Wittenberg and Missional Ecumenism

By Matthew Becker

Last October an article appeared in the Lutheran Witness that claimed “Luther’s home city (Wittenberg) includes no Lutheran congregation.” The article quotes Matthew Harrison, executive director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care: “There are people with deep Lutheran sentiments in Wittenberg, but there is no congregation organized and operating under the full confession of the Lutheran faith as spelled out in the Book of Concord.” The article mentions that Bruce Kintz, the president and CEO of CPH, could find “very little about Luther or Lutheranism” when he visited the bookstores there.

My Daystar article, “Reformationsfest 2007 in der Lutherländer,” refutes Harrison’s claim, as does Daystar Arnie Voigt’s letter to the editor in the Dec. 2007 issue of LW.

Two weeks ago, during my most recent visit to the Lutherstadt-W, I spent three hours browsing the bookstores. I found 100s of books on Luther, Melanchthon, the Lutheran Confessions–including the exquisite, “Lutherische Bekenntnisgemälde des 16. bis 18. Jahrhunderts: Die illustrierte Confessio Augustana,” by Wolfgang Brückner (Schnell und Steiner, 2007), a must-have for anyone interested in Lutheran art–and the Reformation. Maybe the Melanchthon Antiquariat was closed on the day of Mr. Kintz’s visit. If so, he missed a great bookstore in town that contains numerous “Lutherana.” (I won’t mention the many Luther-an materials to be found at the Luther Haus and the Wittenberg Center.)

Despite the evidence presented by Voigt and others, the LCMS continues to print materials that cast aspersions on the Lutheran confession and practice of the main congregations in Wittenberg. See, for example, last month’s Reporter that included an article by Wilhelm Torgerson, an SELK pastor and managing director of the International Lutheran Society of Wittenberg, a joint project of LCMS World Mission, LCMS World Relief and Human Care, CPH, and the SELK (a church body of around 25,000 members in 200 congregations). According to Pr. Torgerson, “there is today no congregation in Wittenberg with a clear confession of the Book of Concord or even of the Augsburg Confession… It is true that the prominent Protestant congregations in Wittenberg…regard themselves as being ‘in the Lutheran tradition.’ It is also a fact that they belong to a denomination of the United Protestant Church, in which not only the Lutheran confessional writings are authoritative but also such theological documents as the Heidelberg Catechism, the Barmen Declaration, and the Leuenberg Concord.” Torgerson further claims that the churches in Wittenberg do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper “according to Christ’s institution as set forth in the Augsburg Confession.” “I have not once heard reference to or the proclamation of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. I have often heard: ‘Receive bread and wine as a sign of God’s love and our fellowship with one another.'”

The issue here is not really “the Lutheran” character of the congregations in Wittenberg but rather the quality of our LCMS missional efforts in such a place. The issue of the 8th Commandment is also central, vis-à-vis how we speak about and characterize the Lutheran Christians/congregations of Wittenberg to others in public media. Is the LCMS really committed to working together with the Christians and congregations in Wittenberg to do “those things together that are possible in serving as witness to our blessed Redeemer and Lord, Christ Jesus,” as Pr. Torgerson’s article claims? If so, then why publicly write so negatively about the confession and practice of the Wittenberg congregations? (BTW, how does a person who does not commune in either Wittenberg congregation know precisely what is said to communicants when they commune at the altars of these churches? Since Pr. Torgerson has not lived in Wittenberg for very long, how has he been able to form such a definite opinion about the confession and practices of the congregations there and their missional activities?)

Pr. Torgerson’s article raises theological issues about church fellowship that deserve more careful attention within the LCMS, esp. in light of the proposed “International Welcome Center” in Wittenberg. For example, Pr. Torgerson simply dismisses the Leuenberg Agreement as unLutheran, as if nothing else needs to be said. However, if you read this document carefully–and I encourage you to do so (it’s available on-line)–will you find anything that is theologically or ecclesiologically objectionable?  

 I recently revisited this important agreement (also called the Leuenberg Concord) and I was struck by its careful articulation of the gospel, by its evangelical and orthodox Christology, and by its clear confession of the impartation of the real body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Other assertions caught my attention:

“…agreement in the right teaching of the gospel and in the right administration of the sacraments is the necessary and sufficient prerequisite for the true unity of the church.”

“With the advantage of historical distance today it is easier today to discern the common elements in the witness of the churches of the Reformation in spite of the differences between them.”

“In the course of four hundred years of history, the churches of the Reformation have been led to new and similar ways of thinking and living; by theological wrestling with the questions of modern times, by advances in biblical research, by the movements of church renewal, and by the rediscovery of the ecumenical horizon.” .”…time and again, there has also been an experience of brotherly fellowship, particularly in times of common suffering…”

“In the Lord’s Supper the risen Jesus Christ imparts himself in his body and blood, given up for all, through his word of promise with bread and wine. He thus gives himself unreservedly to all who receive the bread and wine; faith receives the Lord’s Supper for salvation, unfaith for judgment. We cannot separate communion with Jesus Christ in his body and blood from the act of eating and drinking. To be concerned about the manner of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper in abstraction from this act is to run the risk of obscuring the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.”

Wherever the theological statements of the Leuenberg Agreement are accepted, “the condemnations of the Reformation confessions in respect of the Lord’s Supper, Christology, and predestination are inapplicable to the doctrinal position. This does not mean that the condemnations by the Reformation fathers are irrelevant; but they are no longer an obstacle to church fellowship… In the sense intended in this Agreement, church fellowship means that, on the basis of the consensus they have reached in their understanding of the gospel, churches with different confessional positions accord each other fellowship in word and sacrament and strive for the fullest possible co-operation in witness and service to the world.”

The churches who signed this Agreement are in a different place, theologically and ecumenically, from the relatively isolated LCMS and its “all-or-nothing” approach to ecumenical partnerships. Question: Is the “all-or-nothing approach,” coupled with the rather hubristically-sounding position, “We are the true Lutherans in town,” really going to work missionally in Wittenberg? I wonder.

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