The Briefing 11-02-16

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Post-Vatican II Catholicism meets Protestant Liberalism: Pope Francis commemorates the Reformation

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In spite of opposition, D.C. Council approves bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide

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Reflections on the 499th Anniversary of the Reformation

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Transcript

The Briefing

November 2, 2016

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Wednesday, November 2, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Post-Vatican II Catholicism meets Protestant Liberalism: Pope Francis commemorates the Reformation

The international media noticed as Pope Francis went to Lund, Sweden in order to observe Reformation Day; that’s what the headline said. The New York Times reported it this way, Christina Anderson writing,

“Almost 500 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door, setting off more than a century of religious warfare and forever changing the practice of Christianity worldwide, Pope Francis on Monday urged atonement and Christian reconciliation.”

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According to Anderson he was,

“…visiting the cities of Lund and Malmo in southern Sweden for a joint Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the Reformation, the pope observed the 499th anniversary of Luther’s protest of the sale of indulgences by noting the beneficial impact it had on Catholicism.”

The Pope said to the Lutheran and Catholic congregation gathered estimated at 10,000,

“With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the church’s life.”

He was joined by the official head of the group known as the Lutheran World Federation and they made a joint statement that included the words,

“We experience the pain of those who share their whole lives, but cannot share God’s redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table,” the declaration said. “We long for this wound in the body of Christ to be healed. This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavors, which we wish to advance, also by renewing our commitment to theological dialogue.”

The story did make international headlines and for good reason. We’re talking about the supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church going to Sweden in order to commemorate the 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and in view of the fact that the entire year ahead is going to be marking that 500th anniversary. Well, what’s going on here as the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church goes to Sweden to commemorate the Protestant Reformation? In a very real sense, what we’re looking at here is both more and less than meets the eye.

We’ll look first at the less side of the equation. There is less here than meets the eye. What might be thought by some who are looking at these headlines is that somehow, 499 years after we date the beginning of the Reformation, we now look back and see it was all just a huge mistake, perhaps it was a misunderstanding. The issues have now been clarified and the Pope and the head of the Lutheran World Federation can stand side-by-side and say the argument is over. There’s no doubt that there was a great deal of symbolism in the Pope’s visit and in the joint service with the Lutheran World Federation, but there was really far less here than meets the eye. This does not mean in any sense that the doctrinal disagreements between historic Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church are either merely a misunderstanding, or that the arguments are over.

Francis X. Rocca, reporting for the Wall Street Journal put it this way,

“Pope Francis highlighted two major priorities of his papacy at the start of a two-day visit to Sweden: efforts to heal the 500-year-old rift between Catholics and Protestants.”

Was that rift, even by the declaration of these two churches, healed? Well, the answer that was very clearly no was evidenced in the fact that the Pope and the leader of the Lutheran World Federation had to acknowledge that there will still be no standing together at what they describe as the Eucharistic table. To their credit, several major newspapers and other media reports around the world understood that the action that was undertaken there in Sweden on Monday was far more symbolic than substantial. The evidence of that is the fact that that Eucharistic piece that was declared as the goal, the eventual goal of both the Lutheran Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, it was not accomplished.

But the reader would have to have some level of theological knowledge and sophistication to understand the distinction between the symbolism and the substance. Rocca’s report in the Wall Street Journal ended with this paragraph,

“Earlier Monday afternoon, at an ecumenical worship service in the nearby city of Lund, Pope Francis praised the ‘spiritual experience’ of Martin Luther, the German reformer whose teachings led to the split between Catholic and Protestants. The pope called for ‘moving beyond the controversies and disagreements’ separating Protestants and Catholics.”

That was an acknowledgment even from the Pope that there remain serious doctrinal disagreements. But I said there is less here than meets the eye; in terms of substance there was far less here than many the headlines had indicated. But I said on the other hand, perhaps there’s more here than meets the eye.

On the more side of the equation, we are looking at the fact that here you have an official body of Lutherans worldwide, the Lutheran World Federation, that did invite the Pope to come 499 years after Martin Luther nailed those 95 theses to the door, and this Lutheran Federation appears to be doing its very best to say there is the real possibility for a doctrinal reconciliation and rapprochement between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. But this is where we have to look at the really big story behind the headlines. The big story would be this, we are looking at the fact that many Lutherans around the world today, that is members of Lutheran churches, and many of those denominations actually don’t represent the theology of Martin Luther the Reformer nor of confessional Protestantism.

