy tends to substitute the word “Christian” for “Catholic” in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. We believe in “one holy Christian and Apostolic Church,” we say. This translation is actually an old tradition—older than the Reformation itself, in fact—but its continued use by English-speaking Lutherans can cause confusion. It sounds to many like a rejection of the “catholic” label. We’re Christian, we seem to be saying, but not Catholic.

Not so with the Athanasian Creed: Our liturgy retains the word “catholic” here. “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith,” reads the first line. So when Trinity Sunday rolls around, congregants end up surprised. “Okay, so we’re catholic,” they concede. “But what does that mean?”

Mark Dever delves into just that question in a recent Christianity Today article subtitled “What We Mean When We Profess ‘One Catholic Church.’” In his article, Dever, a Baptist minister, traces the history of the word “catholic,” briefly outlining its evolution as the word gained additional meanings in the history of the Church. The catholic faith is authentic. It is orthodox. And it is also global.

In short, the catholic Church is a universal Church, Dever argues. “According to Scripture, the church is a universal entity, and anyone can be a part of it,” he writes. Consequently, it includes all believers in Christ, regardless of denominational affiliation. Dever therefore warns his readers that Christians must not draw denominational boundaries too sharply; doing so is to deny the catholicity of the Church.

I agree with Dever up to a point: anyone who believes in Christ for salvation is certainly part of the Church, regardless of denominational affiliations. Lutherans have long confessed faith in the “invisible” Church—that is to say, we confess that the Church is “properly speaking, the assembly of saints and those who truly believe,” as Philip Melanchthon puts it in the Augsburg Confession. Belief then is what makes one a member of the Church, not denominational affiliation—contra Roman Catholic doctrine which equates the invisible Church with a visible churchly institution. (This distinction, by the by, is why I’ve written elsewhere that I’m too catholic to be Catholic.)

Belief in the invisible Church does not, however, mean that denominational affiliation is unimportant—and it’s here that I take exception to Dever’s article. “Since we all profess the same faith in the same Lord, the denominational lines that distinguish us from other Christians should never mark an ultimate separation,” he writes. “Insofar as denominations do not breed an uncharitable and divisive spirit, and allow Christians to work for the kingdom, they can be helpful. But what unites us as Christians must always be valued more highly than the things that distinguish us.”

Far be it from me to disparage the unity that believers in Christ share in spite of denominational differences. But it sounds to me like Dever would have us go beyond this, diminishing the importance of denominational distinctives more than is wise. As a Lutheran, I would say that the doctrines of Baptismal Regeneration and the Real Presence (just two examples) are of incredible importance. Other Christians may disagree with our understanding of these sacraments, but we cannot “value” them “less highly” merely because others disagree with us. These things are vital to the life of the Christian, and diminishing them diminishes the Gospel.

The universality of the Church is, through God’s grace, a reality despite doctrinal disagreements; but it is not a license for the downplaying of these doctrinal differences. The Church catholic is also the Church apostolic—which is to say, it is the Church which “stands firm and holds to the traditions” which have been taught through the words of the Apostles (2 Thessalonians 2:15). And this teaching—which is truly the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:19-21)—has been passed on to us today in its fullness through the Scriptures.

To be catholic, then, is to be heirs of the apostolic faith. It is to be rooted firmly in the Apostle’s teaching as recorded for us in Scripture, the unchanging Word of God. But while this Word is unchanging, it does not follow that it is static. The history of the Church in the world is the history of Christians meditating upon Scripture. We must look to this history as our own guide in understanding Scripture. To be sure, the Church’s tradition of interpretation has erred from time to time—we find, for example, that the Fathers and Councils sometimes disagree with one another—but it is dangerous to discount those interpretations of Scripture which have been held unanimously from the very beginning of the Church.

This tradition of meditation, of course, cannot invent new dogma—it is “not a source of dogma qua dogma,” as Heath R. Curtis explains well in a 2005 Lutheran Forum article entitled “The Relation between the Biblical and Catholic Principles.” But it is nevertheless, “the source of apostolic interpretation which norms our interpretation of the apostolic Scriptures.” In other words, Scripture is the sole source of dogma for the Church, but the Church’s tradition of meditation “establishes how that source is to be interpreted.” It is in this sense that the three ecumenical creeds are understood to be authoritative: not because they invented new doctrine (they didn’t), but because they carefully codified truths already present in the Scriptures.

In this way the Church’s tradition of meditation guides us into a proper understanding of Scripture. No Christian denomination, therefore, can reject interpretations of Scripture universally acknowledged by the early Church without impairing its commitment to being the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. For the Church’s tradition of meditation, as a faithful interpretation of the Scriptures, itself becomes a standard to which subsequent interpretations can be measured. And yes, this catholic interpretation extends to doctrines now considered denominational distinctives (for example, the doctrine of the Real Presence). Denominations which reject such catholic teaching therefore, in essence, reject part of what it means to be catholic.

On the other hand, that church body which accepts the Scriptures as the sole source of authority in the Church and further acknowledges the tradition of the Church as a norming interpretive principle in understanding the Scriptures may rightly call itself catholic. It is in this sense then, finally, that Lutherans confess themselves to be heirs of the catholic tradition. “The churches among us do not dissent from the catholic church in any article of faith,” Melanchthon declares in the Augsburg Confession. “There is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church, or from the Roman Church, insofar as we can tell from its writers.”

Centuries later, Herman Sasse could assert the same: “It was no mere ecclesiastico-political diplomacy which dictated the emphatic assertion in the Augsburg Confession that the teachings of the Evangelicals were identical with those of the orthodox Catholic Church of all ages,” he writes. “The Lutheran theologian acknowledges that he belongs to the same visible church to which Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine and Tertullian, Athanasius and Ireneaus once belonged.”

So are confessional Lutherans catholic? Yes. And we always will be, so long as we hold fast to the traditions of the Apostles, written in the Scriptures and faithfully passed down to us by the Church. Consequently, I cannot help thinking that those seeking out a “Protestant Future” should in fact be looking to the Protestant Past. Looking for a church which faithfully receives the catholic tradition while clearly proclaiming the authority of Scripture? Looking for a church which is both sacramental and devoted to salvation by grace through faith alone? Looking, in other words, for an Evangelical Catholic Church? It already exists. It’s called Lutheranism.


Image of the Castle Church in Wittenberg courtesy of Wikipedia.

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