“Incomplete” Lutherans

The book, Here We Stand: Nature and Character of the Lutheran Faith, reflects Sasse’s battle against the Protestant attempt to present a unified statement of faith against the Nazi movement in Germany in the 1930’s. From the Protestant view, all movements coming out of the Reformation would be best combined, even if there was no acknowledgement of the theological/doctrinal differences. Karl Barth was the major proponent of such a declaration (eventually the Barmen Declaration). 51ljQIsee0L._SL500_SL160_

One area of interest was (and is) how the Reformation is viewed historically and theologically. For many, the Reformation includes many strands of equal importance: Lutheran, Reformed, Calvinism, etc. And yet is that how we as Lutherans understand the Reformation?

The Accusation against Lutherans

Sasse presents the general Protestant view of the Reformation, which is a skewed view as if the “Lutheran Reformation” was incomplete, didn’t go far enough. That still is a problem today, perceiving the Reformation through the lens of the general Protestant perspective. Sasse lays out the accusation against Lutherans this way.

This is the accusation that we Lutherans overestimate our reformation by thinking of it as the Reformation of the church, and by thinking of our church as the church of the Reformation. In truth, however, the Lutheran Reformation is only the beginning, and only a part, of the Reformation as such. There were other Reformers in addition to Luther, and besides the Wittenberg Reformation there were, of course, others—such as the Zürich and the Geneva Reformation. The Reformation is made up of all these reformations put together. Luther’s new insight of faith is not the “Reformation faith” until it is supplemented by the insights of faith which the other Reformers contributed. Inasmuch as the Lutheran Church has overlooked or forgotten this, and has isolated itself from the other churches of the Reformation, it has slipped into a false relationship both to the Roman Church and to those other Reformation churches. It has not remained sufficiently apart from the Roman Church, and it has not realized that, for better or worse, its fate is intimately bound up with that of the other churches of the Reformation. Thus the Lutheran Church has taken its stand in an uncertain middle position between the other two. It has not found its way entirely out of Catholicism. It still needs to be drawn from the limitations of its narrow horizon to an experience of the whole Reformation—the whole Reformation in the double sense of a complete and radical reform which has its roots in obdeience to God’s commands and consequently triumphs over Catholicism, and of an inclusive reform which does not limit itself to Luther’s teaching alone.

This is the accusation which is lodged against our church by all the other Protestant churches—the charge which has been made incessantly for the last four hundred years, especially by our sister church, the Reformed. (Sasse, Here We Stand, pp. 85-86)

Yes, I still hear and read of such charges against Lutherans. Yet as Sasse begins to deal with this accusation, he rightly addresses the problem from the perspective of “The Reformation and the Confessional Problem” (pp. 86-96). And from there he addresses “the Lutheran and Reformed churches” (pp. 97-109).

Sadly even some Lutherans do not want to address the issue of what it means to confess the faith. In today’s world, such a stance is critical. To take a confessional stance does not mean that we follow Martin Luther himself (as often assumed). Rather, we confess the faith as Luther did and as the Christian church has from the very beginning. “Justification by grace through faith in Christ” (or expanded: “justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone”), is not one of many doctrines, but rather the chief article of faith, the center of all else. The other “alone” statement is “Scripture alone.” (I will post more on these topics in a future post).

Note, too, that taking a confessional stand does not mean arrogance, pride, haughtiness, verbal attacks, personal insults. None of those are from the fruit of the Spirit and do not reflect what our confessional documents desire. Rather, it means that we take seriously what it means to “believe, teach, and confess” the faith. And we take seriously the confessional documents (the Book of Concord) which repeatedly claim, “The Church has always taught.” There is for us as Christians who confess the faith as Lutherans the continuity with the Christian church through the ages, not an independent movement disentangled from anything prior to 1517.

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Lutherans within Christianity

Many times people do not understand what it means to be Lutheran, especially in light of the Reformation, the gulf between Lutheranism and Catholicism and between Lutheranism and Protestantism. Sometimes we look like Roman Catholics, but sound like Protestants. Liturgically Lutherans and Roman Catholics are similar in format and style. One can easily move liturgically between them. The gulf in many ways is greater between Lutherans and Protestants.sasse01

The following quote from Hermann Sasse shows how he regards the situation in 1938. I think the last two sentences are excellent.

This explains why the differences and contradictions within Protestantism means so little in the eyes of the Reformed Churches. From their point of view, all the churches which arose out of the Reformation were essentially one in their opposition to this false church of the Middle Ages. The more recent concept of “Catholicism” as an antonym of “Protestantism” is a typical product of Reformed thought. The Lutheran Church has not the slightest theological interest in this antithesis between Catholicism and Protestantism. It does not know to which side it belongs. If only there were a clear-cut contradiction between true and false doctrine in the antithesis! But this does not happen to be the case. For there are heresies in Protestantism which are just as dangerous as those of Catholicism. Lutheran theology differs from Reformed theology in that it lays great emphasis on the fact that the evangelical [Lutheran] church is none other than the medieval Catholic Church purged of certain heresies and abuses. The Lutheran theologian acknowledges that he belongs to the same visible church to which Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine and Tertullian, Athanasius and Irenaeus once belonged. The orthodox evangelical [Lutheran] church is the legitimate continuation of the medieval Catholic Church, not the church of the Council of Trent and the Vatican Council which renounced evangelical truth when it rejected the Reformation. (Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand, Augsburg Publishing House, 1938 orig., p. 102)