And we’re also looking at the fact that the Roman Catholic Pontiff actually doesn’t represent the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church in terms of the Council of Trent or even subsequent developments.

What happened in Lund on Monday is only possible because of two gigantically important developments—on the Protestant side, the rise of Protestant liberalism and the ecumenical movement. On the Protestant side, this means that you have many churches that continue to use the names of their founders or of their long-lasting confessional traditions, but they actually no longer hold to the theology or doctrines of those who established their churches. When you’re looking at the Lutheran World Federation, we are looking in the main at churches that have joined liberal Protestantism. They have abandoned many of the key teachings, not only of their own churches, but of the historic orthodox Christian tradition. We’re looking at churches that may give something of a tip of the hat historically to Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Sola Gratia and Soli Deo Gloria, but they are not holding themselves to a confessional accountability in terms of the historic creeds and confessions of their churches, and they have joined theological liberalism in revising the faith, the Christian faith in general, but also the faith of their own specific denominations.

We should note that here in the United States there are liberal, mainline, Lutheran denominations, most importantly what’s known as the ELCA, that is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. That’s a group that, much like the Episcopal Church and other major liberal denominations, has been trending left for a very long time. We should also note that there are Lutheran churches in the United States, Lutheran denominations, that do continue to hold to confessional Protestantism, and specifically to confessional Lutheranism. These would include the Missouri Synod Lutherans and also the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans. Of those groups the Missouri Synod Lutherans are by far the larger; they are a nationwide denomination. And the thing to note as a historical footnote about the Missouri Synod Lutherans is that they underwent a conservative resurgence several years before the same was experienced by the Southern Baptist Convention.

The other major development that allows this on the Protestant side is the rise of the ecumenical movement. This was a movement that gained a great deal of steam in the 20th century as efforts were undertaken by several denominations to try to create an ecumenical unity in which the confessional specifics of their doctrinal traditions would be sacrificed to the ideal of a greater consensus and unity.

But even as Christians who held to orthodox doctrine understood at the beginning of that trajectory, it required what amounts to a lowest common denominator understanding of doctrine. And by the time you end up with that lowest common denominator of theology, it is a very low denominator indeed. So the Lutherans who showed up and were represented at this meeting in Sweden were not the confessional, orthodox Lutherans of the classical Lutheran tradition. They were rather those who were either very liberal themselves or at least represented by liberal leadership.

On the other side of the equation, the massive development that allowed Roman Catholics to participate in this is what was known as Vatican II, the great council of the church that was held in the second half of the 20th century in which the Roman Catholic Church effectively liberalized a great deal of its doctrine.

Two of the most important developments from Vatican II were the reorientation of the Roman Catholic Church to other Christian churches as they were defined, and also to other religions. In terms of the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and other religions, the official documents of Vatican II represented an openness to claims that there could be genuine revelation within other religions. In terms of the Roman Catholic Church’s relationship with the historic Protestant churches, Vatican II allowed for an openness to those denominations and churches as well and called for a process of ecumenical dialogue to try to establish a new unity.

A couple of things to note here. At no point did the Roman Catholic Church suggest that that unity could be under any circumstances other than the supremacy of the Pope. And the other thing to note is that at no point did the Roman Catholic Church reverse the historic anathemas of the Council of Trent in which those who held to Reformation doctrine were not only criticized and condemned, but they were also anathematized.

So what the world saw Monday in Lund was Lutherans who no longer hold to the condemnations of the Roman Catholic Church, and Roman Catholics who no longer hold to the condemnations of Lutheranism. To state the matter as simply as possible, the Lutherans were not representing Luther, and the Roman Catholic Church was not representing the Roman Catholic Church in terms of its official response to the Reformation at the Council of Trent.

But we didn’t have to look only to Monday in order to understand what was going on here. All we need to do is to look back to October 31 of the year 1999. It was in that year that the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church issued what was known as a joint declaration on the doctrine of justification.

