George Will Misrepresents Luther in Attack on Episcopalians

I generally enjoy reading George Will's intelligent commentaries.  However, in Sunday's Washington Post Mr. Will offers a poorly reasoned attack on The Episcopal Church, and he employs a gross misrepresentation of Martin Luther in the process.

First, the gross misrepresentation of Martin Luther.  Mr. Will begins his piece, entitled A Faith's Dwindling Following, with these words:

The Rev. Robert Duncan, 60, is not a Lutheran, but he is a Luther, of
sorts. The former Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh has, in effect, said
the words with which Martin Luther shattered Christendom and asserted
the primacy of individual judgment and conscience that defines the
modern temperament: " Ich kann nicht anders" — I cannot do otherwise.

I
have no idea if Rev. Duncan is indeed a modern-day Martin Luther, as
Mr. Will suggests – I know almost nothing of Bishop Duncan.  However, I
do know that Luther never "asserted the primacy of individual judgment
and conscience that defines the modern temperament."  Luther asserted
the primacy of the Word of God – not individual judgment and conscience:

Unless
I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason
(for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it
is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves),
I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive
to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it
is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.
I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.
– Martin Luther, From "Luther at the Diet of Worms"
in Luther's Works (Fortress Press), Vol. 32, pg 112

For
Luther it was not his individuality but the Word of God which called
him to take his stand.  Luther viewed the power structure of the Roman
Church as corrupt and failing to live up to its God-given mandate, but
he never called for that power vacuum to be filled with raging
individuality.  Rather, he and his fellow Reformers affirmed the
conscience-binding authority of the early ecumenical councils, the
creeds, Scripture, and – most importantly – the Living Word of God that
those creeds, councils and Scripture proclaim.  Rather than asserting
"the primacy of individual judgment" as Mr. Will claims, Luther
asserted the primacy of the Word of God in one of the most beloved
slogans of the Reformation – Word Alone.  Quibble what you will with
the impact of Luther's claims and the ways in which his successors used
(or abused!) his legacy, Luther was no modern individualist.

Near
the end of his column Mr. Will makes yet another sweeping and ignorant
claim about protestantism.  I can't figure out if he is clueless about
Lutheranism (and Protestantism, in general) or if he simply harbors a
significant disdain for the Reformation churches:

Because Protestantism has no structure of authority comparable to the
Vatican and because it does not merely tolerate but enjoins individual
judgments by "the priesthood of all believers" concerning beliefs and
obligations, all Protestants are potential Luthers.

Is he suggesting that if we lowly Protestants only had an authority structure "comparable to the Vatican," then we would be a lovely, united, of-one-mind community of
faith?  But let me ask him one question: how's that working out for
Rome?  No disrespect is intended, but a hierarchy guarantees nothing
when it comes to a shared belief or common practice of faith.  Just
look at the number of Roman Catholics in this country who practice birth control or who
vote for pro-choice politicians.  The breadth of practice and belief among Roman Catholics in other lands is no less wide.  Please.

Moreover, since when
was the so-called "priesthood of all believers" a rallying cry for
"individual judgments … concerning beliefs and obligations"?  I am a
life-long Lutheran, and yet I have never heard a pastor or seminary
professor tell me that the priesthood of all believers is a theological
free-for-all, choose-you-own-adventure approach to ministry and faith. 
Never.

Rather, the "priesthood of all believers" – a phrase with
an admittedly tortured and complicated history (the phrase is a product
of Lutheran pietism, about 150 years after Luther), but one
which I would expect an intelligent writer such as Mr. Will to
understand – can refer to a number of things, most appropriately:

  1. the call of Christians to be Good News-proclaiming priests to one
    another, much like Luther's famed exhortation that we are called to be
    "little Christs to one another"; or
  2. the call of Christians to collectively – as a body, as the Body of
    Christ – exercise priestly authority; that we are all members of the
    priestly estate as the Body of Christ, not as renegade free-lancing peddlers of individual spirituality.  That is, it refers to the priesthood of all believers, not the priesthood of each believer.

Mr. Will fails to understand that Lutherans (and Protestants, in
general) understand themselves to be captive to the authoritative
Living Word of God, as did Luther himself.  For Lutherans, we read and
interpret that Word of God in dialog with the great catholic traditions
of the church handed down to us by our ancestors in the faith.  That hardly represents an authority vacuum, as Mr. Will claims.