A better new day

Over the past several decades I have mentioned that the “good old days” were not necessarily good for many, if not most, people. This morning I read the following in Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore:

No one needs to be told that we live in a time of materialism and consumerism, of lost values and a shaft in ethical standards. We find ourselves tempted to call for a return to old values and ways. It seems that in the past we were more religious as a people and that traditional values had more influence throughout the society. But whether or not that is a blurry, nostalgic view of the past, we want to keep in mind Jung’s warning about dealing with present difficulties by wishing for a return to former conditions. He calls this maneuver a “regressive restoration of the persona.” Societies can fall into this defensive strategy, attempting to restore what is imagined to be a better condition from the past. The trouble is, memory is always part imagination, and tough times of another era are later unconsciously gilded into the “good old days.” (pp. 231-2)

And by extension we deal with the same temptation in the Church. There is that which is good — remaining or returning to a previous status in the Church. Obviously in regard to a solid Biblical basis, a doctrinal foundation, etc. remaining or returning are good, healthy, encouraging for the Church. The Scriptures never change, our confession of the faith should not change. Remaining on that foundation derives from THE Word, namely Jesus Christ,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  (John 1:1)

So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine. (John 8:31)

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14-15)

And Paul wrote,

holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. (Titus 1:9)

But often the call for the “good old days” refers to outward actions, or perceived “real way of doing things.” But as Moore reminds us, “memory is always part imagination.” In the church, that may be a prescribed time to worship, length of worship, specific order of worship, etc. This is not to say that anything was necessarily wrong with the past in each of those cases, but they may not achieve what had been taken for granted in the past.

Notice that desire to return to the good old days may be well intentioned. But often it misses the mark. As a young boy in church in the early-mid 1950’s, sometimes sitting alone (parents would drop us off), the adults behind us would snapp our ears if we turned in the pew to look around. This happened more than once! I was curious who I could see (most the of time there would be 250-300 in each worship service). I shudder if that is the good old days!! I suspect today’s children would wholeheartedly agree. I suspect parents would be more than a little disturbed if that happened now. It ain’t the good old days.

Moving forward without reaction to the past

So how do we address this “good old days” view in the Church? We can start by acknowledging that the Church has never been perfect or ideal. Consider how many of Paul’s letters address problems in the first century. And it didn’t change in later centuries. Sometimes the 4th century is heralded as the “Golden Age” but remember that the Council of Nicea (AD 325) had to deal with the heresy of Arius and his followers. And that battle actually got worse after the Council, for about 100 years. If anything, what makes it “golden” is that the Church fought for its life, a struggle that took its toll on people and churches. The Church was continuing to be formed in a sinful world.

Thus, our congregations today are still being formed in a sinful world. We can’t look back and wish for the good old days of our memories. We can cherish the past of the Church and of our congregation, yet we recognize that we live in the present, not the past. The Church of the past is what God did then among those people, yes, sinful people, just like us. But the Church of our memories doesn’t exist.

Thus, we look at how we live out the reality of “Christ in us” individually and as a congregation. What remains of the past should not change: Our faith is in Jesus Christ, as with the Church of all ages. Our doctrines come from Scripture, as they must and have throughout the Church. Our confessions summarize those truths. We hold fast to these.

In the present day of the Church, we use technology when it can help us, or open new avenues of reaching people with the Gospel. This includes the digital life we inhabit with all the opportunities and challenges that it offers. But there may be changes in worship because of that. New translations of the Bible come on the scene. Liturgical wording changes. After all, we don’t read the Scriptures or sing the hymns on Sunday morning in Hebrew and Greek, or Latin, or …

Our view of the past, present, and future is formed and guided by Scripture. We let Scripture speak to us and others on its own terms. That is challenging, but also refreshing. God speaks to us through His Word, but it is a fresh Word, a life-giving Word, a life-generating water in the Word, a life-sustaining meal in the Word. And that is not just a memory, it is a present reality that never changes. That guarantees the hope that we have:

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope.
The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:21-23)

[Jesus said] Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (Matthew 25:34)

It is a better new day!

Searching for the church—Part 1

In my previous post (15 Reasons why I came back to the Church) I focused on the reasons for coming back to the church. Today I will turn my attention to the searching aspect of coming back. First, let me distinguish between the Church, consisting of all believers in Jesus Christ, as presented in the New Testament, also referred to as the Church Catholic [does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church=RCC] and the church as the local visible manifestation of that Church.

The Church in its essence is invisible. No one can look into another person’s heart and determine whether that person is a Christian or not. Yet there is a unity among all Christians, as Jesus expresses it ( “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one;” John 17:20).

The church is visible and gives our “flesh and blood” look at those who believe in Jesus Christ. But even here we cannot identify those who truly believe. As Jesus says there are weeds among the wheat.

