Monday, September 2, 2013

Pastorates manuscript #5

An excursus for Lutherans and historians

Protestant churches take great pride in Martin Luther’s theology.  We beat the drum of “justification by grace, through faith” and claim our theological inheritance as descendants of the Protestant Reformation.    Luther’s rediscovery of the New Testament’s teaching on justification has rightly been the idealogical cornerstone of Protestantism since the 1500’s.  

But what if we inherited Luther’s theology, but missed out on other critical parts of his teaching?  

Luther never tried to create a systematic theology.  As far as we can tell, Luther had little interest in writing timeless theological statements.  In nearly every case, he wrote theological statements that were firmly rooted in the practical concerns and contexts of his day.  This is why it’s not hard to find Luther saying things that sound completely contradictory.  To make sense of Luther, it is tremendously important to understand what context he was addressing.

Luther had a kind of conversion experience around 1514 as he was preparing to lecture on the book of Romans.  This conversion amounted to a paradigm shift that would shake western civilization.  It sounds simple enough in the beginning -- Luther realized that the “righteousness of God” in the book of Romans referred not to God’s holiness that gives God the right to smite sinners, but rather to the gift of righteousness that God gives to those who trust in Jesus, and to God’s character in giving this free gift.  

Luther spent the rest of his life working out the implications of this paradigm shift.  One of the greatest questions Luther grappled with was what this shift in understanding means for the church.  Almost immediately Luther saw that much of the church’s hierarchy, much of the church’s traditional practice (including indulgences that started the Reformation rolling in 1517 as Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church) did not fit with this simple teaching that God makes people righteous as a gift for Jesus’ sake.

In 1520, Luther published three critical books that laid much of the groundwork for the Reformation.  In these three books (An Address to the German Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of the Christian) Luther laid out basic doctrines that drove the Reformation forward -- the priesthood of all believers, the authority and accessibility of scripture, and the nature of Christian vocation lived out in community.

For the next decade, from about 1520 to 1530, Luther developed these ideas -- all rooted in the basic truth of justification by grace through faith -- and their practical implications for the church.  Obviously, if scripture has authority and can be interpreted by any Christian, the people need to be able to read the Bible.  So Luther translated the New Testament in 1521-22.  In 1526, Luther published On the German Mass which gave some specific guidelines for worship in the evangelical churches (more on this in a moment).  In 1528, Luther and a few others visited many churches in Saxony and realized that the churches desperately needed some basic teachings to help priests and people alike understand the basics of what it means to be a Christian.  After these visits, Luther wrote his catechisms -- The Large Catechism intended mostly for pastors, and The Small Catechism intended for use within households.  Both of these instruction books were designed to help Christians understand the basics of what it means that we are justified freely by God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  

Throughout this decade, in many of his writings, Luther teased out the implications of justification for the church’s life.  Too often theologians have read Luther’s writings about justification but have not studied the practical consequences of this doctrine in his other works.  Luther himself was deeply concerned about practical matters.

Students of Luther at the beginning of the 21st century would do well to remember that Luther’s world was quite different from our own.  Luther could not have imagined a world in which the church’s hierarchy was divorced from worldly power, even though he often railed against the abuses of power in the church.  Luther was immersed in “Christendom,” that system in which the Christian Church stands in league with worldly powers and functions as a great political power in its own right.  As we read Luther today, it is important to translate some of his ideas and advice for our own times, when the church has been pushed largely to the margins of society and the church’s own political power ebbs with each passing day.

Yet in Luther’s thought and writing there are hints of what he dreamed for the church beyond Christendom.  It is worth noting that Luther constantly sees the community of Christians, the church itself, as the first consequence of justification.  Christian community is not just a byproduct of salvation.  Rather, Luther sees Christian community as the necessary consequence of our justification.  For example, in Luther’s Small Catechism, his explanation to the second article of the Apostles Creed (“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord …”) lays out in great beauty the reality of justification:

I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord.  At great cost he has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature.  He has delivered me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, and lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.
Immediately following this explanation, in his explanation to the Third Article (“I believe in the Holy Spirit …”) Luther talks about the reality of Christian community created by our justification:  

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.  In this Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all my sins and the sins of all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.
Throughout the remainder of his life, the Christian community was critically important to Luther.  No doubt his passion for the church was deeply shaped by his experience of living in community in the Augustinian cloister when he first became a monk.  Throughout his career he yearned for the church to function as a gospel community, living out the consequences of justification.

