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The Ecumenical Polarities of Lutheranism
by Gene Edward Veith
Imagine a church that is both evangelical—proclaiming the free forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ—and sacramental, centering its spiritual life in the regenerating waters of baptism and the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion. Imagine further a church that is strongly grounded on Scripture, but yet avoids the solipsism of individual interpretation in favor of a comprehensive, intellectually rigorous and eminently orthodox theological system. Imagine a worship service that features both strong preaching and the historic liturgy. Imagine that this is a historical church with a rich spiritual tradition, but without legalism. Imagine, in short, a church that has some of the best parts of Protestantism and the best parts of Catholicism. Finally, imagine that this church body is not some little made-up sect, but one of the largest bodies of Christians in the world.
Such a church might seem like what many Christians—disaffected by both the vacuity of liberal theology and the shallowness of American evangelicalism—are dreaming of. For millions of Christians such a church actually exists—it goes by the admittedly inadequate name “Lutheran.”
Worldwide, there are some 60 million Lutherans on the books, making it the largest Protestant tradition of them all. There are around 9 million Lutherans in the United States, but 5 million in Africa and another 5 million in Asia. Brazil has over a million Lutherans, and it is one of the dominant religions of Papua New Guinea. In the United States, there are about the same number of Missouri Synod Lutherans (2.5 million) as there are Episcopalians.
To be sure, these numbers are uncertain and doubtless inflated, including state churches and those that have all but abandoned their heritage in favor of liberal theology or quasi-evangelicalism. Just as not all Catholics actually believe and practice their Catholicism, the same is true for Lutherans. Nevertheless, this many people consider themselves Lutherans and affirm, in their formal subscriptions, the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament and salvation by grace through faith in the work of Jesus Christ.
Despite its size, the Lutheran Church seems almost unknown in American Christianity. Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, charismatics, and Calvinists are well represented in theological debates, opinion polls, and articles in Christian publications, but Lutherans—who have their own distinctive approach to everything from salvation to politics—are often theological wallflowers.
Billy Graham called Lutherans “the sleeping giant.” If Lutheranism is the invisible Church, or, to paraphrase what Luther said of God, the Church that hides itself, this is partly its own fault and partly the result of its theological tension with American culture. Nevertheless, Lutheranism has much to offer Christendom as a whole. As a Church body with a thoroughly worked-out theology, which it actually follows, Lutheran denominations have retained their orthodoxy more successfully than most. But more than that, Lutheran theology—and spirituality—is animated by a dynamic polarity in which divisive theological controversies are put into balance and thus resolved.
The distinctive characteristic of Lutheran theology is its affirmation of paradox. Calvin and Arminius both constructed systematic theologies, explaining away any contrary biblical data in a rationalistic system of belief. Luther developed his theology in Bible commentaries, following the contours of Scripture wherever they led and developing its most profound polarities: law and gospel; Christ as both true God and true Man; the Christian as simultaneously saint and sinner; justification by faith and baptismal regeneration; Holy Communion as the Real Presence of Christ in material bread and wine.
Not only have Lutherans always affirmed both “evangelical” and “Catholic” ideas, their way with paradox also resolves issues that have divided Protestants. Calvinists insist on salvation by grace alone to the extent of double predestination; Arminians insist that everyone, potentially, can be saved, and so stress the utter freedom of the will. Lutherans stress grace above all, that God does literally everything for our salvation, dying on the cross, with his Spirit breaking into our lives through Word and Sacrament, the means of grace. But Jesus died for all, and potentially anyone might be saved. Lutheranism affirms the best of both Calvinism and Arminianism, while avoiding the exclusivity of the one and the potential Pelagianism of the other. Charismatics emphasize the Holy Spirit—so do Lutherans, finding that Spirit not in the vagaries of human emotion but even more tangibly as being genuinely operative in the Word and Sacraments. Lutherans are fundamentalist in their doctrinal rigor, while excluding separatism and legalism. Lutheran cultural theology affirms Two Kingdoms, preventing the secular from swallowing up the sacred, and the sacred from swallowing up the secular. This explains why Lutherans can seem both inwardly focused and free and easy, why they seem conservative yet apolitical, and why they often have beer at their church dinners.
