By Bob Hiller –
Before I was writing here for the good ol’ Jagged Word in any official capacity, I was an avid reader of the blog. Every week, I looked forward to reading “The Emperor’s Chair.” I always found Graham’s views on politics and ecumenism (specifically his views on the relationship between Rome and Wittenberg) to be challenging and even refreshing as he had the guts to speak in ways that are different from the standard Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod way of thinking. I disagreed with much of what Graham said but was always impressed with his willingness to dialogue and think outside the norm for what he believed was the good of the Church catholic.
Now that I am a regular here at the Jagged Word, I still look forward to The Emperor’s Chair, I still find Graham’s writing to be a delight, and I still disagree with a great deal of what he says. The only difference is that now I can take a whole blog to air my thoughts. I am glad to see Graham writing some rather provocative stuff again. He’s great at it. It’s just that, well, he’s way off base.
If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and check out the latest from The Emperor’s Chair. Graham suggests that if we are serious about finding unity between Rome and the Lutherans, perhaps it would be good for us to start with Mary, the mother of our Lord. And not just Mary, but perhaps our ecumenical activity should be shaped by the “Hail Mary.” Since we can’t seem to agree upon justification, authority, the sacraments, or any number of other issues, perhaps we could find a unifying factor in the aspect of this “prayer.” After all, GG suggests that the elements and impact of this “prayer” cater to both sides of the aisle. Perhaps if we could unite around this “prayer” and by extension around the Holy Mother of our Lord we could make great strides in unifying the Church. (I hope I’ve laid this out fairly enough, Graham.)
This is certainly provocative and intriguing, but in my opinion, it’s wildly misguided. It’s like a football team basing their entire game plan on a last second sixty-five yard throw down the field into a crowded end zone (See what I did there?). That is to say, it’s not a good game plan. Let’s set aside the fact that the text this “prayer” is based on is not a prayer but a promise made by God to Mary through the angel Gabriel. Let’s leave the discussion on the role of dead saints in the lives of living Christians for later. For now, we’ll ignore a discussion that says we’d be pursuing unity with a practice that is a pretty blatant breaking of the second commandment (To whom are we to call upon in our troubles, pray, praise, and give thanks?). In my opinion, the reason this suggestion is not a good game is that it misunderstands the nature of unity in the Church and the role of doctrine in uniting us.
First, as to the nature of unity. If I read Graham’s blog correctly, he is suggesting that unity is something that we all must work towards. If we just find agreement at one point of doctrine, perhaps we can then begin to build towards unity in more places. Once we all begin to agree on enough doctrines, then, voila! Unity! The trouble here is that unity in the Church is not earned; it is given. Unity is created as a gracious gift in Baptism. There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, and one God, none of which we make, create, or achieve. We are all one in Christ Jesus by virtue of our Baptism. Unity begins in Baptism and is sustained in the many partaking of the one loaf and drinking from the one cup. Unity is the result of God’s sacramental giving. The fact of our disunity (and I am sure Graham would agree) is the result of our sinful hearts not submitting to the one Lord and the one faith He’s given. Disunity is a result of denying the faith given to us by Jesus. The disagreement over particular doctrines is the fruit, not the root cause, of disunity
This brings me to the role of doctrine in the unity of the Church. I think my real hang up with Graham’s analysis is that it gives the impression alluded to in the last paragraph, that the real problem is disagreements over particular doctrines. But doctrine is one. We can’t view doctrines in the Church like pearls on a string, as Dr. Kolb taught us. That is, if one of the pearls is tarnished or broken, at least the others stay in tact. So, it would be conceivably possible in this view that two parties could agree on a doctrine of the immaculate conception but would then find themselves at odds, say, on the role of priests. But doctrine doesn’t work like that. Dr. Kolb says doctrine is like a body. If one part is hurt or ill, the whole body will suffer. Even if we could all agree on Graham’s Hail Mary proposal, Rome would still have heart issues with its view of justification. The view of Mary set forth in a practice of the Hail Mary is connected to a false view of the whole body of doctrine and is thus suspect. Most certainly it is not a place to seek unity.
So, is there any hope for unity in the Church? Yes! But it is not found in our Lord’s praying mother (Who does pray for us, I believe). It is found in Jesus. In fact, it is given by Jesus. Unity will come when, quite frankly, we all shut up, repent, and listen to what the Holy Spirit wants to put in our ears: that all of us are filthy, religious sinners who have a God who put on flesh to die for us and rise to make us new. Unity is not something we build towards as much as it is something we receive when we sit beneath the Word of God, repent, and believe. Unity is found where all of God’s gracious gifts are found: in Christ alone, from Christ alone. Lord have mercy on us for selfish agendas and foolish theologies that get in the way of listening to His Word.
OK, this is likely the headiest blog I’ve written, but that’s what I love about Graham’s posts. They get my head going. I don’t always agree with him, but I’m glad to have a seat next to The Emperor’s Chair (Next time, let’s say we do this over scotch and cigars).