Thursday, October 06, 2005

Communions Aren't Theologies and Increasingly Aren't Denominations

In surfing the various theological blogs out there, I've suddenly come to realize explicitly what I suppose most people have understood implicitly: that denominations these days aren't really communions as they have been traditionally understood, and that they also increasingly aren't theologies either.

Let's take something simple, like "the Lutherans". Traditionally this means ELCA, LCMS, WELS, ELS, etc., the whole alphabet soup. The traditional way to look at this is that within the first order approximation of "the Lutherans" we have more liberal and more conservative bodies within that overall tradition. But when we look at this as a communion, that is, who shares altar and pulpit fellowship, the Lutherans in the ELCA like most of the worldwide bodies in the Lutheran World Federation, are actually no longer part of a "communion" that could be called genuinely Lutheran. (Sasse emphasized this point for Germany in Here We Stand, and his hope that the American Lutherans would resist unionism. Some did and some didn't.) Since the decision to enter altar and pulpit fellowship with the Reformed (mainline Presbyterians and Dutch Reformed, etc.) , the ELCA is from the point of view of communion no longer part of a distinctive Lutheran world.

Similarly, the conservatives in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) may seem very different from the liberals in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). And they really are theologically. But since both actual commune anyone who is baptized, they are in a very meaningful sense simply branches of one communion (kind of like the Jesuits vs. Opus Dei). And the PCA itself is socially and even in the pulpit, joined at the hip to Calvinist-style Baptist churches, who in turn in most denominations are in full communion with Free-Will Baptists and so on. The LCMS is quite distinctive in refusing to play these "six degrees of separation" games.

Of course defining communion is difficult. We have baptismal communion (recognize each other's baptism), we have altar communion (allow each other to commune), and altar and pulpit communion (allow those ordained in one body to preach in the other without special procedures). Even more complex is that some of these are not symmetrical. Lutherans recognize all Baptists' baptisms, but Baptists do not recognize at least some (infant baptisms) or often all (non-immersion baptisms, or baptisms done on the belief in baptismal regeneration) Lutherans' baptisms. Likewise Catholic and Reformation churches recognize all Orthodox baptisms, but a certain number of Orthodox don't recognize non-Orthodox baptisms.

Despite these complications at the level of altar communion the picture is quite interesting in its simplicity. We have the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, the LCMS, the WELS-ELS, and then . . . the vast tribes of the Reformed in two types, pedobaptist and credobaptist. (There is also a fringe of small communions among the credobaptists; Plymouth Brethren, Amish, and so on.) Equally strikingly is the fact that the majority of people calling themselves "Lutherans" are, communion-wise, actually part of the pedobaptist Reformed. Likewise Anglicanism which universally communes on the basis of valid baptism simply is not a "communion" in any deep sense; it's just an option within the pedobaptist Reformed communion. There may be Wesleyan theology out there, but in the sense of a communion with clear borders there is, as far as I know, no Wesleyan communion, only one that straddles the pedo-credo divide.

And theologically the picture looks different as well. There is a large stream of "traditional" theologies that reject justification by faith alone, teach the Mass as a sacrifice, and the necessity of apostolic succession, but within that my observation is today that theologies often don't follow communions neatly. The classic Latin Scholasticism or Neo-Thomism is only one of many modern-day Catholic theologies, for example; many Catholic theologians prefer to work in Greek and patristic streams, or even quote Luther to defend Catholic doctrines. Likewise Dispensationalism is a distinctive and clearcut theological current that has pretty no one denomination to call home. "Ecumenical" theology likewise seems to be found in numerous denominations. Theologically, we might speak of six main currents: Traditional (in Latin and Eastern varieties), Lutheran, Calvinist, Wesleyan, Dispensational, and Liberal/Ecumenical. None can be neatly matched with a communion.

A map of communions showing the symmetrical and non-symmetrical relations of each body (who baptizes/communes/preaches to whom according to what rules) would be a fascinating and complex diagram.