Is the Goal To Be “Distinctively Lutheran”?

In the latest issue of For the Life of the World (Fall 2017), William C. Weinrich expresses his interest in reading what others say about being “distinctively Lutheran.” Here are some of my reflections.

During this 500th anniversary Lutherans rightly take pride in the Wittenberg Reformation. So at first blush the slogan of being “distinctively Lutheran” sounds good. We subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions; we want to be strong Lutherans. But let’s think about the slogan a bit more.

The adjective “distinctive” (and the adverb “distinctively”) means “distinguished/differentiated from the rest, completely unique.” The phrase “distinctively Lutheran” promotes being Lutheran in a way that is always to be distinguished from all other Christians and from all other churches. So, consider a series of questions.

  • Was the apostle Paul “distinctively Lutheran”?
  • Is the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed “distinctively Lutheran”?
  • Were Irenaeus and Athanasius “distinctively Lutheran”?
  • Is our mission to make all nations “distinctively Lutheran,” to spread into every land the 16th-century Lutheran Reformation?
  • Do our missions in Africa have to study the 16th century German controversies or sing 16th-17th century German hymns in order to become “distinctively Lutheran”?
  • Must all our hymn composers be “distinctively Lutheran”?
  • Must the Greek New Testament lexicon we use be written by only Lutherans?
  • Is a person who simply wants to be “Christian” welcome in our congregations?

You get the point. In effect, this slogan links orthodox, biblical Christianity inextricably with the 16th-century Reformation. The slogan connotes a theology and church that are completely unique, distinguishable from everything not explicitly self-labeled as “Lutheran.” Such an approach applies more to sectarian Schwärmerei than the Reformers in Wittenberg.

While the recent issue of For the Life of the World makes use of this slogan, the essay by Jon D. Vieker emphasizes the words “Gospel, Biblical, and Catholic” and points out that Luther did not create all his hymns de novo but reused older hymns (pp. 4-6). The comments of the Prof. Weinrich explicitly speak against the slogan:

As for me, I prefer to think of Lutheranism as being not distinctive at all. The Reformers made much of the claim that their teaching was true to the catholic heritage of the Church. If I see something too “distinctive,” my first thought is to wonder whether it is true or just a predilection of this or that pastor/congregation! In any case, I have no obligation to it. I confess this: “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.” Those are old and ancient words. (p. 17)

I agree with the Rev. Dr. Weinrich. The 16th-century Reformers in Wittenberg themselves did not want to be “distinctively Lutheran.” The Book of Concord intends simply to confess the Christian faith. The Catalog of Testimonies, for example, shows that our teaching on Christology and the Lord’s Supper is not distinctive or unique.

The goal is not to be “distinctively Lutheran.” The truth of the matter is just the reverse. Other heterodox groups are the ones who are typically “distinctive,” unique, idiosyncratic. Our goal is to be just plain biblical, creedal Christians.

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  1. Guillaume J Williams October 17, 2017

    “Our goal is to be just plain biblical, creedal Christians” Isn’t that distinctively Lutheran?

  2. Delwyn Campbell October 17, 2017

    Let the church say “Amen.”

  3. Kyle October 17, 2017

    Very true! Biblical Christians above all else!

  4. Ryan Roehrig October 17, 2017

    Paul, this is just right on point. I have often struggled with this problem. I know we want to be confident in our Orthodoxy. What has happened instead is a desire to make ourselves our own faith. Our own language our own thought and instead we should desire to be truly Catholic or that the 16th Century Reformation is already deeply Apostolic. I realize that many folks are probably not intending to mean what you describe, but it inevitably becomes what you have shown. great points and good thoughts.

  5. Jim Otte October 18, 2017

    Hi Paul. What has also been emphasized with the “distinctively Lutheran” slogan is the notion that only those who are “distinctively Lutheran” are “faithful Lutherans.” This promotes a system of spiritual ranking, which suggests that any of us who do not espouse the “distinctively Lutheran” approach – are not “faithful.” Hence, much is being made among the laity and clergy desiring to worship at a “faithful” Lutheran congregation, served by a pastor which is “faithful” to his vows.

  6. Benjamin Dose October 19, 2017

    Is there a reason the last sentence of Dr. Weinrich’s statement from the interview was struck from the quotation above? He speaks, “If Lutheranism is “distinctive” relative to that, I’m in the wrong place. My conviction is that it is not!” (His exclamation point, not mine).

