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Preserve Lutheran worship

Rev. Dr. Oliver K. Olson (former Professor of Lutheran Confessions at LTS Philadelphia, PA)

December 10, 2003

Proposed Evangelical Lutheran Church in America worship resources appear to take the denomination further away from its Lutheran heritage and point it towards the Roman canon and mass, said the Rev. Dr. Oliver Olson at a recent “Reclaiming Evangelical Worship” conference put on by the WordAlone Network in Anoka, Minn.

Olson, a retired seminary professor and former editor of the “Lutheran Quarterly,” asked in a keynote address what “scholarship” or what “renewed understanding” as cited in the introduction to the ELCA’s proposed “Principles for Worship” can obscure the simple difference between up and down?

He asserted that by introducing the eucharistic prayer into Lutheran worship in the past 30 years, the church reversed the direction of the communion ritual from God’s acting in people’s lives to the church’s offering thanksgiving or sacrifice to God.

“Imbedding the Words of Institution in a framework of prayer necessarily takes the initiative from God and gives it to the church,” he stated. “The Lord’s Supper becomes the church’s supper.”

Later, he said: “These rituals bring their own meaning. The eucharistic prayer brings with it a specific theology, and the theological meaning of the eucharistic prayer is what the Roman Catholic Church says it is. The warning of Matthias Flacius [a contemporary of Martin Luther and Philip Melancthon] is still true today, ‘The whole papacy is in the canon. Liturgical changes will be the window through which the wolf will enter the evangelical fold.’”

In its final “Statement on Comunion Practices,” the former American Lutheran Church was influenced by Roman Catholic liturgical doctrine, Olson said. The statement says Holy Communion means “not only a reminder of Jesus’ life and death, but the present re-actualization (becoming a present reality) of God’s deed in Christ. It is the projection of God’s saving act into the present life of the congregation.”

On which he comments: “Here the ALC abandoned Lutheran doctrine of ‘testament’ and replaced it with the new notion of ‘re-actualization.’ The ALC statement, in fact, sums up post-Vatican II Roman Catholic teaching about their mass. For us it can serve as a handy way to find out what they believe.”

The Council of Trent, which reorganized Roman Catholics after Luther, insisted that the mass was the same sacrifice that was offered on the cross, only in an unbloody fashion, Olson explained. The church’s action is Christ’s action in the Roman Catholic mass.

“If we can get through the ecumenical fog we get things clear,” stated Olson, “we will come to the common sense conclusion that when we take communion we do not participate in Christ’s deed. An informed Lutheran theologian will tell us that at communion, as heirs, we inherit the results of Calvary, deeded to us because Christ died and willed them to us in his testament.”

Olson refuted the idea that the Reformers were too busy to deal with the eucharistic prayer. He quoted from page vii of the “Service Book and Hymnal” (the Red Book): “A vision clearer than was sometimes possible in the turmoil of the Reformation controversy has revealed the enduring value of some elements, which were lost temporarily in the 16th century reconstruction of the liturgy, as, for instance, the proper use of the Prayer of Thanksgiving….”

To which Olson responded that the expression, “proper use,” of the eucharistic prayer implied that Luther’s mass reform was improper. He added that the truth was that at the Reformation, the eucharistic prayer was clearly understood and rejected.

The introduction of the eucharistic prayer was thwarted by Philip Melanchthon, who later said he had saved the Reformation by preventing its acceptance, according to Olson.