Friday, June 11, 2010

The Problem with Defining Yourself in Relation to Others

Living in the South I am often called to explain to non-Lutherans who Lutherans are.  Most of the time they want me to say who we are like or who we are not like.  It is the way of defining things by comparison and it can be a fruitful way of communication.  But it can also mask who Lutherans are and make us sound like a cult instead of the Church.  The Church must define herself not in relative terms but in positive terms.  This is what Lutherans often forget.
It has become our habit to define ourselves in relation to those who seem to share our doctrine.  So we define ourselves in relation to fundamentalists and Baptists because we speak of Scripture as without error.  We are like Baptists in the way we believe, talk about, and teach Scripture.   But we are not at all like Baptists and fundamentalists in this regard.  We are very, very different.  For the radical reformed and their heirs Scripture is the naked Scripture and this is not what sola Scriptura means.  We define ourselves precisely in terms of the catholic tradition through our Confessions so that whatever sola Scriptura means -- it does not mean a naked Scripiture. 

While we talk about Scripture being without error and have (more recently) adopted the use of the term inerrancy, this is not exactly the concern of Lutherans.  Our concern is that Scripture is efficacious (that it does what it says and delivers what it promises as the living voice of God at work).  Yes, we believe that Scripture is true but what good is a truth that has no power to do what it says?  It is like an encyclopedia of facts that have no effect or bearing upon us unless we open the book and agree with the facts or truth propositions contained in it.  Lutherans do not believe in this kind of Scripture but the Scripture that speaks and works what it says (forgiving sins, imparting life to baptismal water, transforming bread into His body and wine into His blood, bestowing peace and grace upon grace, etc.).

For those who belong to the reformed wings of Christendom, Scripture is not only the norm of doctrine and life but its sole source.  Lutherans often forget this.  We tend to speak as if Scripture were the only revelation of God, a closed canon, and that unless we can proof text our way to something or other it cannot be held or believed by the Church.  But that is at odds with our Lutheran Confessions and identity.  Scripture is the norm that sets the boundaries of belief and the standard against which all that is believed is judged.  Lutherans are not proof texters whose doctrinal theology and confession of faith are truth propositions buttressed by Bible passages.  We stand in the catholic tradition and are creedal to the core.  We adopt the homoousias of Nicea even though the term is not found in Scripture because Scripture norms what homoousias confesses.

We are not evangelicals with a liturgy the way some Lutherans define themselves.  We have very little in common with the right or left of the evangelical movement.  We do not speak the language of individualism, we do not speak the language of decision theology, and we do not believe that anything goes as long as saving souls is the goal.  We may learn a few things from the likes of Rick Warren but we are not at all like Rick Warren.  We may listen to what evangelicals have to say but we are not of them.  Too many Lutherans have turned the adoraphora of the Confessions with regard to worship practices to mean that worship itself is an indifferent thing to be structured, changed, and defined as seems good to accomplish the great commission goal.  But this is not at all Lutheran.  Lutherans understand worship as the domain only of those whom God has called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified -- the place where He comes to us in the means of grace to bestow upon us His gifts through the Word and Sacraments.  We do not look to heaven to see God but to His Word and Sacraments where Christ has pledged Himself and made Himself accessible to us.  We do not speak of the individual apart from the community of faith but the individual melts into the community to become one with the other baptized believers as he or she becomes one with God in baptism.  We do not speak of decisions for Christ because we believe that you cannot by your own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him but the Holy Spirit must work the work of belief by the means of grace.

Strangely, the one relation which is most sensible to us is the one we eschew the most.  That is our relation to the Roman Catholic Church.  Anyone who knows Rome will see that Lutherans have a kinship with Rome -- from the way the Church looks to the liturgy on Sunday morning to the priestly service of the Pastor to the music that is sung to the catechetical life of young and old.  If anything this is the one relation that seems reasonable but Lutherans are loath to suggest that we are at all like Roman Catholics.  Here is the one place where relational definition seems plausible.  We are the catholics Rome used to be and Rome should be.  This may sound arrogant but that is pretty much the position of our Confessions.  We have much with which we do not disagree with Rome and much of the faith on which our Confessions are silent because we do not disagree with our Roman brothers and sisters.  We are not calling them to be more Roman but more catholic and there would be much more in common between us.  Remember that we accuse them of innovation and novelty and spend a great deal of time with the fathers of the Church showing how this is, indeed, true.

All that said, I am weary of the definition of Lutheranism which turns to another group first -- we are like the Baptists but.... or the Presbyterians but... or the evangelical non-denominationals but... or even the Roman Catholics but...  And the sad fruits of such definition have left us with people in the pews who are not really sure who we are or they are as Lutherans (so they reach out to whomever they think is like us but...).  We have got to start speaking of Lutheranism with the voices of our Confessions and with a positive affirmation of who we are and what we believe.  Or, people will begin wondering why, if we are so much like the fundamentalists or evangelicals or Rome or whomever, we don't just join them... since it seems like we are beginning to look, act, and sound like them more and more and like ourselves less and less....


Anonymous said...


Great post. I have at least in the past explained us in the light of Luther's excommunication. We are certainly what Rome should be.

Rich Kauzlari said...

Thank you for such an inspirational description of what it means to be Lutheran. As a lay person I am moderating (can't say teaching since that would imply I know more than I know about my faith) a bible class using the CPH study of the Augusburg Confession. We are now on lesson 11 (of 13) and I have come to appreciate what the confessors (perhaps not knowing in human terms the impact of their words) are saying to us. God bless you in your ministry.

Anonymous said...

Amen Pastor ... amen ... and, again, I say AMEN!! You have said what I have been trying to say in my LCMS church for about three years now. And, I'm sorry, it is the contemporary services where the confessional is changed, and the Communion services are changed so that they are made easier to access, that is causing others to look at us like we are just like other denominations! Now, that may be arrogant to say that we are not like them, but when we forget that we are not there for God to receive us but for us to receive him in our worship, and do so reverently, we start getting ourselves in trouble!! Thank you Pastor for an article that I will e-mail to my church leaders so they can see what I am talking about when we discuss our practices!