  7. Herbert Mueller 22 days ago

    I am joyfully and distinctively Lutheran in this sense – I have promised before God to preach and teach “in conformity with the Holy Scripture” as the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions (including the ecumenical creeds, by the way) because they are in accord with the Word of God. I am a Biblical, Creedal Christian and the Book of Concord of 1580 is my creed and confession. That’s distinctively Lutheran in the best sense.

  8. Rev. Robert Mayes 22 days ago

    In an age with watering down the Word of God, ecumenism, and a very real relativistic spirit among us, trying to be distinctly Lutheran is what we should be doing. To be distinctly Lutheran is to be Christian. But if you think all church bodies are true in the way they teach the Word, and that our differences are just trivial things that don’t matter, then by all means. Be a watered-down generic Christian. But you won’t be true to the Word, you will be in error, and those errors may lead you into misbelief and ultimately against our Lord’s Word.

  9. Joseph Fisher 22 days ago

    Paul, I can’t find the hair you spilt, to be Lutheran is to be a biblical, creedal Christians by our very confessions. This is not to say that other denominations of Christianity can’t be Christian, or that some whom claim to be Lutheran aren’t, it simply means that when they agree with our confession they are being biblical and creedal and where they don’t they are in error. That seems to be what being distinctively Lutheran would be about. Lutherans don’t teach a truth but the biblical, creedal Christian truth. If this isn’t true, please list the false teaching in our confessions so we can correct them. For we either confess the truth as delivered to us by God in His Holy and inspired Word, which in fact makes Lutheran’s biblical, creedal Christians, or we should be rebuke and repent of our false teachings and seek to be reconciled with those who do teach the truth that sets you free.

  10. Kyle 22 days ago

    Sorry for a second comment, but i believe clarification is needed…

    I don’t think anyone is saying that we shouldn’t know or read Lutheran teachings. I definitely want my kids to learn and read about the reformers from that time. I firmly believe that ignoring history will lead to repeating similar mistakes. I would say that being or honoring the Lutheran legacy today is teaching Christians what happened at that time and learning about what the “reformers” wrote and believed. To act as if without Luther, all churches will be doomed to become apostate is denying the power of Scripture. The main problem back then was the corporate church keeping the Word of God from the common people which lead to a lack of accountability. People simply didn’t know better and believed anything the church leaders told them. God sent Luther and other reformers to right wrongs and I am thankful for this. I hope we always use the reformers history and writings to educate the next generation, not to worship Lutheran writings as the only true church and then to ultimately use them as a way to judge the rest of Christianity. Christians should believe, teach and reach out in love! God used Luther and others in his day to better prepare us to do this.

  11. Ryan Roehrig 22 days ago

    The comments on this post are clearly missing the Point of what Paul is getting at. The issue is not thinking Lutheran. The issue is the semantics of the word “Distinctive” and how that word can lead to the wrong conclusions. He is not arguing we should not speak Lutheran or not teach the Word of God. The issue is trying to create a Lutheran faith and not be Lutheran as a Christian. What can happen is we might communicate the wrong idea to Lutherans and non-Lutheran alike. The problem is the phrase “Distinctively Lutheran” Not eh idea of Lutheranism being distinct. This article is not arguing what the comments are stating. This is simply a post that is addressing how we use our language. The article on First Things by Gilbert Meilaender called The Catholic I am. Hits this point as well. Try not to attack Paul with a Straw Man and create an argument he is not making. Try and hear his point and not create something that is not there. Once again. Thank you Paul!

    • Joseph Fisher 21 days ago

      Paul set up the straw man when he shared his concerns with the Fall “for the life of the world” magazine. As all the articles are titled Distinctively Lutheran …. and yet he agreed with what the authors had to say while making a straw man out of the titles. Lutheranism is distinctive in its teachings and those distinctions happen to be the historical Biblical, creedal faith confessed through out time.

  12. Rev. Robert Mayes 21 days ago

    I hear what you are saying, Ryan Roehrig. And ok, if the point is that we should not make a distinctly Lutheran kind of non-Biblical theology, fine and well, we should go back to the Word. But consider. We are living in an age where our Lutheran church members listen to Neo-Evangelical radio, read Max Lucado and Joel Osteen, want us to have ecumenical VBSs with the Methodists in town, and then poo-poo us any time we quote Luther or the Confessions because these guys are not the Bible and they accuse us of being sectarian.

