Lutheranism

Lutheranism

Teaching and Worship

Lutheran teachings, which have remained determinative for Lutheranism until today, are preserved in the Book of Concord of 1580. By prefacing this collection of teachings with the three ecumenical creeds (Nicene, Apostles', and Athanasian), Lutherans demonstrate their basic agreement with the ancient trinitarian tradition. The collection includes Luther's Large and Small Catechisms of 1529, his Smalcald Articles of 1537, Philipp Melanchthon's Augsburg Confession of 1530 and its Apology of 1531, and the Formula of Concord, drafted in 1577 by a group of Lutheran church leaders to resolve intra-Lutheran controversies in Germany.
 
Luther's doctrine of "justification through grace by faith alone, apart from works of law," echoing Paul in his letter to the Romans (3:28), forms the core of Lutheranism. A person is right with God (i.e., "justified") by completely trusting the work of Christ (i.e., "by faith") and not by making any human effort to appease God (i.e., "apart from works of law"). Christ's atonement is communicated both verbally, in preaching and teaching, and visibly, in the celebration of the sacraments. Thus to Luther the doctrine of justification was not one among many doctrines, as medieval theology taught, but was the "chief article of faith" that establishes the norm for Christian faith and life. Consequently the word of God must be seen in its careful distinction between "law" and "gospel." The law, be it divine (especially the First Commandment of the Decalogue) or human (as manifested in the rule of temporal princes), creates necessary order in the face of evil and reveals the human inability to appease God. Through Christ, the gospel, which is communicated in words and sacraments, reveals God's unconditional love for all creatures. Trusting in Christ rather than in one's own efforts restores one's relationship with God. God may indeed reward good and punish evil, but believers no longer need worry about God's justice. Instead, they are free to enjoy God's mercy and thus help the "neighbor" in need. So viewed, all of life is a thanksgiving for what God did in Christ.
 
In worship, Lutherans have tried to be faithful to the ecumenical tradition of the Mass by regarding its center, the sacrament of Holy Communion, as the means of grace that strengthens and sustains Christians in a world of sin, death, and evil. Luther changed little in the liturgy of the Roman Mass, removing only what he called the "sacrifice of the Mass," namely, the prayers of thanksgiving that surround the act of consecrating bread and wine. He found these prayers too self-righteous, too full of words intended to appease God, rather than offering joyful thanks for what God did in Christ.
 
Following Luther's careful liturgical reforms in Wittenberg, Lutherans have insisted on the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, introduced congregational singing, and stressed preaching. Worship is thus the basic response to baptism, which discloses God's unconditional promise to be forever with those who trust God in Christ. Lutherans retained the practice of baptizing infants not only because it had been the custom from the beginning of Christianity but also because infant baptism demonstrates that God's grace is not conditioned by human response.
 
Lutherans recognize only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper, because Luther could find no clear evidence that Christ instituted any other sacraments. Baptism commissions all believers to a common ministry, but for the sake of enduring witness and good order in the church, there is a divinely instituted, special, ordained ministry. Lutherans have not always agreed on the precise differences between the ministry of all the baptized (the "common priesthood of all believers") and the ministry of the ordained, but they have nevertheless rejected any notion of a divinely instituted structure of hierarchical priesthood. An ordained Lutheran pastor is a baptized Christian who is called to the public ministry of word and sacraments after proper training and examination, and the rite of ordination is the solemn commissioning to be faithful to this call.
 
The core of Luther's reform movement was the proposal that the church return to the Christocentric stance that he had found in scripture and in the early church fathers. His fundamental insights were neither well understood nor satisfactorily evaluated either by Catholics or by many Lutherans. Nontheological factors seemed to help the spread of Lutheranism more than theological factors.
 
History
 
The doctrine of baptism proved to be the most revolutionary aspect of Lutheranism, since it allowed Luther to invite territorial princes to become "emergency bishops" of the new churches. Thus German princes interested in liberating themselves from the domination of Rome established Lutheranism in their own territories and encouraged it to spread, especially to the east. Princes, peasants, patricians, priests, and even bishops joined the Lutheran cause, mainly to break from Rome. Danish and Swedish kings declared Lutheranism the religion of their lands between 1527 and 1593. However, when, in 1525, peasants in Saxony rebelled against their landlords in the name of Luther's call to Christian freedom, Luther sided with the princes, who crushed the rebellion by force; he refused to see his cause identified with liberation from the yoke of feudalism.
 