Lutheranism—with its sacramentalism and liturgical worship synthesized with its biblicism and evangelical proclamation—might serve as a bridge between the various factions of Christianity. Of course, it is not that simple.
If Lutheranism represents an “evangelical Catholicism” (a term favored by many confessional Lutherans), its paradoxes mean that it is likewise subject to attack from every side. Evangelicals consider it “too Catholic”—making fun of what they consider its stiff formality, its old-fashioned music, and its ancient liturgy and, more seriously, questioning how Lutherans can say salvation is by faith if they believe in baptismal regeneration and being appalled at the way the pastor says when he gives the absolution that he forgives people their sins. Catholics and Orthodox lump Lutheranism with all other Protestants—in fact, Lutherans are the worst Protestants because they started the dissolution of Christendom.
Within Protestantism, Calvinists attack Lutherans for “not going far enough in the Reformation,” for keeping papistical practices and idolatrous worship. Arminians attack Lutherans for not believing in the freedom of the will and for leaving the door open to anti-nomianism. Charismatics think Lutherans are “cold.” Fundamentalists say Lutherans are strong on doctrine but weak on morals.
And, just as the Lutheran framework seems to invite attacks from every side, Lutherans counterattack everyone else. Lutherans condemn Arminians for not believing in predestination and Calvinists for believing in double predestination. Catholics and charismatics are considered alike in believing that the Holy Spirit reveals himself in human beings, apart from the Word. Fundamentalists are savaged for their legalism. In fact, many Lutherans do not see themselves as being Protestant at all.
The Lutheran synthesis is a baroque structure that can only be held together by a doctrinal rigor that constantly reinforces every point. Anglicans attempt a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism, which works through compromise, broad consensus, and a tolerance for differences. The Lutheran way, on the other hand, is one of polarities. Each pole of the paradox must be maintained and heightened. What Chesterton said in Orthodoxy of the paradoxes of Christianity is particularly descriptive of Lutheran theology: “We want not an amalgam or compromise, but both things at the top of their energy; love and wrath both burning.” Christianity does not approach doctrinal issues, such as the nature of Christ or the moral status of a human being, in terms of the Aristotelian golden mean. Rather, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”
Thus, Lutherans are very sacramental and very evangelical. Anglicanism, even in its high-church phase, has always been dismissed by continental Lutherans as merely another variety of Reformed Calvinism, its articles being so wishy-washy in not clearly affirming the Real Presence. Evangelicals are not evangelical enough, falling as they do into the trap of “decision theology” and moralism, not trusting God to accomplish literally everything that is needful.
As a result, Lutheran theology, though embracing in one sense the whole range of Christian spirituality, is nevertheless an entity unto itself, with its own spiritual disciplines that are quite alien to those of other traditions. Consider, for example, the way Lutheranism opposes the so-called Theology (or rather, spirituality) of Glory—with its pretensions of power, victory, and earthly success—with the Theology of the Cross, in which God reveals himself in weakness, defeat, and failure. Or the Word of God, not merely as a sourcebook of information, but as a sacramental means of grace. Or the way God hides himself in what seems to be his opposite, in the material elements of the Sacraments, in humiliation and defeat, in what seems most secular and nonreligious. Or the exhilaration, under the gospel, of Christian freedom.
The Roots of American Lutheranism
An immigrant faith, like Catholicism and Orthodoxy, Lutheran churches had always been somewhat culturally isolated and highly conscious of their differences with mainstream American Protestantism. While German Lutherans came to Pennsylvania in colonial times and Scandinavian Lutherans settled in the upper Midwest, bringing their churches with them, another group came for a different reason.
