Why a “Lutheran church”?

Post-Christmas clean-up for me does not entail dealing with ornaments and pine needles, but instead clearing the desk and table in my study of the accumulated notes, books, journals and letters piled there over the last several months. This usually takes longer than it should, because I find always find something that I meant to work through months ago and never got to.

I’ve read one book found in the stack today numerous times since seminary (though I don’t think it was part of the curriculum): Hermann Sasse’s Here We Stand or, perhaps more descriptive of the contents is its German title: Was heißt lutherisch? — “What is Lutheran?” Rather than a definitive, potentially triumphalist “Here we stand!” Sasse is really asking the question: “What is the Lutheran church in the world?” It was a critical question posed by its original German “church struggle” context in 1934 — the same year as the Barmen Declaration — a period in which the young Karl Barth was gaining wide influence. Barth’s theology is addressed directly by Sasse in this book (in the English edition only; see the “translator’s note” to the book). But the book is helpful outside its original context to help us think through, as we must do regularly, why there is a Lutheran church and what it means to be Lutheran. Such questions are ever again at the fore, in America and around the world. even as new challenges and questions appear. In the last chapter Sasse has his usual poetic, almost doxological way of keeping things in the right place:

We are faithful to this church, not because it is the church of our Fathers, but because it is the church of the Gospel; not because it is the church of Luther, but because it is the church of Jesus Christ. If it became something else, if its teaching were something other than a correct exposition of the plain Word of God, it would no longer be our church. It is not the Lutheran liturgy that matters. The church can get along without it if it must. It is not the Symbolic Books that count. If it should ever be demonstrated that they contain essential errors, we would be the first ones to cast them into the fire, for our norma normans, the standard by which we judge doctrines, is the Bible alone. Nor is it the Evangelical Lutheran Church, as a separate church in Christendom, that matters. The moment it becomes anything else than the stand on which is put the lamp which alone is a light upon our path, it becomes a sect and must disappear. We would not be Lutherans if we did not believe this!

Here We Stand. The Nature and Character of the Lutheran Faith, trans. T G Tappert. My edition is the 1979 Lutheran Publishing House, Adelaide edition, p. 180.

Now, be sure to read what comes before and after this quote. Sasse is not a reductionist. But he does focus on the key thing. Like many great quotes, this one has been used by subsequent writers. Sam Nafzger, former executive director of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations (and now Adjuct Professor at Concordia Seminary), used a part of this quote in an article forty years after its original publication in an article titled, “The Future of Confessional Lutheranism in the World” (Concordia Theological Quarterly 42 (1978): 221-40). Nafzger was writing in another context in which the Lutheran Church was facing an identity crisis, during the mid-1970s conflict in the LCMS. He outlined the recent challenges to and reasons for optimism regarding the Lutheran church. He concludes with five “observations,” which in many ways summarize Sasse’s Here We Stand:

1 . Confessional Lutheranism always finds itself under attack.

2 . Confessional Lutheranism is showing some signs of renewed vitality today.

a) The recruiting and training of sensitive, alert, and confessionally committed men for the pastoral ministry;

b) The writing of apologetic and dogmatic texts in which the riches of the Symbols’ insights are applied to contemporary problems and developments in society and in the world of theology;

c) Close contact and doctrinal discussions between those Lutheran churches throughout the world who are unconditionally committed to the Lutheran Confessions.

3 . Confessional Lutheranism is genuinely ecumenical.

4 . Confessional Lutheranism rules out pride and demands a humble spirit.

5. Confessional Lutheranism is fundamentally eschatological in outlook.

The full article is available here; I’ll let you read through the arguments for each item on your own. The items listed under #2, “signs of renewed vitality,” are given more as goals rather than accomplished fact; particularly in item “b” has the American Lutheran church perhaps not sufficiently heeded the call. How are we doing as the Lutheran church eighty years after Sasse’s writing, thirty-five years after Nafzger’s?

As we approach the season of Epiphany, it is helpful again to be reminded of the hostility that the Light and his church faces; that this Light gathers all nations and tribes and languages and people, even as does his church; and of the humility that the Light showed and that his church — even this Lutheran church — is likewise called to show, even as we give witness to the Light.

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1 Comment

  1. Andrew Bartelt January 11, 2012
    Reply

    This is worth some serious reflection and discussion, as the question of Lutheran identity is as fresh (and sometimes raw) as ever, amidst various claims to being truly “confessional” and as “liturgy” is understood as a mark of the church or ignored as adiaphora. The context of Sasse’s comments are important, and I’m challenged to read and reflect more. Or how might his comments about “my father’s church” inform actual substantive discussion of that issue within our circles! Nafzger’s article addresses the context of the 60s and 70s, particularly higher criticism and confessional subscription, which are still critical issues today, especially as we see the harvesting of the seeds that were sown. But there are other very significant issues staring us in the face, too, and I am intrigued by the generative nature of Nafzger’s summary point 2b in challenging us to address fresh questions from the rich theological lode of sola scriptura and the Confessions, including, I know you would agree, studying the texts themselves and not just quoting! And then there’s the comment (2a) about the kind of students that we hope to help form in meeting the theological and mission challenges — and context — of the 21st century, with both energy and humility. Great food for thought and conversation.

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