Archived Sections, Reviews

To Rome or not to Rome

Ex-Lutherans consider their spiritual home

Changing Churches: An Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran Theological Conversation. Mickey L. Mattox and A. G. Roeber. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012. 336 pages. Softbound. $36.00.
Changing Churches by Mickey L. Mattox and A. G. Roeber is described as an Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran theological conversation. As such it features primarily the reflections of two relatively recent converts from Lutheranism, one to the Roman Catholic Church (Mattox), the other to Orthodoxy (Roeber), neither of whom were born into the Lutheran Church. The currently identified Lutheran voice in the conversation is supplied as an afterword by Paul R. Hinlicky.
The conversation is explicitly and unabashedly theological with the primary authors focusing on those theological issues, both historical and current, in which common agreement has been found, but more importantly on those matters that continue to make church unity an elusive, if not impossible, goal. The discussion is serious, nuanced, and informative.
The backdrop for the discussion is the reality that religious identity today is more a matter of personal choice than of inheritance. In this time of “changing churches,” the authors offer both their religious choices and their reasons as “a reflection fit to serve broadly all those who claim the name Christian and who puzzle, and pray, over the differences that divide us.”

Religious identity today is more a matter of personal choice than it is one of inheritance.

One goal therefore is to provide Lutherans living in an age of “changing churches” with a common grammar for understanding their disagreement with Roman Catholic perspectives and their even older disagreement with Orthodoxy. A more pointed reference to the reason for their reflections, however, is provided by Mattox when he writes, “we are together convinced that both Orthodox patriarchates and the Catholic Church offer not so much a ‘safe harbor’ as a sturdier vessel, one better outfitted, through long historical experience and memory, for the rough sailing that undoubtedly lies ahead.”
Although both can, and do, speak appreciably of their experiences in the Lutheran Church, they each feel more at home and more fulfillment in their respective choices because of shortcomings in Lutheranism that led to their taking leave of it. Much of the discussion concentrates as noted on the theological inadequacies that they experienced. However, current decisions in Lutheranism, especially in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), with respect to sexuality and same-gender relationships, as well as the methods through which such decisions are made, have contributed to their uneasiness and dissatisfaction with their former church home.

‘False’ ecclesial self-sufficiency

There are, at the same time, differences between Mattox and Roeber not only theologically but in the way they engage the conversation. Roeber, in this reviewer’s judgment, while no less committed to his current church of choice expresses more humility with respect to the differences that exist and more willingness to engage the dialogue. For example, after indicating that the most profound revelation that the Orthodox have of God is “that he is Love and Mercy” he goes on to acknowledge that “Whether such an understanding and confession is one Catholics and Lutherans also can affirm, the Orthodox leave to them to answer.”
Later, while discussing the discomfort for Orthodoxy caused by recent decisions of Lutherans with respect to human sexuality, he is aware of “the possibility that the two traditions will now be incapable of speaking to one another with even a limited vocabulary.” He is also clear that “older, and equally profound,” disagreement still exists between Orthodoxy and the Church of Rome.
Mattox, on the other hand, has Lutheranism as his primary conversation partner and is less reticent with respect to his conviction that Lutherans can, and probably should, find their way back to Rome. Representative of that strong belief are such statements as these: “My conclusion is that neither the Lutheran doctrine of justification, nor the dense sacramental ecclesiology of the Catholic Church, nor the church mariological definitions, nor even papal infallibility prohibits one from swimming the Tiber.” Even more sharply put “it is time for all Lutherans, indeed for all Protestants, and for Orthodox too, to renounce their own false ecclesial sense of self-sufficiency and take more seriously the breadth and openness of the Catholic Church.”

Theological principle

Paul Hinlicky, who shares the objections of the two authors to recent decisions in the ELCA and to the understanding of authority in the ELCA whereby such decisions are made, is, nevertheless, convinced that there is a Lutheran theological alternative that still is valid and needs to be offered even if he does not find it currently at work in ELCA structures. He remains Lutheran then “out of theological principle, which might be reduced to a slogan: ‘Modernization, Yes! Revisionism, No!” In other words, it is not wrong to consider questions of “appropriate contextualization and modernization” even though he considers how the ELCA has done so to be wrong.
Hinlicky’s afterword then seeks to argue for the theological principle he finds embedded in the Reformation which can be characterized as a “modernization of Catholic doctrine, a development of the Pauline theology from the Bible and Augustine.” In doing so, he is no less passionate in making the theological case for that to which he is committed than either Mattox or Roeber.
As should be evident by now, this reviewer finds much in this conversation to be admired as well as learned. The conversation is thoughtful, theologically engaging and nuanced, and appropriately detailed.
There is also much with which to argue. The implicit, if not explicit, call of Mattox to return to Rome or “mother Church” without more concession than to extreme historical circumstances for the Reformation is probably not the most helpful stance to take with respect to ecumenical conversations today. Furthermore, not all who remain in Lutheranism, even the ELCA, are demoralized, inactive, alienated, or destined to that kind of a future as Hinlicky suggests. But anyone who chooses to engage the work of these three theologians can benefit from that encounter even if one is not considering “changing churches” at this time or in the near future.
Randy A. Nelson is emeritus professor of contextual education at Luther Seminary and a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minneapolis.

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