Philipp Melanchthon

Church Unity as a Living Concord

One of the books that I currently have on the go is Reinhard Hütter’s Bound to Be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism. So far, there’s much to commend it. But rather than write a review, time permits me only to share some challenging words from the book that I’ve been reflecting on, and which recall some Hunsingeresque themes:

‘Would the Roman Catholic communion be prepared, in the framework of a Vatican III, to nuance or delimit its insistence upon the jurisdictional and doctrinal primacy of the bishop of Rome as a condition for mutual recognition and communion in faith and confession? And on the other hand, would the churches of the Reformation be prepared to recognize an ecumenical primacy of the bishop of Rome that stood under the authority of the Scriptures, was post-confessional, and operated iure humano in service to the visible unity of all Christians? We would do well to remember Melanchthon, who in his postscript to the Smalcald Articles of 1537 sent a signal that is decidedly both evangelical and ecumenical: “However, concerning the pope I maintain that if he would allow the gospel, we, too, may (for the sake of peace and general unity among those Christians who are now under him and might be in the future) grant to him his superiority over the bishops which he has ‘by human right.”‘ Melanchthon’s postscript must be understood as an entirely proper use of Reformation ecclesiology. Precisely because the church stands or falls on the truth of the justification of sinners, she is free to recognize historically evolved structures and traditions and to affirm them as gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. This recognition and affirmation is valid as long as these structures and traditions serve the proclamation of the gospel. Thus the church is free also to recognize and affirm an office of ministry understood as constituted by human right that both presides over and is in collegiality with the bishops and that serves the unity of the whole church. Were the churches to pass this test case, it would leave open the possibility for a communio-ecclesiology perspective in which unity did not necessarily flow out of an abstract reunification of the churches under the umbrella of a Tridentine-Vatican-ordered primacy. On the contrary, it would then be possible for Christian unity to be understood as a concord of faith and confession in the Holy Spirit that would reconcile the multiplicity of churches and whose visible manifestation would be the common celebration of the Lord’s Supper, at which the bishop of Rome could preside as sign of unity. However, the head and center of this unity of concord would remain Christ alone, who is present in the word of promise and forgiveness and in the elements of the Supper. For only on the basis of this Center can the nature of the ordained office of word and sacrament manifest itself as an office of ministry to the proclamation of the gospel and, further, to the living concord of Christians in the local parish, as well as on the regional and indeed the universal level of the church. According to Luther’s ecclesiology, the test case of the papal office can hinge solely on whether the ordained ministry to the gospel also includes – and indeed, where possible, requires – a ministry of unity to all of Christendom. If the papal office permitted itself to be understood as a ministry under the gospel, serving as a transforming – even re-forming – catalyst for the unity of the church, it would open the door to an ecumenically promising and, from the perspective of the Lutheran Reformation, permissible approach to the thorniest of all ecumenical dilemmas. After all, Luther himself asserted in 1531 that he “could kiss the pope’s feet if he would permit the gospel”’.

– Reinhard Hütter, Bound to Be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 192–3.