Friday, November 15, 2013

The end of Protestantism. . .

When I hear the word Protestant, my mind imagines a myriad of churches some closer, some further from their roots, but nearly all decidedly agreed in their pursuit of that which is not catholic.  I think of worship services almost universally devoid of sacramental grace and in which the altar is either absent or a place for flowers and offering plates.  I think of teaching of the young and the welcome of those new to their tradition without benefit of catechism or consistent definition of what it means to be their version of Protestant.  I think of democratic government in which majority vote defines, determines, or upsets the revealed will of God in Scripture.  I think of ministers hired to do certain jobs but hardly essential to what it means to be the church.  I think of so many versions of the same family identity, united not by creed or confession but almost uniformly by their opposition to creed and confession.  I think of denominations so often merely shells of who or what they once were, as distant from their own denominational history as from the evangelical and catholic faith.  I think of non-denominational groups whose history and identity flow from and are defined by the pastor/founder but who see themselves as fully part of either the evangelical or mainline wings of Protestantism.  I think of Scripture which is to some a rule book to be followed to get to the gold at the end and for others a book of broad principles unrelated to their factual or non-factual history but not a Word that accomplishes God's purpose and returns to Him having fulfilled its sacramental purpose for which God sent it.

Perhaps I am wrong.  I often am.  But the word Protestant has become synonymous with all that went wrong in the Reformation, the radical reformers who have bequeathed to their heirs an individualistic, self-centered, and less than churchly identity.  So it is with some hope I read Peter Leithart's article in First Things which begins with this statement:  The Reformation is not over but Protestantism should be...

Like so many others, I read his words and immediately thought, what he seeks is already here; it is called Lutheranism.  Sure, he may have some disputes with the Concordia but, overall, the church he is looking for is already here.  The only problem is that too many Lutherans have been tempted by the very Protestantism that he disdains.  These Lutherans have forsaken the faith of Scripture, creed, and confession and bowed down to the altar of culture and social movement.  They have rewritten the Gospel so that is becomes less about the cross and more about social justice, less about proclaiming Jesus Christ and Him crucified and more about advocacy for the poor, social programs to meet people's immediate needs, and a morality which evolves to the point of contradicting what Scripture actually says.  They are less Lutheran than mainline Protestant wannabes.

The only problem is that too many Lutherans have been tempted by the evangelical side of that same Protestant mess, sure that if Lutheranism is to grow it needs to be less than Lutheran.  They have replaced altars with drum sets, a sacramental piety for an individualistic me and Jesus moment, the great hymns of the church for praise choruses here today and gone tomorrow, creeds and catechisms for books and sermons on purposeful living to get your best out of this life, etc...  These Lutherans have no confidence that God works through His Word or in the efficacy of the means of grace and so the Gospel has to be sold like a product, people enticed by gimmicks, and the church appear to something she is not to get them in the door.  They are less Lutheran than religious entrepreneurs seeking to grow the church at any cost, even the faith itself.

Leithart laments what I lament about Protestantism and wishes it would all go away.  Who doesn't?  What he seeks to replace it is already here in theory, practiced among some but not all Lutherans, yet the image that Lutherans offer him and those like him is that we are just a strange sacramental and confessional breed of Protestants rather than the evangelical catholics of our confession.  So when he looks at Lutherans, the roar of those envious of the mainline or following the evangelical dream is too great to hear the sound of faithful, evangelical, and catholic confession and practice.

Some say that Billy Graham once called the LCMS a sleeping giant that might really do something if ever awakened.  Maybe that quote is more myth than fact but I often wonder what might happen to the old ship Missouri if she were uniformly true to her confession, confident of the efficacy of the means of grace, committed to the liturgical worship that is the practice of what we believe, confess, and teach, and unashamedly catholic in the way her creed, catechism, and confessions are catholic.  Someone commented on this blog that the lid might blow off if we acted like who we say we are in our Confessions.  Perhaps then commentators like Leithart would not look out upon the Christian landscape and write yearningly for something they think is not there, when it is!

It is not enough to say we are who we claim to be.  Methodists can claim to be evangelical catholics but who they are on Sunday morning, what they believe and confess, and how they behave says just the opposite.  So also it is not enough for Lutherans to claim, "We are evangelical catholics..."  The claim is unmistakable in our Confessions.  But it is meaningless until and unless we actually intend to be who we say we are.  That is battlefield of the Reformation today --  not a new confession but renewed practice, consistent with what we confess.  We do not need to set up straw men to knock down.  All we need to do is to look around us as Lutherans and call each other to account, holding each other responsible, and asking for nothing less than faithfulness first.  That is what Missouri has embarked upon in electing President Harrison.  He seeks not a pendulum swing to the right or the repristination of some moment in our past but the acknowledgement without shame or embarrassment this we believe, this we confess, and this we teach AND the conversation and visitation to help our words have a face on Sunday morning and all week long.  It is for this reason I have hope for Missouri -- we are not going backward nor are we reinventing ourselves for a future.  We are recapturing the timeless sense of who we are as people of our Confession and attempting, within the bounds of human frailty, to structure our church and order our practice by that same timeless evangelical and catholic identity.  Leithart may not see it yet; neither do many of Harrison's critics, but if he is faithful in his role, Missouri will be called to repentance, embrace the full renewal of our witness and practice by our Confession, and offer the world something more than rebranded Protestantism -- a faith reformed from error to be reformed for faithfulness in life together, mission work and mercy, and confidence that God will bring it all to pass for His greater glory.


Janis Williams said...

From one who came from that very accurate description of Protestantism, amen. May Missour become the Church we have found in the Book of Concord.

Anonymous said...

"These Lutherans have forsaken the faith of Scripture, creed, and confession and bowed down to the altar of culture and social movement."

Popularity seems to be what they are striving for. Makes me sad.

ERA said...

Very nice picture of First Trinity's chancel...!
-Pastor Andrae, campus pastor, First Trinity, Pittsburgh