What’s up with the Lutherans?

As I’ve said before, I was raised Lutheran, in a good, moderately conservative church (LCA) in a good, moderately conservative community in Minnesota (though they tended to vote Democrat for some unknown reason).  While it was strongly Lutheran,  I knew very little of the differences between synods, and don’t know that I’d ever seen much less read the Book of Concord. However, I’d gone through Confirmation, memorized the Small Catechism, and seen “Here I Stand” numerous times.  I knew enough to be soundly Lutheran.  For years I referred to myself as a Lutheran expatriate. After nearly 40-some years away from the Lutheran church, I remain fairly Lutheran in my theology, however I would not describe myself as “confessional.” To be honest, I’m not even really sure what that means.

What’s up with the Lutherans?

Over the past few years, I’ve started getting back in touch with the liturgical side of the Church, and have connected with a number of Lutherans online. For one thing, I am soundly committed to the concept of salvation by grace, and to me Luther stands as the 2nd greatest champion of that doctrine (Paul being the first).

But, I have to say that I am quite bothered by a lot of what I read online from those calling themselves Lutherans, especially, it seems, those referring to themselves as “Confessional Lutherans.”  For a group whose namesake is so closely identified with the doctrine of grace, it seems that grace is now sorely lacking.

What’s in a name?

The label “Lutheran” is quite broad and unspecific.  The largest American group is the very liberal ELCA, who, among other things, recently voted to ordain practicing homosexual pastors. Then there are a number of other groups, ranging from more moderate groups like the AALC, Lutheran Brethren, and the relatively young LCMC to the fundamentalist Missouri Synod and the smaller anti-Papist Wisconsin Synod. Then, of course, there are dozens of international Lutheran groups, connected through various umbrella organizations. All Lutheran groups look back, of course, to Luther and the Augsburg Confession as “square one;” from there, its a complex genealogy.

Bottom line, the Lutherans are quite a diverse bunch, held together by a commitment to the doctrine of salvation by grace and practices like infant baptism.

A few words about the ELCA

What’s interesting is that at least according to their Confession of Faith, the ELCA seems a sound, conservative organization, in that, “This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.” In practice, however, it seems that it is their interpretation of the Scriptures which are the true authoritative source, often relegating Scripture to allegory and “more of a guideline rather than a rule.” In recent years, of course, they’ve crossed the line for many of the more conservative Lutherans. In my opinion, the ELCA has become so open-minded they’ve lost their brains, and with that, their hold on solid doctrine.

Some of my best friends are Lutheran

As I’ve said, in the past few years I’ve tried to reconnect with some of the less liberal Lutherans, as I’ve a regained desire to get back to my theological roots. Not for “roots” sake, but because I think Luther has many advantages over other strains of post-Reformation theologians. I’ve come to believe that the evangelical world is suffering due to the influence of Augustinian errors, passed along by Calvin and others. I consider Calvinism to be more or less heretical, as well as what is typically seen as the only alternative, Arminianism. That split occurred post-Luther, and has little effect on Lutheranism, which goes largely ignored by the evangelical community.

However, I’m considering unsubscribing from some of the Lutheran sites and online groups I belong to, simply because I’m becoming more and more disturbed by a kind of Lutheran imperialism (perhaps even fascism) that seems to be growing among the more conservative groups.

More and more the focus seems to be about seemingly insignificant points of theology, not with the intent of finding truth, but about determining who can be excluded from the “pure” strain of Lutheranism in that group.  While the ELCA may be erring in their attempts to be inclusive (and I believe they are correct in their belief that the gospel is by nature inclusive – read Romans 2), the conservative groups are erring by focusing on exclusion. Certainly we have to preach against the “other” gospels being preached, and I am no stranger to calling out heresy in that regard. However, when the watershed issue is something like the 3rd use of the law (which Luther never taught, by the way), then they are simply sinning in their foolishness (1 Tim 1:4).

I actually saw one discussion online yesterday about whether Lutheran was the “true church.”  Give me a break.

Where I think Lutheranism errs

This is, by the way, merely my current opinion. One of the reasons I blog my thoughts is to invite people to respond and argue with me.  I actually do change my theology from time to time…

I think one of the problems with Lutheranism as a whole is the nature of their being “confessional,” tied to several reformation documents. Personally, I accept and confess the historic creeds.  Anything after that I accept with a grain of salt. I think the Augsburg confession is good, and much of the Book of Concord is helpful. However, it’s not scripture, and never will be. When I discuss an issue, I may cite Luther or others as having good opinions, but I always go back to Scripture. Lutherans often stop at citing Concord or some old Lutheran as if that were Scripture.

