Michael Root: A Second Opinion

[1] It seems to me that Michael Root is off base in three claims that undergird his “Communion and Difference.”

1. His claim for “normative ethical teaching” in the church of the Augsburg Confession.

2. His claim that a “consensus of the wider church” exists about homosexuality–a clear “no”–and that this consensus is itself “normative” and “needed” in the ELCA until a different consensus arises.

3. His claim that the classic law/gospel distinction (and the corollary “satis est” for church unity) in Augsburg catholic theology leads to normative ethical teaching that says “no” to homosexual intimacy.

[2] In this essay Root doesn’t wish to address the “ethical” issue, but the “ecclesiological” one that is “at the center” of the hot-potato resolutions coming before the ELCA 2009 assembly. Can the ELCA still be “one church”–even more serious, still remain within Una Sancta–and allow both a yes and a no to homosexual intimacy? His answer is no. [It’s linked, of course, to his own signature on “An Open Letter to the Voting Members of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly” with its “no” to the ethical issue. Root rightly divines that the “structured flexibility” proposed to the ELCA assembly says “yes” to the ethical issue without (yet) making it “normative.”] But Root too has a hard time keeping the ethical and ecclesiological issues disconnected.

First Off-Base: Normative ethical teaching.

[3] “Normative ethical teaching” is language unknown in Augsburg Confessional Catholicism. Even synonyms to that phrase are not at home in the Lutheran Confessions. Even when the debate arises later about the law’s so-called “third use,” it is not “normative ethical teaching” that is the agenda. Rather, it is the debate about the role of God’s law in the daily life of those now trusting Christ. Is it the ethical guide for Christ-confessors? The drafters of the Augsburg Confession answer no.

[4] For them Christ’s own “new commandment” replaces Moses’ normative ethical teaching. Christ himself as Lord (owner) and Master (teacher) is now their ethics coach. His new” commandment is a strange commandment. It offers no normative ethical teaching! In fact, the term “normative” doesn’t fit this new commandment at all. Nor, come to think of it, does “ethical” or “teaching” as we usually use these terms. [These three terms are Root’s basic building blocks. “Normative” appears 7 times, “teaching” 14 times, “ethical” 9 times. But these are not nickel-word terms with obvious meanings. They need to be parsed according to law and promise. Root does not do that.]

[5] Christ’s new commandment is not normative ethical teaching. It is an invitation: “Come, follow me [=faith] and be ‘little Christs’ back in all the ‘old’ contexts and callings you had before we met.” No list of dos and don’ts. It’s not that there are no rubrics at all for living as little Christs; it’s that they are all “grace-imperatives,” using a new “grammar” (as Luther called it) for ethics.

[6] The grammar was not at all normative ethical teaching, but the “therefores” that follow from the “because” in grace-imperatives for living the Christ-life. Take, for example, 2 Corinthians 5: “BECAUSE God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, THEREFORE be reconciled to God and hustle this ministry of reconciliation wherever your life unfolds.” There follows no book of rules, no normative ethical teaching.

[7] But normative ethical teaching was solidly at home in the Roman Catholicism that elicited the “no” of the Augsburg confessors. Here’s why. As soon as you say “normative,” you are saying “you gotta.” When you say “you gotta,” you are dealing with merits and demerits. The “you gotta” behavior is “better” righteousness than the behavior of those not following such “normative ethical teaching.” But once you start debating righteousness — normative ethical teaching followers having more, non-followers having less–you are back to square one of the Reformation. Just what is the righteousness that counts before God?

[8] This is really the 6/7ths of the iceberg beneath the surface in the homosexual controversy. As it always is in every church controversy. Righteousness by faith ALONE was what it was ALL about in 1530. For the Augsburgers that was what “ethics” was all about–righteousness. Being “OK” before God and fellow humans. At the deepest level there is no separate “doctrine of sanctification” in Augsburg theology. Sanctification is another spoke coming from the “righteous-by-faith-alone” hub of the wheel in the Augsburg Confession, articulating what that “sola”-at-the-center signals when you talk about Christian behavior.

[9] When pushed by pontifical critics at Augsburg to “say something” about ethics, Melanchthon does not offer a list of “normative ethical teaching for Lutherans.” Instead he claims to follow the paradigm of “the Scriptures . . . for they commend [good] works in such a way as not to remove the free promise.” He then proceeds to “commend” them without setting up normative ethical teaching.

[10] Ethics, good works, follow the same tune, the same Cantus firmus of Christ’s promise, that sings from the hub at the Center [let’s say, in the key of C]. Where the rim of that melodic wheel hits the road of daily life, it is played in the key of E [ethics] or G [good works]. But it’s the same melody. Justification by faith alone and sanctification–also by faith alone!–are Siamese twins.