In nineteenth-century Germany, efforts were being made by the post-Enlightenment princes to combine the various Protestant factions into a single, ecumenical, state church. Calvinists and Lutherans were forced to give up their doctrinal distinctiveness and combine into an “Evangelical and Reformed” church. (“Evangelical”—referring to the centrality of the gospel—is the preferred continental term for Lutheranism, as opposed to the “Reformed” Calvinists. Lutherans were thus the first, and one might argue, the most quintessential Evangelicals.) The state churches so formed tended to foster a rationalistic, cultural religion—preaching new agricultural techniques and doctrines of social progress rather than the gospel—the fruit of the new liberal theology being developed in German seminaries. In the typical heavy-handed German way, pastors who opposed the ecumenical union were actually imprisoned, and the so-called “Old Lutherans” were persecuted. Scores of congregations that insisted on classical Lutheranism left everything they owned and settled in America. (Substantial numbers also went to other countries such as Australia, Africa, and Brazil.)
These formed the more conservative Lutheran denominations, such as the Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Synod (terms that refer to the place of their historical origins and denominational headquarters), churches that, because of their history, would naturally be suspicious of ecumenism. Like the Catholics, these confessional Lutherans, recognizing that the Protestant civil religion of the public schools was inimical to their faith, established an extensive system of parochial schools to educate their children in a way that would be supportive of their faith. This strain of Lutherans thus resisted assimilation into the mainstream of American religious life. In terms of their “Two Kingdoms” theology, they assimilated quite well into American society and economic life, but their church was kept separate, untouched by the revivalism, the social gospel, religious individualism, and other trends of American religion.
Between Separatism & Accommodationism
But if one tendency in American Lutheranism is a certain separatism, the other part of the inevitable polarity is accomodationism. The colonial-era Lutherans and many of the Scandinavian settlers were not so strict as the religious refugees. Quite early, these Lutherans debated about to what extent they should adapt to the religious life of their new homeland. An important nineteenth-century theologian, Samuel Schmucker, went so far as to amend the Augsburg Confession to accommodate the new revivalism and a more Reformed view of the Sacraments. While many Lutherans went in this direction, another theologian, Charles Krauth, in a movement paralleling the Oxford movement within Anglicanism, championed a revival of confessionalism and liturgical renewal.
Ever since, American Lutherans have tended to vacillate between the poles of separatism and accommodationism. Historically, Lutheran denominations in America have tended to drift towards the religious mainstream, only to lurch back into their distinctiveness.
In this century, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) has gone through a particularly traumatic “civil war.” Its seminary in St. Louis gradually began accepting other mainline Protestant denominations’ approach to the Scriptures, employing the historical-critical method to cast doubt on the authority of the Bible and adopting other tenets of liberal theology. In the 1970s, “the battle of the Bible” erupted, as conservatives called “the moderates” on their unorthodox view of the Scriptures—the latter were expelled, set up a seminary of their own, and every congregation had to choose which side it would be on. Unlike what happened in other denominations, the liberals left and the conservatives retained control of the institution (rather than the conservatives leaving, which has usually been the case in other church bodies).
Today, the LCMS is facing a similar issue, only now the American religious mainstream is no longer liberalism but evangelicalism. Many Lutheran churches have been jettisoning their liturgy and their distinctive beliefs, in favor of emulating the Evangelicals, adapting techniques from the church-growth movement, singing “praise songs,” preaching sermons on pop-psychology, and otherwise abandoning their spiritual heritage in favor of generic American Protestantism.
In the meantime, the moderates’ exodus from the LCMS served as the catalyst for the union of the nation’s more liberal Lutherans. The resulting Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) continued going the way of the rest of mainline Protestantism. The ordination of women, left-wing political advocacy, and the ecumenical movement have made them less distinctive, and more and more like generic American liberal Protestantism.
In some places, genuine Lutheranism—for all of the Lutheran churches—has become hard to find. But, as it always has, the pendulum may be starting to swing in the other direction.
Today, a new confessionalism is emerging in Lutheran circles. Just as many Lutheran churches are going the way of American evangelicalism in using praise bands and overhead projectors, others are reemphasizing the historic liturgy, chanting the service and signing themselves with the Holy Cross. Many parishes have reinstituted the ancient Lutheran practice of private confession and absolution.
The most rigorously confessional Lutheran pastors can be recognized by their black shirts and white clerical collars, the priest-like garb worn by traditional holders of the pastoral office before they adopted the American-style minister’s coat and tie. All Lutheran pastors wear the collar; the arch-confessionalists are distinguished by wearing it practically all the time.
This confessionalism can appear formidable. Closed Communion (sharing the Lord’s Supper only with those who agree on every point of doctrine), a genuine pastoral authority, rigorous catechetical instruction for converts, and forthright practices (such as no weddings during Lent, and no congratulatory eulogies during funerals), can be off-putting in America’s easy-going culture. But confessionalism is not the same as conservatism. During the LCMS controversy over the Bible, high-church ceremonialists tended to be on the liberal side; today, while theologically orthodox, they stand against the evangelical and fundamentalist tendencies within the church.
Lutherans allow a measure of freedom in practice, while insisting on agreement in doctrine (unlike, say, the Anglican tradition which has tended to stress uniformity of worship forms while allowing for doctrinal latitude). Conservative denominations such as the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods remain rigorously confessional, in the sense of upholding the creeds and formulas of the Book of Concord, though they are presently torn by controversies over worship styles. That style is expressive of confession, though, is becoming more and more evident, and serious fault lines seem to be manifesting themselves within the conservative Lutheran denominations. Most Lutherans today are somewhere along the spectrum between the two poles of low-church informality and high-church ceremonialism.
Nevertheless, it is surely significant that many of the most ardently confessional pastors, those who are most concerned to bring back the Lutheran traditions in both doctrine and worship, are those straight out of seminary. The younger pastors, the new generation, seem to be the ones most concerned to recover their Lutheran distinctiveness.
In the meantime, Lutherans are starting to get their share of disaffected Evangelicals—casualties of megachurches and refugees from generic American Protestantism, Christians looking for meaningful worship and theological depth—as well as Catholics dismayed by the post-Vatican II liberalism within their Church, and burnt-out secularists who, broken by the law and renewed by the gospel, have come to Christ.
Confessional Lutherans are not ecumenical. They will never join the National Association of Evangelicals, nor the World Council of Churches. Lutheran institutions are so big—with their network of schools, colleges, publishing houses, and denominational services—that they can be rather insulated and self-contained. Though the ELCA has pioneered ecumenical dialogue with the Reformed, Anglicans, and even Roman Catholics—to the point of claiming to have found agreement with Rome on justification by faith—the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods will have none of that. Their wariness of ecumenical union and, even more profoundly, of American-style Christianity has kept them out of the mainstream, but it has kept them relatively true to their theology.
Any genuine ecumenism must avoid simply emptying Christianity of its distinctive content and must somehow affirm what is most salient, what is most “Christian,” in the whole spectrum of Christian belief, from traditional Catholicism to Protestant fundamentalism. Lutheranism, while eschewing ecumenism as such, provides a framework—or, rather, a set of polarities—by which this might be done.
Many confessional Lutherans have taken to calling themselves “evangelical catholics.” They are catholic in their historic creeds, their worship, and their sacramentalism, and they are evangelical in their trust in the good news of Christ, that in his cross he has saved us by sheer grace for a life of Christian freedom. Others are calling themselves “confessing Evangelicals,” allying with Reformed Christians to call today’s doctrinally shallow Evangelicals to the historic confessions of faith forged by the Reformation. From the Lutheran perspective, mere Catholics are in need of evangelical reformation, and mere Evangelicals are in need of historic orthodoxy. The theological formulas that purport to show how both of these tasks can be done are collected in a volume appropriately titled The Book of Concord. For Lutherans, such an approach represents nothing other than mere Christianity.
Gene Edward Veith is Professor of Humanities and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Concordia University–Wisconsin. He is the author of eight books—including Postmodern Times, Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, and Reformation Spirituality: The Religion of George Herbert—and numerous essays on Christianity, culture, and the arts. He is a member of First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, a congregation of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.