When, in 1534, Luther and his wife Katie were given the building that formerly housed the Augustinian monks in Wittenberg, they created something of a house church of their own. With their own children and numerous students who boarded at their home, their house became a boisterous place full of theological conversations serious and comical (many are recorded in the volumes called Table Talk in Luther’s Works) as well as more focused prayer and worship times.  Luther loved to pull out his lute and play Christian songs, some that he had composed himself. 

In 1536, Luther wrote what he thought of as his theological will and testament, The Smalcald Articles.  When we consider how important the experience of Christian community was to Luther, it is worth noting that in The Smalcald Articles, when Luther writes about the gospel, he explains that justification is communicated to us through the word and through the sacraments, two categories that are familiar to any Lutheran theologian.  “Word and sacrament” has almost become shorthand for the Lutheran understanding of the church.  However, Luther immediately adds a third category that he gives equal weight with Word and sacrament.  He says that the gospel is also communicated through “the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.”  By this Luther is referring to that experience of Christian community in which Jesus-followers hear each other’s confessions (formally or informally) and declare God’s love and absolution to one another (formally or informally).  

In short, Christian community was absolutely critical to Luther as the first consequence of the doctrine of justification.  Luther would have resonated with the idea that “the gospel creates community, and must be lived out in community with those it is trying to reach” (Reggie McNeal, Missional Communities).

Luther was very realistic about conditions in the evangelical churches in Germany.  He recognized that they could handle only so much change at one time.  In the 1520’s the churches of Germany were reeling from both theological and political shifts.  Luther’s writings had created enormous changes in the German churches.  At the same time, zealots took Luther’s writings as an excuse for their own violence in the iconoclast movement in 1522, and political tensions between the classes broke out in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1525. In just a few short years Luther and the other reformers had made enormous changes, and it took time for people to adapt and grow into these changes.  Some of the resulting societal changes were bloody and bitter.  Because he saw the potential for anarchy firsthand, Luther was careful to slow the pace of change when chaos threatened.  Yet at the same time, Luther dreamed of more.  

In the aftermath of the Peasants Revolt, in 1526 when he wrote On the German Mass, Luther allowed himself to dream in writing about what the church might look like someday.  First Luther described the Latin mass and the German mass which were both in common use in the evangelical churches at that time.  But then Luther went on:

“The third kind of service should be a truly evangelical order and should not be held in a public place for all sorts of people. But those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian work.  According to this order, those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, corrected, cast out, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matthew 18.  Here one could also solicit benevolent gifts to be willingly given and distributed to the poor, according to St. Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians 9.  Here would be no need of much and elaborate singing.  Here one could set up a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and center everything on the Word, prayer, and love.  Here one would need a good short catechism on the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Our Father.  In short, if one had the kind of people and persons who wanted to be Christians in earnest, the rules and regulations would soon be ready.  But as yet, I neither can, nor desire to begin such a congregation...for I have not yet the people for it, nor do I see many who want it. But if I should be requested to do it and could not refuse with a good conscience, I should gladly do my part and help as best I can.  In the meanwhile the two above-mentioned orders of service must suffice … until Christians who earnestly love the Word find each other and join together.” 

Sadly, Luther never saw this dream realized.  No doubt some of those conversations and prayers in his own home were a bit like this.  Other leaders down through the years succeeded in limited ways in creating this kind of Christ-centered community.  Count von Zinzendorf and the Moravians experienced a bit of this life together.  Philip Jakob Spener and the pietist movement he founded began to push in this direction.  John and Charles Wesley created groups that prayed and held one another accountable in their methodical way.  Many tiny congregations across the frontiers of North America must have worshipped in much this way in the 1800’s.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer experienced this kind of community life with his students in the illegal seminary at Finkenwalde.  But especially among Lutherans, the patterns, hierarchies, and liturgies of the state churches of Europe resurfaced again and again to dominate the church’s community life and to disrupt Luther’s dream of dedicated believers meeting in homes, sharing communion and baptisms, centering everything on the Word, prayer and love.