And I imagine that this is true for many progressive Episcopalians,
too, the target of Mr. Will's barbs: that they find themselves bound to
the Word of God and the rich tradition of the Prayer Book.  Their
conclusions on social matters might differ with those of conservative
orthodoxy or of Rome, but it is not owing to a failure of authority or
an indulgence in free-wheeling individuality.  Rather, because
these progressive Episcopalians are captive to the Word of God and the
Good News it proclaims they – along with many other Christians – seek
justice and fullness of life for all people according to the Good News.

Too bad that Mr. Will fails to appreciate that this, indeed, is good news for global Christianity and, indeed, the whole creation that Christ has come to redeem.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
This entry was posted in Faith & the Church, Lutheran, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to George Will Misrepresents Luther in Attack on Episcopalians

  1. Chris Donato says:

    Spot on. Yet it reminds me of Erasmus’ general response to Luther: “If he’s right, there’ll be a pope in every pulpit.” All parties wouldn’t deny the predominant outcome of Luther’s stand in this (post)modern age, I gather, but Luther knew well the dangers and considered them collateral damage, precisely because of his commitment to sola Scriptura.
    I was just speaking of Dr. Duncan the other day and esteeming his stand to stay within the fray, but alas, he’s severed himself. Something, incidentally, that Luther did not do.

  2. Scott Kershner says:

    While I think you’re right to take Will to school on his anachronistic read of Luther and Reformation history, Will does put his finger on what these matters have come to mean very often in popular and even ecclesiastical culture. How often have I heard Christians (Lutherans!) refer to the “priesthood of all believers” as a notion that we don’t really need pastors, or if we do, it’s so that we have a “trained professional” to keep the church running–more a bureaucratic necessity than theological one. I think Will speaks some truth about what the reformation heritage has often regrettably become, even if his historiography is a bit off.

  3. Diane Roth says:

    Well Stated!!!
    I do think that the phrase “priesthood of all believers” goes back to Luther, but the particular misinterpretation of it can be traced to the pietists. (Let me get the references and get back to you, tho…)

  4. DwightP says:

    How ironic:
    First because George Will was raised in a Missouri Synod parsonage! He should know better. (His father was at one point chaplain to the Missouri Synod students at the Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I know from my sojourn there that many people still remember both father and son.) I think, however, that he deserted Lutheranism some time ago — perhaps for Episcopalianism and, hence, his diatribe. (On the latter, I’m not sure.)
    Second because Bp. Duncan does not assert the supreme authority of the individual conscience over Scripture, the tradition of the Church, or any such. In fact, he promotes the exact opposite: It is because of the (all but, if not) unanimous witness of Scripture and of the Great Tradition that the Bishop opposes such innovations in the Episcopal Church as the ordination to the priesthood of gays and lesbians. So far as I’ve been able to interpret him, he is an ardent “conservative” who thinks the individual conscience must be “broken” on the Scriptures and the Church’s traditional teachings of, about, and from them.
    In fairness, Bp. Duncan strikes many as a kind of Luther figure. In his reliance on Scripture (though perhaps not so much on reason), he stands where Luther would stand. And he is controversial; he must bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for his resistance to modern sentiments and innovations.
    Still, as you note and as I supplement, George Will is egregiously wrong on two counts. But to my eye, Brother George left the track a long time ago (and not just because of his leaving Lutheranism!), so I’m not surprised that he comes up with a remarkable misreading of his Lutheran training.
    DwightP

  5. DwightP says:

    How ironic:
    First because George Will was raised in a Missouri Synod parsonage! He should know better. (His father was at one point chaplain to the Missouri Synod students at the Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I know from my sojourn there that many people still remember both father and son.) I think, however, that he deserted Lutheranism some time ago — perhaps for Episcopalianism and, hence, his diatribe. (On the latter, I’m not sure.)
    Second because Bp. Duncan does not assert the supreme authority of the individual conscience over Scripture, the tradition of the Church, or any such. In fact, he promotes the exact opposite: It is because of the (all but, if not) unanimous witness of Scripture and of the Great Tradition that the Bishop opposes such innovations in the Episcopal Church as the ordination to the priesthood of gays and lesbians. So far as I’ve been able to interpret him, he is an ardent “conservative” who thinks the individual conscience must be “broken” on the Scriptures and the Church’s traditional teachings of, about, and from them.
    In fairness, Bp. Duncan strikes many as a kind of Luther figure. In his reliance on Scripture (though perhaps not so much on reason), he stands where Luther would stand. And he is controversial; he must bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for his resistance to modern sentiments and innovations.
    Still, as you note and as I supplement, George Will is egregiously wrong on two counts. But to my eye, Brother George left the track a long time ago (and not just because of his leaving Lutheranism!), so I’m not surprised that he comes up with a remarkable misreading of his Lutheran training.
    DwightP

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