The pope and the emperor were forced to soften their implacable opposition to Lutheranism because they needed the support of German princes to meet the threat of Turkish invasion from the south. At the request of Emperor Charles V, the Lutherans submitted a confession of their faith to the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. The signers of the Augsburg Confession included seven princes and two city magistrates, clearly demonstrating the strong political support Lutheranism had achieved. But subsequent negotiations between Lutheran and Catholic theologians failed to produce sufficient agreement to cease hostilities. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) was finally convened a year before Luther's death in 1546, but Lutherans were not invited to attend. In 1547, German Lutherans and Catholics faced each other in military battles; the war ended within a year with the defeat of the Lutheran Smalcald League. But Emperor Charles V was willing to compromise, and the resulting 1555 Peace of Augsburg tolerated "the religion of the Augsburg Confession," although it took almost a century and the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) before the Peace of Westphalia accepted Lutheranism as a legitimate religion in the empire.
 
The Formula of Concord used medieval scholastic terminology and Aristotelian philosophical categories to provide a theological system to protect Lutheranism from both Catholic and Calvinist influences and to resolve the dispute between followers of Melanchthon, known as Philippists, and Gnesio-Lutherans (from the Greek gnesios, "authentic"). The result was a systematic, rational interpretation of the doctrines of sin, law, and grace, the cornerstones of a Lutheran theology grounded in the forensic notion that God declared humankind righteous by faith in Christ. The formula rejected both the Catholic notion of cooperation between human nature and divine grace through free will and Calvin's doctrine of Christ's spiritual (not real or bodily) presence in the Lord's Supper. The formula also insisted that all teachings must be subject to the authority of the prophetic and apostolic writings of scripture, thus opening the door to a biblicism that has at times produced a biblical fundamentalism.
 
Between 1580 and 1680, German Lutherans favored a uniform religion that fused pure doctrine with Christian laws. The resulting alliance between church and state created seventeenth-century Lutheran orthodoxy. Assisted by orthodox theologians, territorial princes dictated what people should believe and how they should behave, and obedience to political authority became the core of Christian ethics. But Lutheran orthodoxy gave rise to a new reform movement, nicknamed "pietist," which stressed a "religion of the heart" rather than the prevalent "religion of the head." Led by Philipp Jakob Spener, August Hermann Francke, and Nikolaus Zinzendorf, Lutheran Pietism emphasized individual conversion, lay ministry, and a morality distinct from worldly ethics. By the nineteenth century, the pietist impulse had created an "inner mission" movement in Germany that established a female diaconate, built hospitals and orphanages, instituted educational programs, cared for the mentally retarded, and advocated prison reform. The University of Halle trained missionaries for foreign missions, particularly for India and the United States. But social and ecumenical concerns were frequently overshadowed by a narrow-minded moralism. Thus both Lutheran orthodoxy and Lutheran Pietism tended to pervert the original purpose of Lutheranism: to be a reform movement within the church catholic. Both orthodox rationalism and pietist moralism had lost sight of the original Lutheran, ecumenical, holistic vision.
 
During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Lutheranism again succumbed to rationalist and secularist tendencies. Frederick II of Prussia (r. 1740–1786), for example, initiated an attitude of toleration that valued religion only as it served the general purposes of the state. Lutheran theologians like Johann Semler (1725–1791) considered the doctrine of justification nonessential and supported the general notion of Lutheranism as a moral teaching. In Germany and Scandinavia, however, some Lutheran theological faculties and church leaders reacted against this trend by nurturing a strong historical consciousness and intensive biblical studies, which led to frequent attempts to revive the spirit of Luther and the Lutheran confessions. These "Neo-Lutherans" called for a return to strong biblical and confessional norms to counteract the prevalent cultural Protestantism that had virtually eliminated Lutheranism's distinctive character. By 1817, three hundred years after Luther's posting of the Ninety-five Theses, Neo-Lutherans had produced a significant revival of old Lutheran norms and ideas. German Lutherans founded the Common Lutheran Conference in Prussia in 1868 to provide communication between the various territorial churches. Danish churchman Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig (1783–1872) promoted an ecumenical Lutheranism based on the apostolic tradition and on the creeds; he also revived liturgy and church music.
 
