Friday, September 4, 2015

Catholic Lutherans

During my brief (mostly Missouri Synod) Lutheran period, I learned a lot about the goals and role of Martin Luther and his early followers (particularly Melanchthon and Chemnitz), and the role they played in launching and defining the Reformation and a Protestant understanding of Christianity.

As an Anglo-Catholic, I find a lot to like about the (doctrinally orthodox) Lutheran teachings and believers. One reason is the strong liturgical worship promoted by traditionalists such as Issues Etc. and its advertisers. But as a catholic Christian, I also found many of the ideas of Calvin (and particularly Zwingli) as a bridge too far — let alone the Puritans and Anabaptists.

The quandary in understanding Lutheranism is its love/hate relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. Luther was a monk who wanted to reform the church and its excesses, creating a separate movement only when the 16th century church made it clear it didn’t want to be reformed. At the same time, there persist many ideas of the early Lutherans — including in the Book of Concord — that emphasize the 16th century persecutions and conflicts in the early Lutheran church; even to this day, many Lutherans (falsely) feel a need to reject RCC practices. Today, those differences seem exaggerated in a post-Christian culture, at a time when we Biblical Christians are more similar than different.

The American Lutheran Smörgåsbord

Despite many mergers in the 20th century, the 8% of American Protestants who are Lutheran (vs. 3% for Episcopal/Anglican) are fragmented across numerous denominations and jurisdictions. From 1990-2000, there were three major groups:
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), descendant of the Scandinavian Lutheran churches. With about 3.8 million members today (per Wikipedia), it the largest and most liberal — it is among Lutherans what TEC is among Anglicans — and is in full communion with the liberal mainstream Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Methodists.
  • Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), derived from the German Lutherans of the 19th century. It is the next largest at 2.2 million members, and is probably most similar (liturgically if not theologically) to traditional Anglicans.
  • Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), which in my experience felt more evangelical than Lutheran. 
Two smaller groups broke away from ECLA in this century. In 2001, the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) was formed in 2001, in response to ELCA entering into communion with TEC. In parallel to the ACNA, in 2010 the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) was formed in response to ELCA theological modernizations, notably its support for gay marriage.

The NALC recently planted its seminary HQ at the Trinity School for Ministry, the training ground for the evangelical wing of the ACNA. Like much of the ACNA, the NALC (and LCMC) declined to join the LCMS because (like the ELCA) they support women’s ordination; thus, the NALC is analogous to the pro-WO wing of ACNA. With its opposition to WO and support for traditional liturgy, the LCMS is the Lutheran body closest to the Anglo-Catholic faction of Continuing Anglicans, but it also participated in a 2013 ecumenical summit with both the ACNA and NALC.

Clearly, affinity to Roman Catholic doctrine does not come easily to traditional Lutherans. The ELCA is the only American Lutheran church to endorse the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Meanwhile, the LCMS explicitly rejects that declaration and any attempts to minimize differences between Lutherans and the RCC over the doctrine of grace and salvation. As the editorial head of LCMS’s publisher, Pastor Paul T. McCain, wrote in 2010:
Ten years after it appeared, we still continue to hear that the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was a “breakthrough” between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church. The media loves to perpetuate this myth. In fact, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is a fraud. It was a sell-out by revisionist Lutherans to Rome.

Rome is not to be faulted in any of this. The Papacy maintained the historic position of the Roman Church, and did not change it. Mainline liberal Lutherans, however, compromised the key doctrine of the Scriptures and the very heart of the Lutheran Confessions.
Thus, my general sense is that — unlike for Anglo-Catholics — (Roman) Catholic doctrine holds no particular attraction for traditional (particularly LCMS) Lutherans.

A Catholic Lutheran Church

My visit this summer to the International Congress of Catholic Anglicans made clear to me the importance in Anglo-Catholic theology (if not Anglicanism more broadly) of the continuity of Anglicanism to the early, undivided church. Like Catholics and Orthodox, we are creedal, subscribe to many of the ecumenical councils of the first millennium, and have sought to maintain the apostolic succession. We harken not only to the traditions of the Apostolic church of the 1st century, but also the traditional interpretations developed (particularly in the 2nd-4th centuries) as Christian clergy and theologians wrestled with early heresies and schisms.

In many ways, the Reformed and Catholic nature of Henry’s Church of England (and the Anglican faith more broadly) seemed like a minimalist reformation of the 16th century RCC, rather the more dramatic changes of Calvinism and the Puritans. Next to Anglicans, Lutherans seemed the least radical of the Protestants in rejecting pre-Reformation Christian doctrine that was recognizable (if modified) in the 16th century Roman Catholic Church. Still, I haven’t thought of them as asserting unity with the undivided church.

Lutherans are certainly creedal, with the Apostles’ Creed occupying a central role in Luther’s Catechism and all three creeds central to the Lutheran confession captured by the 1580 Book of Concord compiled by “the second Martin” and others. As in Rome and Canterbury, the Athanasian  Creed among Lutherans makes repeated reference to the “catholic” (i.e. universal) faith. In the current LCMS prayer book/hymnal, the Lutheran Service Book (2006), the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds refer to the “holy Christian Church,” but with this footnote:
Christian: the ancient text reads “catholic,” meaning the whole Church as it confesses the wholeness of Christian doctrine. [LSB, pp. 158,159,174,175,191,192,206,207,264]
By endorsing the Niceno-Constaintinopolitan and Athanasian Creeds, Lutherans implicitly and explicitly recognize the work of the first four ecumenical councils (325-451). Given the ongoing conflict between German Protestants and Catholics, the Book of Concord seemed more focused on 16th century (Roman Catholic) councils, notably the Council of Trent which began the Counter-Reformation.

