Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"The Epitome of Love"

Our friend Father Nedward, when he is not hot-tubbing with beautiful ladies, has long waged a battle to reclaim canon law for the Lutheran church.

He is not exactly alone in this effort.  We ourselves have a longstanding interest in the systematic application of Biblical and historical norms to the rules governing church life.  So do many of our friends and colleagues, not to mention all ELCA secretaries to date.  It is Fr. N.'s particular charism -- or burden, perhaps -- to insist upon actually calling this body of norms by its proper name, canon law.  As Ray Schulze pointed out to us many years ago, Lutherans in America have an abiding aversion to the word "law," in almost any way it can be used.  Preface it with "canon" and they are likely to collapse into agonized screams of "No popery!"

This is (as Nedward observed recently) ironic, given the prominent role that Kirchenrecht plays in the life of European churches.  It is nonethless true.  He says that two out of three American church historians surveyed, when asked about canon law after the Reformation, simply objected that Luther had burned the Roman code, and refused to discuss the subject any further.  A third historian, to his great credit, observed that Luther may have burned the code, but that he also found it helpful to keep a copy at his bedside when he actually had to administer church affairs.

In fact, the relationship of the early Evangelical movement to the corpus of canon law is absolutely fascinating.  We recently stumbled across a brilliant study of the subject by John Witte Jr.  Here is the abstract:
Why would Luther in 1520 burn the canon law books but in 1530 write a commendatory preface to a canon law textbook for use at his own University of Wittenberg? Why would German magistrates ban the study and use of canon law texts in the 1520s, only to import canon lawyers and transplant canon law rules in the 1530s and thereafter? Why would neophyte Lutheran jurists be content to rely on the Bible and custom in their early writings, only to turn with greater regularity to canon law authorities later in their careers? 
"Inertia" is part of the answer. Prior to the Reformation, the canon law had ruled effectively and efficiently in Germany for centuries.  ... Most of the jurists and theologians who had joined the Reformation cause were trained in the canon law .... In the heady days of revolutionary defiance of Pope and Emperor in the 1520, it was easy for Protestant neophytes to be swept up in the radical cause of eradicating the canon law and establishing a new evangelical order. When this revolutionary plan proved unworkable, however, theologians and jurists invariably returned to the canon law that they knew. ... 
"Innovation" is also part of the answer. This evangelical transplantation of the canon law was based on the strength of considerable theological and jurisprudential ingenuity. Theologians after 1530 offered an innovative theory of the church, grounded in the evangelical theory of the two kingdoms. The invisible church of the heavenly kingdom, they argued, might well be able to survive on the Scripture alone, free from the accretions of the canon law. But the visible church of the earthly kingdom, filled with both sinners and saints, required both biblical and canonical rules and procedures to be governed properly. ...
The article, which you can download here, is a model of scholarly detail, filled with illustrative details.  We learned a lot from it.

One thing Witte does not mention, because it would have taken him far from his actual subject, is the antinominan movement within formative Lutheranism.  Led by John Agricola, some of the early Evangelicals argued that no law -- not even God's -- applied those who had been regenerated by baptism and whose spirits had been converted.  Although soundly defeated in its own time, the antinomian impulse continues to crop up among modern Lutherans, especially those with a little, but not too much, theological training.

Antinomian Lutherans take the Law/Gospel dynamic to an absurd extreme.  So determined are they not to terrify or be terrified by the unfulfillable demands of God's Law that they reject it altogether, or declare that it is of interest only to Jews and heathen.  Although this was not likely a factor in the rejection of canon law in the 1520s or its restoration (as a civil function) in the 1530s, we do suspect that it helps explain the very weak and even scattershot governance which prevails in the ELCA.