    But the thing is, it is they who are following sectarian spirits. While we, who emphasize being distinctly Lutheran, are not. In this context, the last thing we need is for people to tell us to be less distinctly Lutheran and more generic Christian. Lutheran distinctions are needed more, not less. Because it is those very distinctions that separate us from the lot of heterodox Neo-Evangelicalism, decision theology, and other non-Biblical teachings. A distinctly Lutheran practice in how we worship is also helpful and good, because it conforms to the theology Holy Scripture, and separates us as being not the same as heterodox false Christianity today.

    So again, being encouraged to have a less distinct Lutheran theology is something that could possibly be an issue down the line, but I don’t think is one right now. But what is a big issue today is not that a new theology is taught and promoted that is a Lutheran and non-Biblical teaching. But rather that historic the Lutheran distinctions are being tossed aside, and there is public support among many Lutheran church members and even some pastors for this. Maybe if they were shown just how Biblical Lutheran distinctions are, they might not be so quick to do away with them.

  13. Delwyn X. Campbell 21 days ago

    It is tough, living in the “almost chosen nation” (A. Lincoln), where the general expression of Christianity is NOT Lutheran, to say that “We are what Biblical Christianity is supposed to look like. After all, the Lucados and Osteens are pretty consistent with what most Americans understand Christianity to be. On top of that, people tend to think that religion is rather black and white – there are no “grey areas” when it comes to expressing the truth of Christianity. If those guys are NOT Christianity, then most Americans are NOT Christians, they are ANTICHRIST! For some of us, that might include our sainted grandmas who watched Billy Graham or listened to Donald Grey Barnhouse or Tony Evans.
    Oh wretched Confessional Christians that we be – who shall deliver us from this body of sectarianism?

  14. Rev. Michael Mueller 21 days ago

    “The goal is not to be “distinctively Lutheran.” The truth of the matter is just the reverse. Other heterodox groups are the ones who are typically “distinctive,” unique, idiosyncratic. Our goal is to be just plain biblical, creedal Christians.”

    But that in and of itself is very distinctive. No?

  15. Jerrold Eickmann 21 days ago

    It seems to me that “distinctively Lutheran” is a redundant phrase, since “Lutheran” (without any modifiers) already refers to a “distinct” branch of Christianity that has been identifiable since the 16th century. What did Luther think about people being called “Lutheran” because they agreed with the doctrine he taught? “Even numbers” are distinct from “odd numbers,” but they’re all numbers. “Lutheran Christians” are distinct from “Roman Catholic Christians, Methodist Christians,” etc., but they’re all Christians. Perhaps the question is whether or not the 16th century reformers and their contemporary doctrinal heirs want to be “Lutheran.”

  16. Paul Raabe 20 days ago

    I remember a bumper sticker I once saw: “Proud to be a Papist.”
    Our rhetoric comes across as saying “Proud to be a 16th century
    Luther Society.” We’ve lost the ability to think of ourselves and talk
    about ourselves in an ecclesial way, the way the Augsburg Confession
    and the Book of Concord talk. The Confessors did not call themselves
    “distinctively Lutheran.” Instead we end up talking as if we were one
    idiosyncratic denomination among many other idiosyncratic denominations.

    • Rev. Michael Mueller 18 days ago

      So, please name another “Christian” denomination that has similar doctrine and practices. Do the Confessions have something wrong? Are we holding up adaphoria as doctrine? Paul said in Galatians that to place anything as a condition on Grace is to put yourself back under the law. Can we not maintain the truth of the Gospel? Why do we constantly want to gloss over what Paul says amounts to spiritual death? Arguing semantics trivializes the very real consequences of heterodox teachings. The truth is that we do not fall off the horse on the side of Works Righteousness nor on the other side of Double Predestination. Doesn’t that make Confessional Lutherans distinct and is not that distinction to be cherished and proclaimed?

  17. Rev. Robert Mayes 16 days ago

    Dr. Raabe –

    Thank you for responding. I appreciate your willingness to engage in discussion.

    As I read your recent comment, you say that our rhetoric comes off as if we are saying we are proud to be a 16th century Luther society and are not speaking of ourselves how the Augsburg Confession or the Book of Concord speaks. As though, by us wanting to emphasize being distinctly Lutheran, we are not speaking truly either to Scripture or to the Confessions.