The Scandinavian Lutherans endorse apostolic succession while (due in part to obstruction by 16th century Catholic bishops) the Germans do not. Like the Swedish Lutherans, the CoE and ACNA were able to launch new churches that inheirited the apostolic succession their clergy received in their former jurisdiction.

Given all this, I was surprised recently to hear this house ad on Issues Etc. quoting one of the speakers on its 2015 conference audio DVD:
[Will Weedon] I don’t know about you: I want no part of some church that began in 1517.

[Todd Wilken] Pastor Will Weedon speaking at this year’s Issues Etc. “Making the Case” conference.

[Will Weedon] I am not interested in it. Why would I be? I want the Church that began with Jesus Christ, which was founded by his Apostles, and in which the teachers of the Church continued to teach for centuries. I want to be part of that Church.

And the self-understanding of the Lutheran church is that we are the Catholic church of the West.
A regular guest on the Internet radio show, Pastor Weedon seems like an authoritative spokesman for LCMS doctrine as its director of worship since 2012.

Further Context

I don’t have a copy of the $300 DVD, so I wrote to Pastor Weedon to ask if he had a paper or script for what he had presented. In response, I got a lengthly email and a copy of one of his earlier writings.

In response to my email referring to the
[I heard] recent Issues Etc. ads that quote you as saying at Making the Case 2015 that the Lutheran church hearkens back to the early (i.e. undivided) church.  … I don't associate it with Lutheran theology.
he replied in part:
it’s actually an assumption and common place for us Lutherans.  …This is what Scripture teaches (citing the Scriptures). This is how the Church has always understood what Scripture teaches (citing the Fathers). This is exactly what we are teaching and nothing new.

The great Martin Chemnitz in his monumental Examination of the Council of Trent very bluntly states: “We confess we disagree with those who invent opinions which have no testimony in any period of the church. We hold that no dogma that is new and in conflict with all antiquity should be accepted.” I:258.
With his email, he included an essay that was also posted to his blog and his earlier parish website, which began:
Learning from the Fathers
Many times, Lutherans are challenged with:  “Well, where was Lutheranism before Luther?”  The implication is that Rome or the Eastern Orthodox have some sort of “corner” on the great church Fathers.  But Lutherans have never believed this to be true.  The Fathers repeatedly present the same or quite similar approaches to doctrine as the Lutheran Confessions do.  Here are some citations from the Fathers that may be of help in dispelling the notion that “Lutheranism” is a johnny-come-lately to the Church scene:
The essay offers quotes from the Patristic Fathers that support Lutheran theology, grouped using the three solas: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia. The quotes cite Ambrose, St. Basil the Great, St. Clement, St. Cyril, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom, St. John of Damascus and St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, from collections such as the 127-volume Fathers of the Church and the 28-volume Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.

These quotes aren’t going to convert a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox to sola scriptura. At the same time, they remind us that early tradition points us (as it did the undivided church) back to Holy Scripture.


Creedal Protestants share with each other — and Rome and the East — an adherence to the canon of scripture, the ecumenical creeds and the teachings of the early Fathers. They differ in terms of ecclesial authority: Anglo-Catholics give considerable deference to tradition, the Orthodox give primacy to its specific canon of Holy Tradition, while Rome vests ultimate authority in the Magisterium.

Compared to other Protestants, Anglicans and Lutherans ascribe a greater role to tradition (including the early Fathers) in interpreting scripture. Still, Lutherans have more of a sola scriptura orientation than their Catholic or Orthodox counterparts, perhaps guided by Martin Luther’s final statement at the Diet of Worms that said
wenn ich nicht durch Zeugnisse der Schrift und klare Vernunftgründe überzeugt werde; denn weder dem Papst noch den Konzilien allein glaube ich, da es feststeht, daß sie öfter geirrt und sich selbst widersprochen haben, so bin ich durch die Stellen der heiligen Schrift, die ich angeführt habe, überwunden in meinem Gewissen und gefangen in dem Worte Gottes.…
In other words,
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God.

1 comment:

dvorak1841 said...

A Lutheran here moved by this post to leave a comment and also wanting to comment on your blog in general. I am very sympathetic to your viewpoints. One of my favorite blog posts of yours is the one describing the four boxes of churches. Very insightful and a perfect encapsulation of American Christianity today. And like you I want both my theology AND my liturgy traditional.

As an always Lutheran born in the WELS and now attending a LCMS church, I did always have these slight anti-Catholic feelings that I feel were once typical of American Protestants. But as I have seen mainline Protestants give up more and more of their theology (and seemingly lose more membership in the process), I have become sympathetic to the Romans for their perseverance in maintaining their faith's core principles.

I currently attend a Missouri Synod church whose welcoming sign notes that they have been "under the same management for 2000 years" and though this particular church embraces Contemporary Christian Music to some extent (which I dread) I think most, if not all, of the parishioners believe in the historical link to their Christian forbearers and that the faith should remain unchanged through the years.

I own a copy of the Lutheran Study Bible, published by LCMS's publishing house with notes by traditional Lutherans from various groups and there are many, many quotes from the early Church fathers (Augustine being a particular favorite) expounding on various verses, as well as extensive citations from Reformation era reformers.

Lastly, I am also a big fan of Issues, Etc. I love the job they do supporting traditional worship practices.