The state churches of Europe had grown out of Luther’s temporary solution (again, trying to avoid chaos) to the question of authority in the church.  In the early 1520’s Luther himself asked the princes to step in to take care of the church’s needs for discipline, ordination, and the like.  It seems clear from Luther’s writings that he fully expected this temporary solution to last a short while and then to be replaced with some more desirable solution.  However, the way history unfolded, Luther and the reformers never found a better solution to the question of church order.  Within a few decades, this “temporary” measure had been transformed into a state church system in which the government paid the clergy and churches were regulated by and loyal to the state.  The hierarchy became entrenched.  The clergy and the state both recognized that lay-led movements of groups meeting in homes could be a potent source of political resistance to the state.  So the church and state hierarchies across Protestant Europe frequently found themselves in the curious position of outlawing home Bible studies!  In each of the Protestant areas of northern Europe, however, the Holy Spirit working through the proclamation of the gospel drove again and again toward dynamic Christ-centered community.  The Word raised up leaders who founded communities.  Each of the countries in northern Europe has a slightly different history of non-clergy Christian leaders outside the state church system.  These leaders were persecuted by the state church because they preached in public, met for Bible study in homes, or formed unauthorized church bodies outside the state church’s authority.

In America things were a bit different.  The American Lutheran churches were actually making great strides toward creative ministry and cooperative work with other denominations in the mid-1800’s.  For these American Lutherans, it was easier to see the church as a voluntary organization rather than a state-supported structure.  Cooperation between Lutherans and other Christians was becoming more and more normal.  Lutheran distinctives were not obstacles to cooperation any more than the Anglicans’ Book of Common Prayer or the Presbyterians’ Westminster Catechism.  In the mid-1800’s, however, a flood of immigrants began to arrive in America, most of them from the Lutheran countries in northern Europe.   Immigrants were looking for stability and familiarity in worship, and the American Lutherans recognized both their responsibility and their opportunity.  These successive waves of immigration from Europe swamped the reforming work within American Lutheran churches.  “Home missions” was the term the American Lutheran churches used to describe their massive efforts to show hospitality to immigrants from the Lutheran countries of Europe.  These immigrants were understandably seeking something familiar in the midst of the upheaval in their lives, so the churches went back to forms of worship patterned after the state church liturgies in the old countries.  In the late 1800’s, hundreds of new congregations were founded speaking German, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and other languages of Europe.  These massive home missions efforts were hugely important, and they shifted the course of American Lutheranism for generations.  It took a hundred years and more for generations of immigrants -- and their descendants -- to be assimilated into American culture and to begin to learn again how to cooperate with other Christians.

Today those European immigrants’ great-grandchildren rarely remember their European roots.  They speak English, surf the internet, talk and text on smartphones.  If they worship in a Christian church, they probably sing worship lyrics projected by LCD projectors on gigantic screens.  They are no longer drawn to the hierarchical church systems or high-church liturgies of the old country.  Those that are Christian are probably not worshipping in Lutheran churches.   Home missions was a success, more or less, in that the immigrants were well served, many churches were founded, and for a few generations the Lutheran churches grew along with the birth rate of the immigrant population.  

That wave of increase has passed.  In any case, caring for European immigrants is not the primary task facing American Lutherans in the 21st century.  Today we face many challenges -- including the following:

  • How can churches function with less worldly power without compromising our mission?
  • How can we effectively create leaders who will be faithful to the gospel?
  • How can we make disciples of Jesus here and now?
  • How can our Lutheran roots inform a mission that is appropriate for the needs of the 21st century?

The answer to these questions may well be tied into the question Luther asked in 1526: 

Have we come to that time in history when Christians who earnestly love the Word can find each other and join together?

If our answer is yes, Luther gave us a template, a pattern by which we can create gospel-centered community in which we can live out the reality of justification by grace through faith.  If we look around us, all over the world the Holy Spirit seems to be raising up this kind of community.  On every continent, whether among persecuted Christians in Beijing,  in the shadows of empty cathedrals in London, or in the trendy suburbs of Seattle, groups of Jesus-followers are meeting in homes.  They are experiencing the joy and fullness of Christian community centered in the Word, prayer and love.  Amid the crumbling ruins of the traditional church, the Holy Spirit is on the move.  Martin Luther’s dream for the church is being realized.

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