But in fact, as the early Lutheran jurists understood, canon law is an important, valuable and even a beautiful thing.  Nicolaus Everardus called it "the epitome of the law of love" and "the mother of justice."  It is a remedy for arbitrary decisions and the tyranny of pastors, bishops and other church authorities.  Churches talk about justice, but without sound and systematically-applied guidelines for discipline they are often hard-pressed to provide it.  In a church plagued by chronic struggles over authority, in which members and congregations in conflict rarely find any meaningful path to reconciliation, canon law can offer tools of great value -- not because it is a law, but because it is a law of love.

8 comments:

Matthew Frost said...

Is it really antinomian, then, to deny only the first use of the law? A use which, in medieval Germany, must have seemed obvious—but which stands on fairly shaky footing when the assumptions of Christendom are removed? Or, perhaps, to restrict the first use locally, for the rules of communities in their pursuits of moral paths before God?

That label gets tossed around quite a lot, and often merely to refer to those who hold a less-than-maximal application of certain canons of law.

Does it even really apply, when we have ceased to believe in "the regenerate" as a category in the sense described? And can you legitimately call anyone antinomian if they are willing to discuss ethics?

Father Anonymous said...

Fair questions; I've asked most of them myself, at one time or another. "Antinomian" is not a word to be thrown around carelessly, as some of my colleagues have been known to do, and I'm sorry if I seem to have.

But.

I can't help remembering a synodical task force on which I once sat, at which -- when I mentioned ethics -- one of the senior clergy members sternly instructed me not to use "that word," because it made people feel bad. Literally, and in so many words.

So it is worth saying that some Lutherans are, expressly and on principle, unwilling to discuss ethics.

Your other questions deserve more of a conversation than blog comments can provide. The civil use of the law is legitimately debated in a secular Enlightenment-based society, in which law is understood as deriving exclusively the consent of the governed, and no room at all is given to any of the various theories of natural law. But in fact, most legal theories do carve out space for natural law, so ....

And I'm not quite sure what you mean about having ceased to believe in the regenerate as a category. I can guess, but don't want to put words into your mouth. Can you expand just a little bit?

Father Anonymous said...

I should also clarify that what I'm talking about in the OP above is not so much strict theological antinomianism as an instinctive rejection of clear and systematic governance in the ELCA.

While I do think this has an historical relationship to real antinomianism, I'm very clear that it is a different thing. Maybe it should have its own name -- say, "Rule-Hating." Or maybe "Autonomy-Loving."

Father Anonymous said...
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George Waite said...

How do you enforce your "law"? Outside your groups, who cares?

Father Anonymous said...

I realize that you're confused by the terminology, George. That's okay; this is a big-tent blog, and anybody is welcome to read it. But sometimes the grown-ups need to talk among themselves, so forgive me if I don't always give you the attention you want.

George Waite said...

I wasn't asking for attention, just an answer. Preferably one with a bit less condescension-certainly capable of understanding anything said by a "profession" as intellectually undistinguished as the clergy, who by their own admission accept a higher percentage of grad school applicants than any other subject and whose ACT/SAT scores are lower than any other except for elementary teachers.
But no, snark away; it's what Luther would have probably done, too.

Father Anonymous said...

An answer, you say? Because it looks like you're trolling.

But let's assume you actually are looking to participate reasonably in a discussion of the uses of the law in theology. The simple (and facile) answer to your question is that we don't enforce it because it's not our law; God does, because it's God's law. We're just trying to figure out just what it contains and how to use it in our lives.

The long answer, though, is well beyond the capacity of this blog to provide, much less of a little comments box. You'll have to do some reading on your own.

The place to begin is probably with the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, which lays out the understanding of divine law that is implicit in the post and comments.

But that needs to be supplemented with some background, both in Luther's own works and in the various debates with Roman Catholicism and Calvinism. If you're serious about understanding this, I'll gladly provide some reading suggestions.

But since I really don't think you are serious, I'm going to ask you -- as politely as I can -- to let those of us who care about theology as a discipline enjoy our harmless little hobby, and to restrict your comments to subjects of greater mutual interest.