Intercepting the Hail Mary

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.

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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).

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5 thoughts on “Intercepting the Hail Mary

  1. You provide a good counterpoint to the previous article. Good in the sense that it is throughout a traditional post-ratiomalist American confessionalist understanding of unity. I would like to push back, not on your definition of unity, but on your conclusion that our only recourse is repentance.

    Luther believed that God meets humanity in its concrete experience. Creating out of the nothingness of our sin a creature capable of loving God. Where before we were a literal deadend God acts to make something out of nothing. Your picture of bad doctrine as an ill body aptly walks into this metaphor (see what I did there *winky face*). When we respond to disunity with the love and compassion that God’s recreative effort has motivated in our lives we act out repentance and share in God’s recreative work. Into the illness of disunity we, in our desperate finitude, pray that God created out of nothing the unity He desires. So, in this view an effort to join in the commentaries and congruency we have with Rome in the Hail Mary can be an appropriate Lutheran response without resorting to petal stringing or false unity.

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  2. If visible unity matters in a marriage between a husband and wife, then it matters in the Church, the Bride and Bridegroom.

    If it does not matter between a husband and wife, then it does not matter in the Church, the Bride and Bridegroom..

    The enactment of unity is like enacting a marriage. Two meet, there’s some kind of spark, the dating begins, and marriage. Each of those steps are not ‘earned’ but they require the cooperation of the two who must work towards the goal. If two do not work toward marriage, and then work in the marriage, unity will not occur, or it will break down. Love is work, so is unity.

    So, for example, while Rome gave the gift of the Ordinariate, it required work on our part to take the steps (‘date’) to enact visible unity (‘marriage’), accepting that words of Jesus in Jn 17 were (are) more important than my opinions, perspectives, and theology. His theology of unity is better than mine.

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    1. It’s an interesting point, gk. But, I would still say the work that needs to be done to gain unity is negative in that we need to work at removing the barriers that prevent us from hearing what God says in His word. A theology that adds to or takes away from the word is already from the unity given in the Word itself.

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      1. Yes, that was why I referenced the Word, where Jesus asks for ‘complete unity’, not incomplete unity.

        20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. [Jn 17]

        I don’t know if there is a barrier to hearing this, perhaps there is.

        In terms gaining unity, that Word above asks us to “hear and do”, which is what Jesus said in Luke 6:47.

        Now is a good time to ‘do.’

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