Faith and Faith

Early on it became helpful to distinguish between two uses of the word faith.

  1. Faith which believes: This refers to the belief/faith/trust that God creates in the person (John 3:5; Romans 10:17, etc.). You might hear the expression “personal faith,” but that is really redundant, because faith which believes can only be personal.
  2. Faith which is believed: This refers to the content of the faith which believes, and often identified with the definite article, “the faith.” The outward expression of the content the faith is critical, because if the “faith which believes” is based on wrong content, then there is great danger in losing the “faith which believes.” Here are two examples of this use in the New Testament:

Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith (1 Cor. 16:13)

until we all attain to the unity of the faith (Eph. 4:13)

So, what difference does it make to know the difference between “faith” and “the faith” when searching for a church? In my experience in church leadership over the past 35 years, much of it as a pastor, I have found most people use #1 as the criteria, and seldom if ever pay attention to #2. That is, the person will state, “I believe in Jesus” (with many assumptions behind that statement) and tries to find a church that reinforces the “personal faith.” Carl Braaten aptly observed: “that mode of thinking George Lindbeck calls ‘experiential expressivism.’ Individuals and groups vent their own religious experience and call it theology” (First Things 61 [March 1996]).

For someone who approaches the search this way, it is not unusual to find that person shifting from Methodist to Baptist to Presbyterian to Evangelical to non-denominational, searching for a local church that “feels comfortable.” These tags are of little or no consequence in the search, because “it is what I believe in my heart that counts.” Note this is not a judgment but rather an observation.

The Search changes direction

What happens if we include that second aspect, the content of faith, “the faith”? Now I have to begin to examine what is the content of my faith? What do I believe about God? Who is this Jesus? What does the Trinity (three in one) mean? What do I believe about justification, sanctification, baptism, Lord’s Supper, etc.? If these questions come up, then we search Scriptures. But how many of us are experts in that? Is it necessary to be an expert? The key is beginning to read the Word, but more than just a quick devotional plunge every now and then. (I recommend reading entire books in roughly this order: Ephesians, Mark, 1 John, Luke, Romans, Matthew, 1 Peter, John, Philippians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, etc.)

As I examine these topics and come to some decision about the content of my faith based on my study of Scripture, now I begin to examine what that local church, or congregation, publicly teaches. If I come to one conclusion about baptism, what happens if that congregation teaches differently? Is this a church where I can in good conscience worship? Where do I draw the line on all these essential teachings?

This is not a new problem. Christians have faced this challenge from the very first. So what becomes the standard for me and the church to determine what is “the faith”? Obviously, we will say the “Bible.” For the first Christians, prior to the formal collection of the New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) was the basis. In Acts 17:11 we read: “and every day they carefully examined the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true.”

As time went on, challenges to the Biblical teaching arose, and the Church responded with statements of faith based on the Scriptures. Those statements of faith, known as “Creeds” (“creed” comes from credo = “I believe”) became summary statements of the content of what is believed. We have creedal statements even in the New Testament:

No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:3)

By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.  (1 Tim. 3:16)

Notice that Paul even writes “by common confession.” So Paul acknowledges how important it is to share in the content of “the faith.”

Also, notice that in this search of Scripture, we discover that this is never a “one issue” or “one doctrine” kind of litmus test of a church (or myself). If I disagree with what the church teaches about baptism, that will affect what it teaches on sin, salvation, God and humans in relationship, etc. In fact, every critical doctrine ultimately affects the teaching about justification by grace through faith.

Where does this lead?

At this point, our search leads us to consider what a church publicly teaches or confesses. A statement of “the faith” is critical. Every church has a creed of some kind. I remember serving as pastor in a smaller community, in which there was a church, specifically identified as “anti-creedal” claiming “we believe what the Bible teaches, so we don’t need a creed.” One newsletter had the very large headline, “We are Anti-creedal!” The rest of the page consisted of 20+ statements of faith, i.e. a creed!

As you study the Bible, it helps to examine the two major creeds, Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed to see what they teach. The Apostles Creed developed over a period of centuries but has been seen original as a baptismal creed. The Nicene Creed resulted from the Council of Nicea in AD 325 as they met the challenge of those who taught the Jesus was somehow a “lesser God.”

Again, see whether the creeds themselves teach what the Bible teaches. When I teach adult instruction class, I give this handout of the Apostles Creed for them to see that the creed is not “something added to the Bible” but is a summary of what the Bible teaches.

The Next Step

Finding a church that confesses “the faith” that matches the Bible is not an easier or simple path. If a doctrine of the church is obviously contrary to the Bible, then move on, this is not a place for you to grow in “the faith,” let alone concern for “your faith.” But take your time. As your grow in your understanding of the Bible, you will discover your understanding of “the faith” will reflect more and more what the Church has confessed as “the faith.” And as you do, you will find a church which does as well.

This is an important aspect of your faith, but it is also an exciting time as your learn more about who God is, what God has done, and how God relates to people. We belong to that extended train of believers throughout history, the Church. The wisdom of those who have gone before us is valuable for us as we study, reflect, pray, and learn.