You’ll recall that it was Martin Luther himself who defined the doctrine of justification by faith alone as the article by which the church stands or falls. And you must also keep in mind that at the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church officially condemned the teaching that we are justified by faith in Christ alone. But in this document that was released to the public on October 31, that is Reformation day of the year 1999, the document read this,

“Thus the doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration.”

What does that tell us? It tells us that the Lutherans who signed the document and the Roman Catholics who signed the document don’t actually represent the historic teaching of their own churches. That’s the more in the story, the more here than meets the eye.

The language I just read also points to another key issue in terms of so many of these modern ecumenical conversations. They simply declare that there must be some kind of misunderstanding and the language is extremely, even excruciatingly, specific. You’ll notice that the Roman Catholic Church said that it has now decided that its condemnations aren’t against Lutherans that are represented by the Lutheran World Federation; no, that was against some different Lutherans, and we know who they were. They were the confessional Lutherans. And at the same time you had the Lutherans declaring that the condemnations of Roman Catholic teaching that were an historic part of Protestantism, indeed, specifically of Lutheranism, they don’t apply to the contemporary Roman Catholic Church as represented after Vatican II.

Finally, on this story it’s also really interesting to see what the national and worldwide media think would be of interest. The final paragraph in the story at National Public Radio reads this way,

“Still, differences in theology and ritual remain between the two churches. The Lutheran church allows women to serve as pastors, while the Catholic church does not permit women as priests, and the two churches have historically different relationships to the papacy itself.”

Now there’s no doubt that those two points are true, but there’s also no doubt that Luther would not identify either of those as the main points. Luther would point most especially to Scripture alone and faith alone. And in that joint declaration dated back to 1999, even as the Lutherans and the Catholics are writing about what they see as their unity, it’s abundantly clear that the Lutherans can’t back off of justification by faith alone, even if they have transformed the doctrine. It is also clear that the Roman Catholic Church is not going to sign on to even the language of justification by faith alone. Instead, they stress justification by faith, but not by faith alone.

Once again we note that not only did the Pope make headlines by what he said and did in Sweden, he also made headlines by what he said on the way home. Once again, this Pope, following his habit, decided to talk to the press on his airplane as he was returning from Sweden to Rome. And as The Guardian reported last night, what the Pope said was this: that there is not going to be a change in the stance of the Roman Catholic Church when it comes to the ordination of women as priests. According to The Guardian,

“When he was asked and then pressed on the matter by a Swedish journalist during a press conference aboard the papal plane, Francis suggested that the ban on women serving as priests would be eternal.”

Now what would be the Pope’s argument here? It deserves our attention. He said in response to the reporter,

“Saint Pope John Paul II had the last clear word on this and it stands, this stands,” referring back to a 1994 papal document in which John Paul II declared that women could never join the priesthood.

But the reporter pressed,

“But forever? Forever? Never? Never?”

The Pope then said in response,

“If we read carefully the declaration by St. John Paul II, it is going in that direction.”

It’s interesting to note the kind of language that was used by this Pope. It’s not the kind of language you would’ve expected from his predecessors. Merely saying “It’s going in that direction,” that is, to say the very least, rather odd language you’d expect from a Pope. But the other thing to note is this, and I think this is where Martin Luther would make his argument. The Pope didn’t cite any argument from Scripture whatsoever. Instead, his argument was merely from the tradition of the Church and the authority of the papacy, and it was dated as far back as 1994.

Perhaps the clearest contrast here is when we look at the language used by this Pope as the answer of the reporter’s question and pointed back to church tradition and papal authority in 1994 and stated, “It is going in that direction.”

Contrast that with Martin Luther who stared down the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire at the the Diet of Worms and said,

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well-known that they are often erred and contradict themselves, I am bound by the Scriptures. I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God.”

Later Luther said, quite declaratively,

“Here I stand I can do none other, God help me.”

That’s where Martin Luther took his stand in April of the year 1521, and that is where we, if we are indeed his theological heirs, must take our stand in the year 2016.

