A Case for Evangelical Lutheranism
I had already planned to clean the middle bay in the garage before my wife died in May. Her death tossed me off schedule by a few months, but l am now getting through the boxes that never got unpacked when we moved into this house in June 1996. One of the “treasures” I found was a journal l had been keeping beginning my second year at seminary through my first years of ministry. My last entry was July 1991. By the change in ink and pencil colors, it looks like the article was written over a number of days. I am reproducing that last journal entry here. The article might be called “Must I, by human reason, understand?”
I have read recently in various news sources a number of things about “Evangelical” Lutherans. These things, as I call them, are issues with which I, an evangelical Lutheran, disagree. The issues deal with such things as the Church’s response to modern sexuality and abortion. As I have read these things I have become increasingly aware of the separation I am experiencing from others, a vast number of others, who share my heritage. I find that those of us who can be truly called evangelical Lutherans because we stand firmly on the Holy Scriptures as God’s Word are a smaller and smaller minority.
As I came to the above somewhat undocumented conclusion, we were finishing Dr. James Dobson’s film series Turn Your Heart Toward Home at our midweek Bible study at the congregation I attend. I was also reminded of how many of my friends, Lutheran friends, tune into their local Christian radio stations and listen to J. Vernon McGee, Chuck Swindol, and Dr. James Kennedy. I even listen to Pastors Swindol and Kennedy and Dr. Dobson. I find their insights into Scripture and world issues very helpful in my walk and relationship with Jesus. Although I try to stay away from Sunday morning TV and I rarely turn to CBN or TBN, we seem also to be quite influenced by Christian television. Of much greater influence in my life is the printed page…books. Quite by accident-we didn’t get our book club notice mailed back-we got Jack Hayford’s Moments with Majesty. (Jack Hayford is pastor of Four Square Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California.) I have so far found it to be a gem in reflecting Pastor Hayford’s personal walk.
What I am getting at is this. As we find ourselves separated more and more from others of our Lutheran heritage, it seems that we are identifying more and more with American Evangelicalism. Certainly we are being influenced more and more by American evangelical leaders. The question that comes up for me is, “How long will it be before we loose our identity as Lutherans?” Perhaps of even greater import is the question “Is it worth maintaining our Lutheran identity?”
I grew up a Lutheran. My dad became a Lutheran around the time he married my mom. She is the daughter of a Lutheran Swedish immigrant. But I like to think that, like my dad, I chose to be a Lutheran, not because I was raised that way but because being a Lutheran is having a theology that is closer to the Bible than is the theology of other American evangelicals.
So, what is it that makes us like them? And what is it that makes us different?
In the late 1800’s, James Gray published a series of booklets called The Fundamentals. In these he set out to clarify which teachings of the Church were essential to Christianity. (Gray, James M. The Fundamentals. Chicago: Testimony Publishing Co., 189-?) T. H. Megorden and L. A. Vigness of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America identified conservative Lutherans as “fundamentalists” and listed seven points that are “fundamental” to Christianity. Megorden listed these “outstanding doctrines and truths of Christianity as the Inspiration of Scripture, Salvation by Grace, Virgin Birth, Deity of Christ, Atonement, Bodily Resurrection, and the Second Coming.” (“Fundamentalism vs. Modernism,” Theologist Tidsskrift, July 1925, p. 261) These seven points, I believe, are where we agree with other American evangelicals.
Absolutely essential to our theology is our understanding about the Bible. We make no apologies for our claim that God inspired its writers to pen every word. We recognize that God used the writer’s personalities and vocabulary; but every word, every idea, is in essence God’s word, God’s idea, breathed into the writers. (see 2 Timothy 3:16 ff.) The Bible is God’s Word. God cannot lie. Therefore, there can be nothing in the Bible that is not true.