[11] If you somehow “have to” talk about normative ethical teaching, that promissory cantus firmus is the tune to sing.

Second Off-Base: “Consensus of the wider church” exists about homosexuality–a clear “no”–and this consensus is itself “normative” and “needed” in the ELCA–until a different consensus arises.

[12] “Everybody knows” that the verdict is negative on homosexual intimacy throughout the “wider church.” Root repeats this. But is it really so? Recent historical digging by homosexual Christian scholars has shown considerable variation on the subject throughout church history. “Consensus” here is fragile. Root almost says that when he acknowledges that the “consensus of the WIDER church” in the past is still shared “by ALMOST all other churches.”

[13] Whether wide or not, does consensus make any difference? Not really. “Wide church consensus” on any item of faith and life doesn’t make anything commendable. Gospel-grounding is the touchstone. The “wider church” in the 16th century was just plain wrong in its “wide consensus” on faith and life, precisely BECAUSE that consensus was not grounded on Christ’s promise, but on some “other” gospel.

[14] And so it is today. The “grounding” for the negative verdict on homosexual intimacy coming from the loudest voices in today’s kerfuffle is flat-out Biblicistic. “There are Bible passages that clearly say NO. That settles it.” [Cheek-by-jowl with Biblicism throughout church history has been legalism–you are more righteous when you do what the Bible says than you are when you don’t.] The Lutheran reformers were fighting that sort of Biblicism in their day, as was Jesus in his day. Melanchthon offers a Lutheran alternative to the scholastic Biblicism of his day in his “prolegomena” to Apology IV, the article about the Hub of the Wheel. It’s his “law-promise hermeneutic” for reading all scripture. For us that includes also those supposedly “perfectly clear” Leviticus passages, as well as those “not quite so clear” ones in Paul’s letters.

[15] Summa: Consensus, also on normative ethical teaching, guarantees nothing. It can just as often be wrong as right. The apostolic counsel (1 John 4:1) still holds: “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Many of these many have achieved wide consensus, but consensus carries no clout for Augsburg confessors.

Third Off-Base. The classic law/gospel distinction (and the corollary “satis est” for church unity) in Augsburg catholic theology leads to normative ethical teaching that says “no” to homosexual intimacy.

[16] As I understand it, Root’s argument goes like this:

1. Yes, Aug. Conf. VII does say that “It is enough for true church unity to have consensus on Gospel-proclamation and sacrament-administration.”

2. However sometimes, as the later Formula of Concord says, the word “gospel” is used to include “both law and gospel, as divinely taught.” [That addendum “as divinely taught” is suggestive. See below.]

3. “Consensus in the gospel-preaching” referred to in AC VII is to be understood in this second meaning–consensus in gospel-and-law together. Here the unity of the church is grounded.

4. For the issue before the ELCA, the law-passages in scripture condemning homosexual intimacy are “gospel in the broad sense” and thus normative for the unity of the church. If we say it’s OK, we destroy church unity.

[17] Some thoughts:

A) AC VII couldn’t possibly be speaking of Gospel as Root claims. Such gospel-and-law linkage was the very papal teaching the confessors were condemning in AC VII. Gospel here is pure promise, the flatout antithesis of law.

B) The Formula of Concord Article V gives no support for any alleged normative ethical teaching on homosexuality as something “divinely taught.” Is Biblicism surfacing here again? The issue in FC V is something else, namely, linking the preaching of repentance [law] to faith in Christ [Gospel]. Yes, says FC V, sometimes in the scriptures the word ‘Gospel’ refers to both, “the entire teaching of Christ.” Mark 1:15 is cited as example: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the Good News.” That’s how law and Gospel are rightly related, when gospel is used in its “broad sense.” It’s about Christ calling sinners to “Come unto me.” There is nothing at all in FC V–or Mark 1:15–about normative ethical teaching. You can’t get there from here.

C) Law and Gospel lenses are the right lenses to use for this debate, but Root is not using them correctly, I think. I tried my hand at that a while ago for an ELCA synod gathering. It’s on the Crossings website entitled: “Reformation Resources: Law/Promise Hermeneutics & the Godly Secularity of Sex.” http://www.crossings.org/archive/ed/ReformationResources.pdf This would be my “op ed” to Root’s “Communion and Difference.”

D) Finally, if Root is off-base in “Communion and Difference,” as it seems to me he is–at first, second and third–then what home plate is he heading for? More important, what home plate did he start from?