I also think that teaching the 3rd use of the law (basically, as a way to take the law back down off the cross…) is mainly to go back to use it to control and exclude others.  It seems to me to be a way to say you believe in grace, but then enforce law.

The “law” and other questions

One of the questions I have about Lutheran doctrine is the concept that preaching must include both law and gospel. I think this provides some problem areas for Lutherans, and explains why the 3rd use teaching exists.  Personally, I never heard the term “law and gospel” while growing up, and first ran into it just a few years ago.  Certainly we need to understand that “all have sinned;” I don’t think many have a problem accepting that. I think, however, that to preach law to those who have been baptized and confirmed in the faith is questionable. Paul taught that we have “died to the law.” Furthermore, as being a non-Jew, the law was never given to me. There is the unwritten law that Paul talks about in Romans 1, but still, we are, as Christians, not under law, but under grace.

No one was ever made righteous by keeping the law; it was not a tool of righteousness, but actually came to cause sin to increase. I don’t see how increasing sin by bringing back the law has any benefit. The truth is, as taught by Paul, that we have been set free from “the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2).  I don’t go to church to be put back under it. To me, the “3rd use” does just that.

If I completely misunderstand the term “law and gospel” then I invite someone to explain it to me.  My own focus has been to distinguish law from gospel (as Paul did), not tie them together.

I have other questions about Lutheran theology, including Luther’s concept of “simultaneously saint and sinner,” that I can’t at this point sign on to, at least without more understanding.  I personally don’t care whether this or universal objective justification is Lutheran or not, or whether any teaching is essential to be a Lutheran. The question is not whether I’m Lutheran, but whether the teaching is Biblically sound.

The reality about Luther and Lutheranism

Christianity is not about being Lutheran. Furthermore, Luther was more than likely wrong about any number of things. There, I’ve said it.  That being said, I still think that basic Lutheran theology (with a few caveats) is superior to the morass of theology floating around the western world. Luther was taught according to Augustinian theology, which as I said, I believe is quite flawed. While Luther came a long way from his RCC/Augustinian roots, he only went so far, and as his theology grew and changed over the years, he possibly would have grown further had he lived longer. That is, Lutheran theology is good, but it’s not the place we should stop.  Some of the later writings in the Book of Concord (which post-dated Luther) are even possibly in conflict which what Luther himself would have said.

I would, however, like to further explore a few points of Lutheran teaching that I simply don’t have a context for (as I said, my church growing up didn’t find many of these issues important). I really appreciated my meeting LCMC pastor Amber Bergeron a month or so ago while visiting my hometown. While our conversation was way too short, it rekindled my desire to look into to some of these things, in spite of my disheartening encounters with the troubling side of Lutheranism. I’m going to invite Amber to comment on any point she wishes, and hope to gain from some of her wisdom and enthusiasm as I occasionally think out loud online…


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9 Responses to What’s up with the Lutherans?

  1. Howard says:

    I can certainly verify the Anglican interest in Luther. There has been a growing passion for Luther’s theology of the Cross amongst all my Anglican friends over the last decade, which has allowed me to feel at home in a local church the last few years.

  2. me says:

    Interesting, I just ran across this post that talks about a segment of Anglicans who are leaning Lutheran (rather than Calvin, as many low-church Anglicans do). As I tend to prefer the Common Prayer folk at this point, I could easily fit in with these folks…


  3. me says:

    Bill, good question. It might sound contradictory, but I said they may be erring in their “attempts” at being inclusive. I think the gospel is inclusive; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone who is given salvation is qualified to be a pastor/elder/etc. Paul clearly lays out some qualification for leadership that are somewhat exclusionary. I think the ELCA errs when it’s attempts at inclusiveness fails to recognize the categorical differences between being saved and filling certain roles within the church.

  4. Bill says:

    I’m curious about one of your comments regarding the ELCA. You say they may be erring by being inclusive, but then go on to say that you agree with them that the gospel is by nature inclusive. Not sure I follow what you mean. Are you just saying they ought not be so inclusive as to allow homosexual pastors? Are they too inclusive in any other way in your judgment? Hope you don’t mind my asking…

  5. me says:

    Katie, thanks for your comments. I don’t think applying Romans 6 or any of Paul’s exhortations as teaching the Law; as you point out, it’s not living according to the law (which kills), but according to the Spirit (which gives life). Saying “don’t jump off the cliff or you will die” is not teaching law; it’s merely giving realistic good advice about how to stay alive and free… something like “now that you’re free to jump off the cliff or not jump, choose to not jump because you’ll live longer.” I don’t have a problem with that kind of advice… 😉

    In my mind, Paul’s teachings cannot be a 3rd use of “the law” because first, it’s not the same law he talked about in uses 1 and 2. 2nd, it’s not in the same category as the law he was referring to. I don’t recall Paul ever bringing forward any OT law in a “3rd use” way, at least as it’s expressed in the Book of Concord.

