Sunday, August 9, 2009
Luther and Lutheranism
One of the things I soon discovered after moving to the South, to a community with barely one Lutheran congregation, is a dismal lack of history when it comes to fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. The other thing I learned is a fundamental misunderstanding of Lutherans. [I do not mean to suggest that things are that much better in other parts of the country.]
From my friends in the fundamentalist and evangelical churches, I discovered that Luther is for them more of a freedom fighter than reformer. A reformer is more concerned with what is retained than what is discarded. These folks are more concerned with what is discarded from the catholic tradition (the Mass, creeds, sacraments, etc.) than what is retained. So there is an inherent suspicion of Lutherans and what they see, anyway, as a disconnect between the Luther they think they know and the Lutherans whom they see in Church on Sunday morning.
I too believe there is a disconnect -- out of our fear of being labeled Catholic and perception of the anti-catholic sentiment of the US (especially in the South), we Lutherans are not as catholic in practice and identity as our Confessions are. The fundamentalist and evangelical Christians would say just the opposite -- what goes on in Lutheran churches on Sunday morning is way too catholic.
It is a misreading of history. Luther did not believe in the separation of church and state... did not believe in everyone's right of private Biblical interpretation... did not believe in democratic government for either church or state... did not abolish the sacraments or change the basic understanding of them as the means of grace... did not do away with private confession... did not give the Bible to everyone to read as they pleased...
Luther was himself a very catholic evangelical and that is exactly the description of the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church -- they are catholic and evangelical in the best sense of those terms. We are in this respect not Protestant at all, perhaps best a via media -- a path between -- the Roman Church and what began as Protestantism (but has certainly moved well beyond its 16th century forms).
And there is the next point. Lutherans are identified more by Luther and everything he said or wrote (and he said and wrote some outlandish things) and less by their Confessions. This is just plain wrong. The only writings of Luther that we are bound to are the Small and Large Catechisms and the Smalcald Articles. The rest of our Confessions were written by others, primarily Philip Melancthon.
Our Lutheran identity is almost cultish to those confused by our name. We are called Lutheran but we are not a cult of Luther, slavish followers of Luther, nor do we hold Luther to be the saint of saints (the Virgin Mary holds that place according to our Confessions). We honor Luther as a doctor of the Church, defender of the faith, and renewer of the Church. We value his contributions to the teaching of the faith (many volumes of noble and great works) but what governs our faith and identity are not the words of Luther but the words of the Confessions (sometimes called Symbols) of the Lutheran Church as contained in the Book of Concord (1580).
Sadly, even Lutherans are confused by all of this. Which points us perhaps to where we need to begin... re-educating ourselves so that we might re-educate those around us... as to who we are, what we believe, teach, and confess, and Luther's place in all of this... You may be hearing some more about this...