With this paragraph you can see how the Reformation claims not only many sources but many heirs. Here we read of the Wesleyan connection written by Dale Couter. His is not the only voice to protest an understanding of the Reformation exclusively Luther and its offspring as exclusively Lutheran. You can read him for yourself.
His perspective is shared by many. The Reformation had many sources although Luther was primary and many heirs of which Lutheranism is but one. Yet it is this very premise that is the occasion for my words. Though it is understandable at the start of the gear up to the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation many would claim part and lineage, the view of the Reformation that sanctions the birth of so many churches so decidedly outside the catholic tradition is hardly a fruit of the Reformation that Luther or his theological heirs would laud. In fact, it is what most Lutherans would call an unfortunate fruit of the Reformation, even perhaps a poisoned fruit. The fact that many jumped on board the Reformation or allowed its consequences the opportunity to distance themselves from the catholic doctrinal and liturgical identity that the Augustana claims is hardly something we Lutherans should laud or allow to stand without challenge.
Luther would not know the state of the churches that claim their birth in the Reformation he began. He would not countenance their disregard for the means of grace, for the sacramental identity and piety that is catholic and apostolic, or for their practical principle of private Biblical interpretation equal to or surpassing the great weight of tradition. Luther would not give such legitimacy to those who claimed kinship with him and his theological heirs.
As we approach the Reformation's 500th Anniversary, everyone from Wesleyans to Roman Catholics seek to share in the event. To be sure, they all have a part but it is hardly one that would put us on the same stage. The evangelicalism that claims to be rooted in the Reformation is not a movement which Luther would laud. What began with personal piety has evolved into a thorough going modern identity that has been quick to equate numbers with faithfulness, worship as a tool of outreach, feelings as the equivalent for sacramental reality, and the personal self that remains the focus apart from Christ and His atoning work. The lack of much reference to the forgiveness of sins in the preaching and teaching of evangelicals is itself a boundary marker to suggest that the Reformation Luther knew and the one they claim is not at all the same.
As much as Rome has changed, Rome remains the same communion Luther knew and found so bitterly disappointing. Though there have been popes who exemplified the best of Rome, the current one would prove quite a conundrum for Luther. In the end Luther would find just as wanting today as then the doctrinal imprecision that seems to invite contradiction and confusion and the appeal to sources other than Scripture to know the truth of God. The re-introduction of indulgences only a year before the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation is not merely insensitivity but evidence that Rome has not become Lutheran when it comes to justification. Those who read me know that I long for true reunion with Rome and the healing of the 16th century schism but no amount of longing for this can erase the roadblocks in doctrine and practice which say that Rome is not much more friendly to the Lutheran Confessions today than it was when they were first offered.
Lutheranism is surely a mess but there is little in evangelicalism, mainline Protestantism, or even Rome to give hope or encouragement for this Lutheran to jump ship. Yes, the Reformation had many sources and many fruits but not all of them are equal or salutary. As we celebrate the Reformation today and begin the ramp up to 500, now is not the time to ignore or paper over the serious differences that remain between Lutherans and others who find their roots flowing from the Great Reformation and Rome and its seeming willingness to give Luther a kinder and gentler reappraisal. Lutherans must surely come to terms with their own messes (largely born of an unwillingness to pay attention to our Confessions and to hear the Scriptures as the voice of God). But Lutheranism remains in my mind the best alternative for a faith that is thoroughly evangelical and catholic.
If there is one lesson we ought to remember on the cusp of this anniversary it is that reform is not achievement or a location but a process and a continuing journey. It will not end in my lifetime and it will not end anytime past then unless the Lord Himself brings all things to their consummation. Until then I will endeavor to remain faithful in word, confession, teaching, and practice to the Lutheran goal of catholicity in faith and work that flows from a robust Scripture able to deliver that which its words promise. Some may think my words harsh. They are not meant to be. I simply refuse to look through rose colored glasses at those who claim to be heirs of the 16th Century Reformation or those to whom the words of protest were directed. For that matter, I refuse to look with rose colored glasses at Luther and the Lutherans as well. To do anything less is to defame the Reformation and dishonor Luther. Live and let live will not solve either the issues raised at the start of that Reformation nor will it resolve all the various outcomes from that Reformation.
I think Lutherans should go beyond a superficial understanding of the life of Martin Luther and the basic history of the Reformation. There are many historical sources, books, and published works easily available on this subject. There were many political and social aspects affecting the Reformation at the time of Luther, like the influence of nationalism, and there were undercurrents of resistance to Papal authority before Luther. Lutheranism came under conflict and internal discord right from the beginning, and the various synods of the church brought lots of disunity and grief in early America. Many Lutherans left Europe because they felt the Lutheran church had become a state church with too much ceremony and rigid orthodoxy. Still, today we still deal with unresolved issues. Did we ever have true unity in the Lutheran body? That is why church politics can result in empty pews, because many Christians simply want a Bible oriented church which focuses on the Gospel and avoids nasty theological disputes. Sure, talk about Law and Grace, and speak about Lutheran distinctives, but keep it simple.
I invite you to consider the recent Concordia Academic publication "The Real Luther" written by a very respected Roman Catholic "Luther expert". It is quite engaging and challenges some of the hagiography of the Reformation extant this season, and brings a wonderful theory of Luther's thought being rooted in a sermon of St. Bernard on the Annunciation. I read this book on the plane ride back from 2 weeks of parish service with The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Lithuania and a week of vacation in Wittenberg.
I received the email from Concordia Academic the day before we left, so I bought the book for my Kindle and read it in about 4 hours. It was very engaging and, while not something I will share in sermons or Bible Classes, I am always interested in being informed by writers outside of the "party line" of our Synod.
One last thought: Larry, you captured my sentiments about ecumenism and Lutheranism, or at least our tribe within the family called Lutheran. I studied in Roma and found their Ecimenical Theology incomprehensible and contradictory to the max, I looked at other evangelical catholic alternatives, and found nothing better than where I am. While I often feel like a LCMS cast-out, I am here to stay until and only if God makes it abundantly clear through His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Here I stand....hey, that has a nice ring to it.
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