In the United States, Henry Melchior M├╝hlenberg (1711–1787), who had come from Halle to Philadelphia, organized the first American Lutheran synod in Pennsylvania in 1748. Synods were organized by regions and were headed by presidents; they met regularly in convention to decide matters of church polity and faith. Lutheran theological seminaries, colleges, and journals were soon founded in regions where Lutherans predominated. Samuel S. Schmucker (1799–1873), president of the oldest Lutheran seminary in the United States (founded in Gettysburg in 1826), envisaged an "American Lutheranism" that would be the leading force to unite all the major Protestant denominations. But he did not receive sufficient support to realize his vision. The country was too vast, and Lutherans were too estranged from one another, especially by ethnic background, to make Lutheran unity a realistic goal. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, consisting of German Lutherans who were disenchanted with Lutheran attempts in Prussia to form a union with the Reformed church, was organized in 1847. Soon there were German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish groups who cherished their own ethnic traditions more than unity with one another. During the Civil War, the United Lutheran Synod of the South was formed in response to political and cultural pressures. It was not until after World War I that Lutherans in the United States managed to form larger denominations through mergers.
 
The Nazi tyranny in Germany (1933–1945) strongly affected German Lutherans. A small minority of Lutheran pastors and congregations resisted Hitler, but the great majority of Lutherans either remained silent or actively cooperated with the Nazi regime. The resistance, which called itself the "Confessing church,"was opposed by those who called themselves the "German Christians," who were in basic agreement with the government's desire to link Lutheranism with Nazism. Danish and Norwegian Lutherans refused to cooperate with the German occupation forces, which did not react with persecution. All these groups looked to the Lutheran confessional documents for support of their positions.
 
After World War II, some 184 delegates representing about 80 million Lutherans from 49 churches in 22 countries organized the Lutheran World Federation in 1947. Headquartered in Geneva (which is also the headquarters of the World Council of Churches) the Lutheran World Federation unites Lutheran churches from around the world in common social-action projects and in regular world assemblies but otherwise has no authority over the churches. The trend toward Lutheran unity also continued in the United States. The Lutheran Council in the United States was established in 1967 to facilitate communication and common action among the larger Lutheran denominations and to represent them at the Lutheran World Federation.
 
Since the 1960s, there have been ongoing official dialogues between Lutherans and other Christian churches. In 1982 the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church were able to agree with the Episcopal Church in the United States on an "interim sharing of the eucharist," hoping for total reconciliation between Lutherans and Anglicans in the future. In view of their beginnings, Lutherans have considered their relations with Roman Catholics particularly important. Official Lutheran-Catholic dialogues began in the 1960s and have taken place without interruption in the United States since 1965. There has always been a creative tension between Lutheranism as a movement and the Lutheran denominations. If Lutherans are guided by their confessional convictions, they will remain in this tension.
 
Bibliography
 
The most comprehensive treatment of Lutheranism, albeit from an American perspective, is offered in E. Clifford Nelson's The Rise of World Lutheranism: An American Perspective (Philadelphia, 1982). The same author also has written a readable history, Lutheranism in North America, 1914–1970 (Minneapolis, 1972). In addition, there is a useful historical survey, stressing European and American Lutheranism, by Conrad Bergendoff, The Church of the Lutheran Reformation (Saint Louis, 1967). Normative Lutheran teachings, "the Lutheran confessions," are made available in translation in The Book of Concord, edited and translated by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, 1959). The historical roots and theological significance of the Lutheran confessions are described and analyzed by me and Robert W. Jenson in Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings (Philadelphia, 1976). The distinctive features of Lutheranism, especially compared with other traditions in the United States, are sketched in Arthur C. Piepkorn's "Lutheran Churches," in volume 2 of Profiles of Belief (San Francisco, 1978). The theological center of Lutheranism has been explored, with an eye on ecumenical implications, in Wilhelm Dantine's The Justification of the Ungodly, translated by me and Ruth C. Gritsch (Saint Louis, 1968), and in Gerhard O. Forde's Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life (Philadelphia, 1982). Detailed information on Lutheran worship is contained in Luther D. Reed's The Lutheran Liturgy (Philadelphia, 1947). Basic information on Lutheranism can be quickly obtained in The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church, 3 vols., edited by Julius Bodensieck (Minneapolis, 1965).
 

Eric W. Gritsch

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