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Testing the Spirit (entire text)

Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (Assoc. Prof. South Dakota State University, WordAlone board member)

February 19, 2003

How deep does the WordAlone critique of the current Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) go? Would WordAlone be satisfied were the ELCA suddenly to allow pastoral ordination of pastors and simple installation of bishops? What if the ELCA were to permit a more representative form of government? Does WordAlone want something more?

For 25 centuries philosophers in the west have distinguished form and content, that is, the relation between the structuring of a thing and the essential nature of the thing receiving the structure.

When thinking about the ELCA, it is important to ask the theological question of the structuring and structured, the question of the ecclesiastical form of the ELCA and the faithcontent of the believers comprising it.

The WordAlone Network remains wholly engaged in the question of the structure of the ELCA. WordAlone is concerned with reforming an ecclesiastical structure that is increasingly top-heavy, a structure that virtually guarantees that congregations are underrepresented if not ignored. It wants an ELCA structure that treats its people fairly—even confessionally-minded pastors, seminarians and laypersons who regard the historic episcopate as quasi-idolatrous.

WordAlone desires an ELCA that devotes more resources to the proper mission field and less to the production of social documents trumpeting the rectitude of particular political positions.

But form (structure) alone does not a thing make.

It makes a difference whether the pattern of perceptible qualities comprising a crucifix is structured from copper or gold. Two crucifixes made from different substances really are two different physical objects. Conversely, a crucifix and a chalice also are different objects, even though they are both made of gold (or copper).

The same applies to churches. Similar ecclesial structures can be impressed on different bodies of faith, different associations of the faithful. Conversely, the same association of faith can result in quite different ecclesiastical structures. Simply put, the form and content of a church–like the form and content of any object–remain logically independent.

What does this mean? It means that changing the structure of the ELCA does not guarantee a change in essential nature of the ELCA. Correcting the external, formal structure of the ELCA does not necessarily mean a change in the faith or spirit of the ELCA as an institution.

Nevertheless, while the external structure of the ELCA is logically independent of the faith of those constituting it, the two are nonetheless causally connected. Just as one’s own faith influences one’s actions and character, so too does the faith of a group influence its corporate behavior and identity.

Many would further claim that just as one’s actions influence one’s faith, so too does the behavior of the group influence its faith.

However, if we in WordAlone think that a mere external change in form will reform and renew the church, we had better read our Martin Luther again.

Luther tirelessly critiqued the Aristotelian conception that changing one’s behavior could change his or her heart. Good fruit does not make a good tree, but rather a good tree makes good fruit. God must first re-form the heart’s nature before the heart’s habits can be established. In other words, grace must first create the faith that subsequently displays itself in concrete ethical forms.

For Luther, a change in form necessitates no change in content, but a change in content brings about a transformation of form. To think that actions can change the heart is wholly mistaken because only the Holy Spirit can do that. However, once the heart is changed, a person cannot but act differently. Analogously, fixing the external form and structure of a church in no way guarantees any change in its “spirit,” but changing its spirit brings with it a corresponding change in form.

“Spirit” is a term that is ambiguous and often misunderstood. Christian talk of the Holy Spirit often fails to connect with the more general notion of what spirit is. One way to understand spirit is to consider the way in which cultures link general concepts to particulars. A log is a particular thing. A culture has a different spirit when it claims, “A log is sacred,” from one that declares, “A log is fuel for my fireplace.” Two cultures claiming such different things truly have different “spirits” with respect to what a log is. Spirit is thus related to Being.

In the same way, different spirits are present when communities understand Christ in different ways. One group might assume that Christ is a metaphor for what they regard as highest and most noble in life, while another might hold that Christ is the Holy One confronting men and women with both judgment and mercy.

Here the question concerns the perception of proximity to the divine. One spirit supposes that God is so close to us that He affirms all of our efforts and hopes; God is the counselor friend who never tells us we have gone astray. Another spirit understands God to be at some distance from us. While acknowledging and being thankful for God’s forgiveness, the second spirit nonetheless knows that God’s judgment is not identical to our own.

Here we have two different spirits: one comfortable and complacent, the other comforted but anxious.

The reforming work of WordAlone cannot be done until God’s work of re-forming the spirit of the ELCA is itself complete. A reform in externals cannot take the place of a renewal of the ELCA’s innermost spirit. Without this, the ELCA as an institution will always be the place where the most noble and desired ends of human beings are simply ratified with the cross of Christ.

As to this renewal, there is much WordAlone can do.

Luther believed that the Holy Spirit is carried on the wings of the Word. WordAlone stands resolutely and steadfastly for the loosing of this Word upon the world. A church filled with people reading and studying scripture, with people hearing and heeding law and gospel sermons, with people studying and discussing confessional documents, would be a church not much interested in perpetuating the external forms that WordAlone presently seeks to change.

Renewal is logically prior to true reform.

May none of us lose confidence in the power of God's Word to change all things—even His church.