    For that matter, I haven’t found the list of “uses” to be all that helpful; Paul provides his own uses for the law, and I’d rather stick with those… 😉

  6. Howard says:

    There’s no problem applying Romans 6 to the Christian life ( we ARE united with Christ in HIs death and, thus, raised with Him in resurrection – that joining kills the slavery to sin, and will end death’s dominion as well), so long as we also apply Paul’s teaching in Romans 7 (the power of the law, defining sin in us, evidenced, as believers, in our flesh – including a propensity to evil, hence the need for liberation) and Romans 8 (that total liberation is coming, in Him who loves us – in His work, for nothing is greater or higher). It’s therefore not so much a ‘third use’ of law, but placing God’s reconciling work in His Son front and centre.

  7. Katie says:

    Thanks for this really thoughtful post – I agree with you on much of it. As a “discomfited ELCA-er”, you are right that we have just gotten so liberal and so…”mainline” that to “be Lutheran” has lost all meaning whatsoever. At this moment, so far as I can tell, something (a particular theological point, an issue of praxis, whatever) is “Lutheran” if someone who claims to be Lutheran believes it or does it.

    The flip side of that coin is Missouri, who is so busy being out-and-out mean to anyone who takes the slightest issue at Our Pure Doctrine, that I think they slay a lot of allies in the process.

    I do believe in the 3rd use of the Law, however. The way I understand it is really on the basis of Romans 6. Having been baptized into Christ, you live by the Spirit. So, you know, live by the Spirit. It isn’t about constantly trying to “be a better person” or ensure that God’s grace still applies to you or whatever, it’s more “this is how a person who has been united with Christ lives, so, um, live that way.” And honestly, I think it’s all over the Epistles. (Two quick examples: Ephesians 4:30-31 and 1 Peter 1:23-2:3)

    This in no way places us back under the condemnation of the law. It does not remove our salvation from us, nor turn us into Pelagians. Depending on the particular “law” in question, 3rd use can look a lot like 1st use, and of course the minute I am convicted of the fact that I fail to “put off malice” or “crave spiritual milk” or whatever, then there’s a 2nd use function as well. But I think that *in general* 1st and 2nd use function globally (i.e., for those both inside and outside the church) while 3rd use applies specifically to the Church. (“Having been baptized into Christ Jesus, this is the manner in which you now live.”)

    Thanks for your great thoughts – fun to read and engage with!

  8. Howard says:

    Good to see some ‘out loud’ thinking going on. I owe an enormous debt to Lutheran teaching, which, accompanied by the work of CURE (Mike Horton and co), really clarified a great deal for me theologically back in the early 90’s – it’s from that ‘bedrock’ that my faith has operated since.

    Your general picture of contemporary Lutheranism (some of it majoring in minors) seems to mirror what has occurred in many mainline churches (i.e. Anglicanism) in the Western world, and I suspect the reasons for this are what you touch upon as that inherited from Augustine (in the NT era, this appeared in the church as Gnostic dualism, and has impoverished and plagued us ever since as much as legalism, hence, Paul’s letter to the Colossians and John’s letters).

    The cardinal reality about Lutheranism is that the soterioloigical reformation begun in Wittenburg was very different to the moral reform required in Geneva (see Reformation Thought by Alister Mc Grath), so the two ‘streams’ have very different sources, and very different outcomes (sadly muddied by the rise of Lutheran pietism, and its ‘third use’ emphasis).

    Lutheranism is at its best when, like any Christian gathering, it focuses upon God evidenced in Jesus Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. Speaking of our need is no doubt part of that (the general confession is a really useful part of a service), but the focus of our fellowship together is eating and drinking God’s love to us in Jesus Christ – the wonder of the good news – that is the vital focus of the faith, and it should be ours as well – in preaching, sacrament, confession and worship.

    When someone points us with clarity to the saving work of God through His Son, they are giving water to one dying of thirst. Martin Luther sought to do this with an earnest rarely matched, so I agree with your assessment of his place (next to Paul) and the value of his work, but what so many need today is others to follow suit and passionately share this same remedy throughout the realm of the church. Let’s hope and pray we can play some small part in this.

  9. Fred says:

    Enjoyed this. I don’t read Augustine quite like you do, but you handle said theological tar pits with wry aplomb.

    You really should write more.

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