    There may be a grain of truth in this. And maybe you see it more in your area, living in St. Louis and not near small-town Nebraska like I do. Maybe you see congregations and people in St. Louis speaking and acting like they are their own little clubs or something. I don’t know that I see that so much here. I wish my people wanted to be more distinctly Lutheran. That would be a great blessing. I’m trying to teach them that Lutherans are not the same thing as American Protestants, and also that there are damnable errors in the Neo-Evangelicalism they get on the radio, or from the women’s ecumenical conferences that I never advertise, but some go to regardless. I’m trying to teach my people that believing and acting like a Lutheran is the most clearest and true expression of Biblical Christianity there is. Some of them love it. Some of them are not used to it because they do not understand what the Bible says. So that’s why, when hearing you say that we need to think of ourselves as less distinctly Lutheran, or to not even think of ourselves as distinctly Lutheran, those are fighting words. And maybe the problem is that you speak from the ivory tower of academia, and I speak from the pasture where I tend the sheep of God. You are more familiar with the scholars in your field. I am more familiar with how sheep act and what sheep need.

    One problem with your approach, I fear, is that it opens the door to ecumenism. If we are not going to think of ourselves as distinctly Lutheran, then we will not also try to act distinctly Lutheran. And if we are not going to try to act distinctly Lutheran, well, what they is the purpose of being a Lutheran at all? It reminds me of a church in the circuit where I used to serve before I came here. One church there also tried to not be as distinctly Lutheran. They had their praise band at their Saturday night service, and promoted such things. And they thought everything was great… until one day, when their entire praise band team up and left their congregation and joined the Neo-Evangelical church down the road. Why? It was because the worship practice that this sister congregation had been promoting, was not distinctly Lutheran but Neo-Evangelical. Only the Neo-Evangelicals do their kind of worship better, because it actually fits more with their non-sacramental, non-creedal, and non-clerical bent as to what they see Christianity is. Promoting us to be less distinctly Lutheran is promoting people to act less like Lutherans, and more like generic, watered down damnable Neo-Evangelical teaching. And you are a teacher of the Church. You are given to instruct the Church at large. But this can be, and I fear will be, the fruit of this teaching.

    To speak more in line with the Augsburg Confession and the Book of Concord, as you suggest that we should, then let us raise the same damnations that the 16th century also raised. Let us say, We condemn the Anabaptists and don’t consider them to be Christians. They are outside the Holy Christian Church, because they do not hold to the true faith. Let us then say with the Formula of Concord, the united word “against the Papacy and its false worship, idolatry, superstition, and against other sects” (FC Epitome, Summary and Content, para. 3, Triglot pg. 777). Let us say “Accordinglt, with heart and mouth, we reject and condemn as false, erroneous and misleading all Sacramentarian opinions and doctrines which are not in accord with, but contrary and opposed to, the doctrine above presented and founded upon God’s Word” (FC SD VII.112, Triglot pg. 1011).

    The only thing is. If we do speak like the Book of Concord in these ways, we will actually be speaking distinctly Lutheran, and thinking of ourselves as distinctly Lutheran too.

    In Christ,
    Rev. Robert Mayes
    Beemer, NE

    • Joseph Fisher 16 days ago

      Robert, PTL guy!

  18. Paul Raabe 15 days ago

    A response to some of the recent comments.
    When you teach the catechism, do you say, “This accurately summarizes the Lutheran faith” or do you say, “This accurately summarizes the Christian faith”?
    When your lay people chat with their Presbyterian friends, do you want them to say, “Double Predestination contradicts Lutheranism” or do you want them
    to say “Double Predestination contradicts the Scriptures and removes the comfort of the gospel”? I’m not suggesting change in our doctrine. I’m talking about
    the kind of language we use to describe what we are about, what we teach and practice.

    • Rev. Robert Mayes 8 days ago

      Hi Dr. Raabe. Thank you for your excellent response. (I wanted to respond sooner, but had two funerals last week amid and a serious pastoral care case regarding one of my members that took a lot of my time).

      First, thank you for clarifying that you are not wanting to change our Lutheran doctrine. God be praised. I would also hope that you desire that our historic Lutheran church practice also be left unchanged.

