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This essay is a response to Karen Bloomquist's lecture from Summer 2000, "What makes an ecumenical agreement authoritative?"
My basic impression (of the Bloomquist lecture) is that it is a statement on social and political authority that has little to do with spiritual authority. The reader can give her some credit for sifting through the various sociological, cultural, historical and ethnic factors that contribute to the way a group of people grants power to its leaders. Members of the WordAlone Network could probably benefit from additional guidance in the humanities and social sciences as to what is helpful and not helpful in the formation of a group of healthy function and purpose. One might think, however, that a better title for the presentation would be, "How can one understand and shape the group dynamics of a religious assembly?"
Yet just as Dr. Bloomquist did not use that particular title, she did not present her speech to a group of humanists and sociologists but to a international gathering of theologians and church dignitaries. As a representative of the worldwide Lutheran communion, she makes bold to ask, "What Makes an Ecumenical Agreement Authoritative?"
The key premise to the speech appears to be that leaders have power and documents have authority only insofar as these qualities are granted by a given constituency. Leaders of any political system need to maintain credibility in order to rule effectively. Otherwise, the populace can move from uneasiness to discontent, to perhaps, rebellion.
A crucial difficulty, however, arises when Bloomquist moves towards criticism of several declarations from the constituting convention of the WordAlone Network. Particularly in regards to James Nestingen's insistence that the situation in the ELCA is one that calls for confession of the faith, Bloomquist fails to grasp that one must make a distinction between political and spiritual authority. One cannot simply move from a sociological analysis to a theological argument without recognizing a unique attribute of the written, spoken and living Word -- the property by which it is its own interpreter and its own authority. Even as social and political power have useful roles in the church, these forces must not hinder the freedom of the Word.
In coming to us and to our world, the Word carries an authority of its own. The Word does not wait for humankind to install it in a position of power or to recognize it as a legitimate authority. Indeed, as Jesus Christ taught with an authority that was not of the scribes, he also refused to take up an earthly reign. Jesus Christ has power that flows from his identity as the Son of God, the Prince of Peace and the King of the Jews -- not from a particular church group or assembly that has decided to make him their ruler. As people joined to him in baptism to share in all of the benefits of being priest, prophet and king, Christians go forth not on a campaign to "get out the vote", to align different coalitions of a government or to pursue some vaguely defined "mission" but to announce an enduring and everlasting reality.
The different languages and meanings of a humanist attempting to be a theologian (Bloomquist) and a theologian attempting to view humanity as it truly is (Nestingen) have been used many times before. The struggle appears to have been waged by doctors of letters and theology throughout church history. In the battles between those who would seek strength and confidence in human renewal and those who were driven to rely solely on God's Word, two of the more famous are Erasmus v. Luther and Pelagius v. Augustine. One can benefit from following either the writers of social statements or the confessors of theological treatises throughout the centuries -- merely be careful to rightly distinguish between the two!
Daniel Ostercamp is doing graduate studies at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota.