Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Who we were. . .

Much of the discussion about Lutheranism is a discussion about who we are or what we have become.  There is no shortage of critics, each with his or her own vantage point, who can quickly pull up a litany of the sins, errors, and weaknesses of the present day incarnation of Lutheran identity and confession.  The internet is full of them.  There are blogs upon blogs and forums upon forums with commentators, debaters, and pundits -- each having something to say about what many consider to be the general sad state of Lutheranism today.  Lord knows, I am one of them.  But perhaps a better question might be, who were we?

Pastor Wiliam Weedon and Dr. Joseph Herl have added much to this discussion.  I would highly recommend Herl's popular incantation of his doctoral thesis "Worship Wars" (published by Oxford).  I would also point out a couple of posts of Weedon's blog (by that name) on a church order and agenda from Magdeburg dated 1613 (a century after the start of the Reformation).  Both have identified the myths that accompany most popular Lutheran history that suggests that the Reformation gave birth to a distinctly Protestant tradition with its center in the Word alone.  Both have pointed out the richness and catholicity of the liturgical life of early Lutheranism.  And the sad consequence is that much of this ended up being lost -- in part due to political consequences of Lutheran wars against opponents, in part due to the advent of pietism and its shift of the focus away from the means of grace, and in part due to Lutheran angst over its own identity.

Both can point out that Lutheran vitality and identity was thoroughly sacramental, lived out in a rich and church centered liturgical life of Divine Service and daily office, and apologetically catholic in form and practice.  Who we were is clear from the Reformation church orders of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Who we were is clear from the great Lutheran thinkers that followed the first generation (folks like Martin Chemnitz, among others).  Who we were is clear from the great body of hymnody that proceeds from the first centuries of Lutheranism.  It seems so easy to lose and so difficult to recover.  But that is the way of all things -- easy to lose and hell to recover.

Truly Lutheran history has been a constant struggle to recover what was lost and to rediscover who we are by restoring who we were both in confession and practice.  In every age this path of rediscovery has been marred by distractions, competing ideologies, and cultural and intellectual movements of all kinds.  What has also been our bane is the comfort level we have had with who we have become.

For Missouri this means that we too often identity Lutheran history with our own institutional history.  We have been more comfortable viewing primary sources through the lens of secondary eyes like Pieper and Koehler.  We listen more to Walther than to Chemnitz or Gerhard.  We identity the golden age of liturgy as the Hymnal 1941.  I am not suggesting that we abandon our own institutional history but that we widen it by approaching the primary sources in their own words and works.

For the ELCA this means that they have been too comfortable forgetting the theological giants that were their past -- Reu, Krauth, and Schmid to name but a few.  Added to this is a general rejection of the fathers of Lutheran orthodoxy and a preoccupation with theology that starts anew or that begins with the cues borrowed from mainline American authors.  So, for example, they can be comfortable in new things and live without the regret of how their new positions (fellowship, sexuality, etc.) disconnect from the past.

Our institutionalization has been our Achilles heel and it continues to afflict Lutheranism in America -- left and right.  We have thinkers and historians to raise our vision and we have the resources readily available (thank you, CPH and the digital age) to become reacquainted with who we were.  Now all that remains is a willingness to let who we are be shaped by who we were -- in confession and practice.


Anonymous said...

It ought to be required reading:
"On Being A Theologian Of The Cross"
(Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg
Disputation, 1518) by Gerhard O.

The current problem for Lutheranism
is whether to espouse a theology of
the cross or rally around a theology
of glory. There is also the current
love affair with antinomians.

Anonymous said...

and legalists and repristinators

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

I just began reading "Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism:" (its available in Kindle format) Dr. Herl was awarded the 2005 Roland Bainton Prize of the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference for best book in its field. Great read so far.

Yes it does seem a times that Synaxis and Eucharist began with page 5 and 15.

Joe Herl said...

Glad you like it. Have fun!

John said...

I, as a layman say this to all laymen:

In the event that your congregation places more importance on anything over the Means of Grace you must RUN!!!

It is not important that you understand anything other than that your congregation is in error.