The cornerstone of the Reformation is Paul’s quotation of Habbakuk 2:4 as found in Romans 1:17. Our declaration of “not guilty” in God’s courtroom is not by our work or merit. It is by our faith. Faith in what? Faith in a gracious God! The second fundamental, salvation by grace, can perhaps not be better shown than with the Holy Spirit’s words through Paul to the Ephesian Church. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8, 9 NASB)
The author to the Hebrews argues that Jesus has been appointed as the new High Priest who offers the ultimate sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins and who having made that sacrifice sits eternally by the Father interceding for us. Necessary to Jesus’ qualifications as High Priest is His Sonship. With other American evangelicals we continue to hold strong to the fundamental of the Virgin Birth. Mary’s virginity (cf. Matthew 1:18-25) is important because it proves that the Second Person of the Trinity became a human being by a divine miracle and that Jesus was not the product of the union of Joseph, or any other man, with Mary. He is truly God, the Word, become flesh, the one about whom John says, “We have heard… we have seen with our eyes… we beheld and our hands handled…” (1 John 1:1 NASB)
Closely related to the Virgin Birth is the next fundamental, the Deity of Christ. This doctrine is probably most simply stated by John in the first verses of his gospel. (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh… John 1:1, 14 NASB), but the centrality of Jesus to the good news because He is God permeates the whole of Scripture. Anyone who has read and understood the Bible must admit that Jesus is indeed God.
God did not come to earth and became a human being on a lark. It was not some practical joke as those played by the mythological Greek gods. The Letter to the Romans clearly outlines Jesus’ purpose on earth. We “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) It is this sin that causes God to pour out His wrath, His anger, His judgment. (cf. Romans 1:18 ff.) The punishment we deserve is death. (Romans 1:32; 6:23) We deserve to be eternally separated from God. This means to be forever in the total absence of love and hope and peace and all the things that are a part of God’s presence. God was not happy about this, our human condition. So, Paul writes beginning with Romans 3:21, God revealed His righteousness. God showed us that He is gracious and right by sending us Jesus whom He offered up as the last and perfect blood sacrifice, the final sacrifice of atonement. It is in this sacrifice that Jesus not only takes our sin upon himself but that he himself became sin itself. (2 Corinthians 5:21) Since sin and God cannot occupy the same space at the same time, the Father had to reject the Son. Jesus was separated from the Father and experienced Hell. He went to Hell so we would not have to go to Hell, and when He cried out from the cross, “It is finished,” He had accomplished what He had come to do. Essential to our relationship with God is the fact that Jesus was sacrificed in our place.
Paul told the Corinthians that if Jesus had not been raised from the dead both our preaching and faith are in vain, our faith is worthless, and we are of all people to be pitied the most. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) I think one of the strongest arguments for Christianity is the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead. How can you argue historical fact? Peter saw Him; the other disciples saw Him; over five hundred people saw Him. Many of them touched Him and saw Him eat. (see the Gospels and 1 Corinthians 15:3-7) There is no event in history that has had such an impact (with the possible exception of the creation itself) on the human race other than Jesus’ resurrection.
The final fundamental also permeates Scripture. The New Testament is full of references to Jesus Second Victorious Coming to Earth. (cf. Matthew 25, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 & 2 Thessalonians) There may be a great deal of disagreement and discussion amongst evangelicals as to the timing and nature of Jesus’ return, but that He will return in not an issue of contention.
I know no true evangelical, Lutheran or otherwise, who would deny these fundamental truths. It is in them that we find a real unity with American and even world evangelicals.
What is it then that makes us Lutherans different? What makes us unique?
I believe the difference comes not in our acceptance of fundamental truths but in how we approach the basic interpretation of Scripture. The Reformation Era was a time of tremendous change. There was change in the Church-though generally those who sought change were considered heretics by the Roman Church. There was also change in art, in science, in philosophy. The Reformation in Europe came in the wake of the Renaissance.
The Renaissance was in many ways a re-birth of classical ideals-ideals held and taught and practice by the ancient Greeks. It was also an awakening of the human mind from the bondage of the Middle or Dark Ages. For 500 years the Church had maintained its power over the people by keeping then in fear and illiterate. With the Renaissance came a new sense of the importance of individual thought. So it was that Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and others dared to think about God in terms different than those held by the traditions of the Roman Church.
Instead of accepting blindly the doctrines passed down by the Roman Church, the Reformers began to apply reason to their study of Scripture. It is in this application that Luther differed in a great way with both Calvin, the father of the Reformed churches, and Zwingli, the father of the Baptist churches. (This is really an oversimplification of denominational history.)
