“Our people have been unjustly accused of having abolished the Mass. But it is obvious, without boasting, that the Mass is celebrated among us with greater devotion and earnestness than among our opponents.” – Augsburg Confession (German text), Art. XXIV (Kolb/Wengert)
Such has been the confession of the Evangelical Lutheran Church for almost 500 years. Sad to say, though, that for much of that time this statement has been a lie.
We have hopefully moved beyond the story told by Bo Giertz of a 19th century Norwegian being dismayed to find that not a single church in Stockholm was celebrating the Lord’s Supper when he visited. Our own congregation has celebrated weekly Communion for several years now, and the days when Lutheran churches would typically celebrate Communion once a quarter are hopefully now behind us – but the fact that such days came at all is dismaying.
How did it come about that a church with such a robustly sacramental confession – a church which could, in 1530, make the statement quoted above – should have, for distressingly long periods of time, “practically lost this Lutheran doctrine of the sacrament, and consciously or unconsciously even follow[ed] what Luther fought against,” as Wilhelm Stählin put it?
Stählin posed this question in his 1937 book The Mystery of God. He suggests that to answer it, we first need to consider the wider context for the sacraments in the life of the church: namely, the “divine mystery” of God’s presence “in, with and under” the created things of this world:
If one reads in the liturgical writings of the ancient Fathers, […] one is plunged into an abundantly rich stream, or perhaps more accurately, into an atmosphere of sacramental life. The entire being of the Church, together with all its forms of life, is a world of mystery. (p.71)
Thus Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar are not “isolated actions”, but rather supreme examples of the “power of the divine mystery” which suffuses the whole church, and which enables the church “to affirm, with all joy and seriousness, that she is the ‘stewardess over the mysteries of God.'” Thus, in around 1000, it could be said that church had plurima sacramenta, “very many sacraments”.
In the years after 1000, however, the definition of a “sacrament” was narrowed to the point where the Council of Florence, in 1439, could decree that the number of sacraments is seven. The Reformers further narrowed the list, first to three (including Absolution) and then to two: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Those, however, the early Lutherans held to with great “devotion and earnestness”, to the extent that Luther would rather see the Reformation’s unity shattered than give ground on the “est” of “hoc est corpus meum”.
This narrowing of the definition of “sacrament”, though, came at a cost:
[T]ogether with Christology, the Sacraments are the only place where [Lutheran] Reformation theology developed a doctrine that should guard and defend this true mystery. Therefore a later development could abrogate at all other points the mystery, or rather, it could advance farther along the way that had been trodden with danger long prior to Luther at the late collapse of the medieval period. (pp.78f.)
In other words, while the Lutheran doctrine of the sacraments was clear and robust, it left undefended the wider category of mystery. The result was to leave the sacraments looking exposed, even anomalous:
What we of the Evangelical Church call “Sacraments” are the last persisting remains from a world of mystery that once embraced and filled the whole life of the Christian Church in its breadth, length, depth and height. They are, as it were, boulders formed from the earliest granite foundation which have remained standing, whilst softer material has crumbled away, dissolved in dust, by the floods of a totally different way of thinking. So now they stand, these boulders from primeval rock, in a landscape completely changed, alien and strange, as the uncouth witnesses of a world that has vanished into the beyond. (p.79)
Does this mean that Stählin thinks the Reformers were mistaken in their doctrine of the sacraments? No. He argues that the need to define the sacraments and limit their number came from the need to protect against “the ever-threatening divine mystery into a general mystery of life and of the world.”
It is necessary that the One who “was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate,” at specific times and in specific places, should come to us most fully “in quite definite forms and solemnities, in quite definite signs and actions.” It is also proper that Baptism and the Supper, always the two supreme “mysteries” of the church, should retain their distinctive status.
And, for all the damage caused by the floodwaters of rationalism, the sacraments have nevertheless survived:
The doctrine of the Sacrament has enabled mystery to “survive the winter,” and conveyed through the centuries an ultimate knowledge concerning the divine mystery… (p.80)
Hence the church is left in a position where it can revive the sacraments and receive new life from them – but only if we recover our wider sense of “the divine mystery, which is much larger and greater than the mystery of the Sacrament”; the divine mystery that is “the Church’s principal source of life in general, and imparts to all her life its value and meaning.”