      Second, I don’t see this as an “either-or” split that must be made with regard to the confession of the faith of Christian lay people. So I would be fine either way when people say that the Catechism teaches the Scriptural faith as well as the Lutheran faith. Either is acceptable. Because the Lutheran faith is the Scriptural faith.

      In the example of speaking out against double predestination, I see this as needing a “both-and” response. “Double predestination contradicts Scripture. And my Lutheran church rightly teaches Scripture, whereas your conservative Presbyterian church teaches this error” would be a fine response.

      But above all of this, I wonder if this is an issue that needs much attention. And again, maybe you see some things differently in St. Louis than I do near small town Nebraska. But I don’t think this is an issue that really is that important. And here’s why. While there may be a few who speak somewhat parochially today, seeing their church as the authority and not the Word, yet more often I see people who dismiss any differences between denominations. So when an older couple tell me that their grown up children left the Lutheran church for the Methodists, they generally say, “Well, at least they’re Christians.” As if to say, one church is interchangeable with another. As long as you call yourself a Christian, the church is superfluous. Or like when my ladies get astonished when I don’t want them to go to the ecumenical women’s conferences. Because you see, that’s a Christian group. Why would their pastor be against Christian groups? Or when they pick up the latest fad devotion book from the local Christian bookstore that promises success and glory if they only obey these 12 simple principals, and don’t understand that I wouldn’t want such devotions read at all, let alone before our LWML meetings.

      Speaking parochially is not a huge issue at all. I guess I would rather have people speak parochially and know that their church was against false doctrine and practice even though they don’t say Scripture is against false doctrine and practice. That’s a lot better than the problem I face, that is, that some people do not understand that there are really any important differences between church bodies. Now not everyone is this way I serve. There are also some who know and realize that other churches do not teach the Word purely, and are proud that we do. But there are also those who see no problem in giving up Lutheran distinctives, or maybe they just never saw these distinctives in the first place.

      Thanks for the good conversation. Blessings on your teaching.

      In Christ,
      Rev. Robert Mayes
      Beemer, NE

  19. Rev. Michael Mueller 13 days ago

    Dear Paul Raabe,
    I appreciate your willingness to engage in this subject. Here is my actual experience with this subject.
    As a pastor of a small church, we’ve brought in over 60 new members this year: Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc. They are very attracted to the Distinctly Lutheran idea. Throughout the history of Christianity, when someone proclaims a doctrine they are also given a name so that there is no misunderstanding what the believe. Modern “Community” churches claim Christianity, but offer no doctrine so that an inquirer can see that they are usually Baptist by another name. Additionally, we have the confusion of the heterodox ELCA trying to claim all of the oxygen around the name Lutheran. Our understanding of Scripture IS Distinctly Lutheran, and I am proud of it. It is a winsome message that allows a discussion about what that means. Many in our culture have never encountered us or our doctrine, so we need to have a brand that stands out.
    Thanks for your fine article that has stimulated a good discussion surrounding this subject.

  20. Thomas Fast 4 days ago

    Dr. Raabe,

    Thank you for your thought provoking and timely observation regarding being “distinctively Lutheran.”

    The nature and extent of being distinctively Lutheran is up for debate, as the comment thread demonstrates.

    But I do think that it is relatively clear that Lutherans do have a distinct task. That task is to reform the doctrine and practice of the Western Church (especially the Roman Catholic Church) via the Biblical teaching of Justification by Faith. That distinct task is the reason for Lutheranism “being” at all, it seems to me.

    Insofar as we continue to work and pray toward the goal of the Western Church being reformed….yes, this would mean serious ecumenical endeavors and a prayerful patience as that work moves forward….we are being distinctive in a most Lutheran way.

    Should we fail to continue to pursue those reform efforts and, instead, busy ourselves primarily with congregational, institutional, and synodical self-preservation, we will have lost much of our Lutheran identity and will be in danger of becoming sectarian…little more than just another competitor in the American denominationalist marketplace.

    One thing I think we can all agree on is we long for the day when Lutheranism is no longer necessary. What a wonderful day that will be for the Church. And what a wonderful blessing a unified witness would be to this divided world that is disintegrating before our eyes. If we have to wait for the Parousia, so be it. But even if that turns out to be the case, we should still take up the Lutheran task and in that way, be the distinctive Lutherans we are supposed to be.

    That is my take, in any event.

    Thanks for the opportunity to think about this, especially as we celebrate the 500th year of the beginning of the Reformation.


    Tom Fast

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