Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Contemporary Lutheran Lesson from the English Recusants

As a first time contributor to the site, I would like to explain that before I was confirmed a Lutheran and prior to this year when I began pre-seminary studies at Concordia St. Catharines, I had pursued studies in British Church History and had been a convert to Roman Catholicism.

 During the Reformation in England there was a group of clerics who had returned from the continent and worked in secret to translate the scriptures into the vernacular that they might preach it to the common people. They were hunted and executed by the established church as heretics, and many of these new converts insisted it was they who professed the true catholic faith of which the creeds spoke, rather than their neighbours in acquiescence to the ruling episcopate.

 To Lutheran ears so recently after our celebration of Reformation Day a story like this tends to make our hearts burn within us, and to remember the struggles of our spiritual forbearers against the tyranny of the Pope. And yet, my description was of the English Jesuits, who had largely been converts from the Church of England (broadly Reformed in the Jacobean Era). They worked in Douay and then Rheims to compose an English translation of the Vulgate, and through the counter-reformation techniques of Ignatius Loyola to urge people back to the ways of the old superstitions. They were called recusants – literally resisters – because they rejected the Reformed teachings of their bishops, declaring that it was the continuity of true doctrine not a living episcopate which represented the true church in England. We live in a time and place in the English speaking world where once more, a group of well-educated and zealous Protestants and Lutherans have departed for Rome and Constantinople. Richard John Neuhaus and Jaroslav Pelikan were prominent, but the list counts hundreds of former pastors and churchmen who now peddle their conversion stories anywhere they can (from “Rome Sweet Home” by Scott Hahn in 1993 to “From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart” by Chris Haw published this year).

 The distance between Wittenberg and Rome (or Constantinople) is all in one’s initial premises. It is the great existential choice between building one’s epistemology on their soteriology or their ecclesiology. Luther famously shouted at the Devil that he had been baptized - he built his certainty on the promises of God which had been written for him in Holy Scripture. The new Papists repeat the Augustinian maxim that ‘they would not even believe the Gospels were they not been moved by the authority of the Catholic Church’. The ‘infallibility’ of their decisions does not rest upon the infallibility of God’s promises in the Bible, but rather upon an infallible church (or an infallible bishop). The Lutheran confessions, while speaking of a desire to retain the episcopate, did not insist on its absolute necessity. When Christ prayed for the twelve and His church on the night He was betrayed, he said “sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (Jn 17:17). It is the Word of God and the true doctrines it teaches that sustain the church, not any episcopal hierarchy. The Lutheran Reformers and to some extent the English Recusants both confessed this. As those around us might choose to place their trust in bishops, councils, and popes, let the Lutheran Church take memory of the spirit (not the heresy) of the English Recusants, and resist those who bend the knee to ecclesiastical tyranny rather than their conscience formed by the true Word of God.

No comments: