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:
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.
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:
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.
in Luther's Works (Fortress Press), Vol. 32, pg 112
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.
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:
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.
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:
- 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
- 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.