In spite of opposition, D.C. Council approves bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide

Next, last night an ominous headline that came from the Washington Post and was datelined from Washington, D.C. Fenit Nirappil, reporting for the paper, tells us that,

“The D.C. Council on Tuesday gave initial approval to legislation that would allow physicians to prescribe fatal drugs to terminally ill residents in the city, making the District the sixth jurisdiction nationwide to allow the practice.”

A closer look at the political moment indicates that the D.C. Council may have to vote yet again one more time on the question. But it’s also clear that the D.C. Mayor, Muriel E. Bowser, will also have to decide whether or not she will sign the legislation. Her own city health director has declared that assisted suicide is a violation of the historic Hippocratic Oath.

Nirappil continues by reporting,

“Tuesday’s action followed an emotional discussion in the D.C. Council chambers, which was packed with supporters wearing yellow ‘Compassion and Choices’ shirts and opponents wearing red ‘NO D.C. Suicide’ shirts.”

Let’s just look at the shirts for just a moment, in particular the “Compassion and Choices” shirts. This is the side that was for legal approval of physician-assisted suicide. Notice how the argument is packaged: the two words “Compassion and Choices.” What’s at stake was made very clear by one of the councilmembers, Kenyan R. McDuffie, who said,

“My family had to watch him suffer, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone else.” He went on to say, “But I’m not basing this vote today on my own story because there are thousands of other people throughout the district who have had the same experience. . . . This is by far my toughest vote in 4½ years in this body.”

Now we certainly sympathize with the grief of a man looking back at the death of his father. But we need to note that at no point throughout human history have we ever been promised a death that is untroubled. Death itself, the Scripture makes very clear, is the enemy. What is being argued now in the name of compassion is that human dignity has to be redefined so that we get declare the acceptable parameters of our own deaths or the deaths of our loved ones. And the other thing there is the word choice, which once again simply idolizes the concept of human autonomy. Predictably, another member of the Council indicated that even though she has theological concerns about assisted suicide, she overcame those because,

“I will not take the liberty of even thinking for others on matters of life or death.”

Now that’s an astounding statement, because government at every level eventually has to deal with matters of life and death. It is simply an enormous abdication of responsibility all of the sudden to declare that we are not going to impose our own worldview, even on matters of life and death. Every government imposes a worldview in matters of life and death; it is inevitable. The only question is which worldview or whose worldview.

The other thing we must note, and it’s been noted in the Washington Post and on The Briefing already, is that the District of Columbia represents the first government unit that is predominately African-American that has moved to legalize assisted suicide.

As the Washington Post reported yesterday, the measure “faces particular opposition from African-Americans who make up nearly half of the districts population and are among the most likely to oppose such legislation.”

The Post went on to say,

“Some African Americans say they are unsettled by the practice because of historical abuse by the medical establishment and concerns that they may be steered to an early death.”

That very valid concern when it comes to medical justice was made clear in another report by the same reporter that was dated on October 17 of this year in which one elderly African-American woman said of the legislation,

“It’s really aimed at old black people, it really is.”

The Post went on to report,

“The bill would allow terminally ill patients with less than six months to live, to request fatal drugs from a physician after consulting a doctor over a period of two weeks, with two witnesses attesting that the decision is voluntary.”

The Post continues,

“Patients must ingest the medication themselves without the assistance of doctors or family members, and physicians can refer them to counseling if they think their judgment is impaired.”

A couple of quick things to note here. Note that the bill is supposedly going to allow only terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to request physician-assisted suicide. But there are huge problems there, even pragmatically. In the first place, a terminal diagnosis is not always terminal, and it is very well-known that physicians are not in a position in many, many cases to say who will live and who will die and when.

The second thing that cries out to me from this is where we are told that the legislation allows that physicians can refer patients to counseling if they think that their judgment is impaired. Merely “can”? This is the kind of language that becomes inevitable once the culture of death is in charge of the vocabulary. One might think that at the very least, the legislation would require a physician to send the patient to counseling if that patient is requesting suicide and the physician believes that there’s a question of mental stability. But of course this is the kind of language, it’s the kind of argument that becomes inevitable as the culture of death advances. But Christians must understand this and understand it clearly. There is not a single human mind rightfully so stable as to have a right to demand assisted suicide. This is not only a sad day for the District of Columbia and its citizens. This is a very sad day for all of us.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing