by Mark Hertenstein
Through centuries, no branch of Christianity has shown itself especially quick to change or move on many issues. And in some sense that is fine- there is no need to go with the flow of a certain time period, else some forms of Christianity have shown themselves to run off the tracks a bit. That is when absolutes get turned into relatives. Caution and measured response are good for most issues.
But there is one issue that is quickly approaching the point of necessity- Church unity. While there are sides that will claim the dogmas in each branch of the Church make unity impossible until such dogmas are resolved, and others who will say that dogma does not matter, there is one thing each is missing. I believe they both miss a key problem. There is a great deal of difference in living/dying by the truth of the real presence and living/dying by the profession in transubstantiation or sacramental union or consubstantiation. That is, Jesus said, “This is my body, this is my blood,” not, “This bread is now changed in terms of substance” or “This body is now in, with, and under the bread.”
The point being that there is a huge difference in what doctrine is and how we speak of doctrine. The reality is that Catholics and Lutherans have essentially the same view of the great creeds, justification, eucharist, and so on. The reason they remain different is that both sides’ interpretations of those truths of Christology, justification by grace through faith, the real presence of Christ have been elevated to the level of dogma itself.
There is certainly nothing wrong with having to clarify doctrines so as to avoid heresy and wrong teaching. There is certainly something wrong when we begin splitting hairs over whether one side emphasizes that the works flowing from faith are part of the process of becoming one with Christ while the other side emphasizes that faith precedes all such works. Notice that neither side denies justification by faith alone. They merely emphasize some aspect or other of that doctrine (as the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” rightly points out).
The same happens with sacraments, which are a hot topic for Church unity. There is nothing wrong with being clear that Christ is truly present in the sacrament of the altar. There is something wrong about deciding that the substance of the bread and wine change but not the accident versus deciding that it is Christ’s body, now elevated to the level of spiritual/divine being, that is united with the bread and wine. Notice that they don’t disagree with the words of Christ, “This is my body.” They disagree over how to interpret it. And anyway, it can reasonably be argued that none of the current, traditional formulae adequately speak to our modern situation.
So, with the question of Church unity at hand and more urgent than ever due to the questions of great relevance to the place of Christianity in the modern world, can we reasonably keep ourselves divided?
If we believe the same doctrines, perhaps with our own emphases or interpretations, and if we believe that when we gather at the altar we partake of the body and blood of Christ and are united as one, then what exactly is dividing us? In my opinion, nothing having to do with theology and everything to do with historical divisions that we refuse to let go of.
I think we would do well to examine that question closely, especially now that it seems that a united Christianity is necessary to combat and transform the modern world and culture, now more than ever before.
I think we would do well to realize that some things are bigger and more important than our own interpretations. Things like Jesus Christ and the Church that He prayed would be one.