Though Luther is attributed to have claimed his stake on the Word of God and reason at the Diet of Worms before Emperor Charlemagne V, it is said he later denounced this application of reason. Luther, in the tradition of the earlier Church fathers, took a literal interpretation of Scripture. He learned to accept that there were certain principles that were simply not reasonable by human standards. He was willing to accept the mysteries of God’s Word.
Calvin and Zwingli, on the other hand, held tight to the reasonable interpretation of Scripture. Truth had to be reasonable. If an issue was not reasonable in a literal understanding then the issue was interpreted symbolically, thereby becoming reasonable.
There are really only two issues where this difference in interpretation makes us Lutherans unique. They are Baptism and Holy Communion.
In Lutheran doctrine we talk about “the Means of Grace.” We have seen that the second fundamental of Christianity is salvation by grace. The question is, “How does that grace come to us?” We Lutherans say that God uses two channels, two conduits, to infuse us with grace thereby creating in us faith, the ability to believe that what God says is true. One of these channels or means is His Word. God creates faith in us when we hear His Word, or read or interact with it in a myriad of different ways. The second channel or means is what we call “sacraments.”
We define sacraments as acts that we perform which have three characteristics. They are commanded or instituted by Jesus. They use an earthly, physical element. They carry the promise of forgiveness of sins. Of the seven Roman Sacraments only two meet these qualifications, so we Lutherans have two sacraments and not seven. Baptism was commanded by Jesus in Matthew 28, it uses the element of water, and if you interpret Acts 2:28 and Romans 6:1-4 literally you will find there the promise of forgiveness of sins. Holy Communion was instituted by Jesus the night be was betrayed and handed over to be crucified; it uses the elements of bread and wine (the fruit of the vine); and if you interpret Jesus’ words “for the forgiveness of sins” literally, you will find that promise.
Central to the discussion of these two Sacraments is how we use Baptism and how we understand the nature of the bread and the wine.
If Baptism is indeed a means of grace, to whom is that grace given? Does the Church decide an age when a child is ready to receive grace? Do parents make that decision? The conclusion of the Church before the Reformation and the conclusion of the Church of the Lutheran Reformation is that children, at the earliest opportunity, are to be baptized. I think the strongest Scriptural argument for infant baptism is Peter’s words on the day of Pentecost. After commanding baptism in Jesus’ name for the forgiveness of sins, he said, “For the promise is for you and your children…” (Acts 2:39 NASB) Other arguments for infant baptism include the baptism of entire families (i.e. Cornelius, the Philippian jailer) and the assumption in Matthew 28 that “all nations” includes children. In the end our practice must come from our understanding of Baptism as a Means of Grace.
Often at issue with a sacramental understanding of Holy Communion is the question of the nature of the bread and the wine. This is one of those places where a literal acceptance must take precedence over reason. Jesus said about the bread, “This is my body.” He said about the wine, “This is my blood.” I don’t pretend to understand. I simply accept the mystery because Jesus said it to be so. I believe Paul had this understanding. In his well known discourse on the abuse of Holy Communion he states, “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27), and in an often overlooked verse he makes his understanding of the elements even clearer when he asks, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16)
Calvin and Zwingli, in their “reasonable” interpretation of Scripture, abolished the doctrine of Sacraments. Since it was not reasonable that the sprinkling of water bring about the creation of faith within an individual, they reinterpreted Baptism. They kept the form in varying degrees; but instead of it being a Sacrament, it became a symbol. Baptism was not something God did for us. It was instead something we did to show our allegiance to God, a symbolic confession of our faith.
Holy Communion was also given a symbolic meaning. Its practice was to make a confession rather than to receive something from God. Holy Communion is a confession. (see 1 Corinthians 11:26) It was, however, limited to that as the “is” in Jesus’ statements “this is my body” and “this is my blood” was interpreted as simile and not as literal being.
Our unity and identification with other evangelicals lies, then, in our mutual acceptance of the basic fundamentals of the Christian faith: the Inspiration of Scripture, Salvation by Grace, the Virgin Birth, the Deity of Christ, Atonement, Bodily Resurrection, and the Second Coming. We differ, however, in the way in which we interpret Scripture. Each of us must ultimately ask, “Can I accept the mystery? or Must I, by human reason, understand?”