Lutherans are not Protestants

For a slightly different take on the question: “Are Lutherans Protestant?” you may want to got to Ask the Pastor. I have never been totally comfortable answering the question, in a largely historical way, as Pastor Snyder has so aptly done. Pastor Snyder is not wrong, the facts are there, and square with what I too have been able to know. I believe it is, rather, a matter of where the emphasis is made and distinctions are drawn. So, this is my take on answering the question. This is an essay rescued from archives long since destroyed in my early days of blogging. I am sure what I finally saved on my harddrive reflects the comments of several who engaged in conversation at the time this was first posted. So, if you recognize some of your words here, I thank you for contributing!

It is often said that the churches of the Anglican Communion seek out a ‘middle way’, or via media, between Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity. They retain the liturgy, sacraments and the creeds while simultaneously professing the supremacy of the Bible in determining the requirements for salvation. At the same time there is another family of churches, under the name of Martin Luther, which practices its own version of this via media. Lutherans have retained the historic liturgy of the church catholic, maintain the holy sacraments as means of grace (including the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion), profess the ancient creeds, and follow the church year. At the same time Lutherans profess the gospel of justification by faith and the firm belief in the scriptures as the sole measure of our knowledge of God and His plan for our salvation.

For these reasons Lutherans can be said to be both protestant and catholic and yet neither protestant nor catholic. This is the nature of a middle way between the two.

Throughout our history, Lutherans in North America have often flirted with full-blown Protestantism. Today the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest Lutheran body in North America, maintains full communion with four Calvinist churches (Reformed Church in America, Presbyterian Church [USA], United Church of Christ, Moravian Church in America UPDATE: During the annual meeting in August of 2009 the ELCA also declared fellowship with the Methodist Church.) none of which maintain the real physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and with the Episcopal Church which has itself gone far in abandoning Roman theology (despite retaining Roman liturgy). There is the firm possibility that the ELCA will in the near future become another church of the ultra-liberal wing of Protestantism it has embraced.

At the same time, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), the second largest Lutheran body on the continent, has within itself Church Growth Movement forces seeking to bring it closer to the conservative ‘evangelical’ churches such as Baptists, Pentecostals and non-denominational “community” churches, which at best ignore and at worst reject the liturgy, the sacraments and the creeds.

Orthodox Lutherans (right-teaching/believing Lutherans) must oppose these trends. It is important to remember that, despite common parlance, Lutherans are not Protestants.

The early intention of Martin Luther was to reform, not reject, the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s hyperbole as well as the well-exercised anti-Catholic sentiments of many contemporary Lutherans aside, those churches following Luther share many practices and points of theology with the Roman church. Luther even fought pitched battles against the “radicals” and “sacramentarians” who refused infant baptism and a regularly called pastorate, denied the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and in fact denied the Sacraments altogether as the means of God’s grace.

The congregations that hold to the Book of Concord, that is the body of confessions arising out of Luther’s reformation of the Church, maintain the sacraments of Holy Communion, and Holy baptism, as well as Confession and Holy Absolution. They maintain the traditions of the historic liturgy as the greatest expression of divine service (God serving His people through Word and sacrament), including the confession and absolution of sins, the sign of the cross, and the great hymns, or Ordinaries (Kyrie, Gloria Patria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). They preserve the “Office of the Keys” and the holy ministry. They profess the ancient creeds of the Holy Catholic Church—the Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds—as summary statements of the true faith repeated since the first centuries of the church, including belief in “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” In a Christmas sermon, Luther said “he who would find Christ must first find the Church . . . he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her.” All these things separate Lutherans from the true Protestants—instead, we are catholic.

At the same time, Lutherans are people of the Scriptures who profess the Word of God as, in Luther’s words, “the true holy thing above all holy things”. We are evangelical in the true sense of the word, professing the Good News of salvation by faith through grace and by no merit of our own. In fact, Luther’s choice for the name of the churches that accepted his reforms was not “Lutheran” but “Evangelical”, as Lutherans are still widely known in Europe.

And though Lutherans share this foundation in the Word with Protestants, we reject any restorationist efforts to ‘get back to the ancient church’. Even though it is the profound hope of the Church and the promise of God to be the holy Bride of Christ, there has been no time that the church was without spot or wrinkle (Eph. 5: 27) that might serve as a model that we could reproduce. Even The Twelve counted Judas a member!

Although the Lutheran congregations bear the name of a man, they are founded upon the rock of Christ and the teachings He entrusted to His apostles. The Lutheran churches are part of that “one holy catholic and apostolic church” in which all Lutherans confess belief. We believe and proclaim the Good News. We are both evangelical and catholic, to the point that some Lutherans call themselves “evangelical catholics”.

We are the via media. We are not Protestants.

This post first appeared on the old Ruminations of a Lutheran Cleric in September of 1999. After that site was dismantled it appeared from time to time on several different sites in whole or slightly ammended/edited forms. This version is the only one I will vouchsafe. I am glad others have been able to use it. –SAK

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