The various Lutheran churches represent a large percentage of Protestant Christians in the States. Some outside the LC may not be aware of the various sub-denominations within the larger Lutheran Church, but similar to other large Christian denominations there are differences even amongst those who all consider themselves to be “Lutheran”. Naturally all look back to German reformer Martin Luther as the leader of their church and movement. And nearly all current American Lutherans consider a man named C.F.W. Walther as the first major leader of the greater Lutheran church within this country, after his arrival in the U.S. in 1839.
According to Lutheran pastor Tom Engel, “The main difference between Lutherans and other mainline Protestants is the way we view the Lord’s Supper. As other mainline Protestants see that the bread and wine only are sybmols of Christ’s body and blood, we
see that Christ is actually present in the bread and wine. This understanding gives us the assurance that Christ is actually in us,”. Pastor Engel heads the “Our Saviour Lutheran Church” in Gary, Indiana and maintains a Blog at: http://tomteefish.wordpress.com.
To further learn and understand the current Lutheran Church in the U.S. I recently interviewed Senior Pastor Paul Nolting, of the Church of the Lutheran Confession (CLC) branch of Lutheranism.
On the broad spectrum of Christianity, where do Lutherans fall? Closer to Roman Catholicism, or to Baptists? And why is that?
Lutherans are a segment of Protestantism, having separated from the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation of the 16th Century. They occupy a middle ground between the Roman Catholic and Baptist traditions. Confessional Lutherans believe with the Baptists that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God—the sole guide for our faith, and that we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ. Yet they recognize with the Roman Catholics that the sacraments are not merely symbolic—the actions and faith expressions of men in compliance with the commands of God, but rather are actual means of grace through which the Holy Spirit is active within the lives of believers and thereby bestowing blessings upon them.
What is the major misunderstanding that non-Lutherans have about the Lutheran church?
Reformed Protestants often view Lutherans as being too “Catholic,” in large part because the Lutheran Church has maintained a liturgical worship service. Luther was, unlike Zwingli and Calvin, a “conservative” reformer, claiming that only those things within Roman Catholicism contrary to Scripture should be changed or removed, so as not to upset the faith of simple believers. Consequently, much of the traditional liturgy was retained as were many of the artistic and musical elements of worship service.
Clearly Lutherans regard Martin Luther as their “father” per se. But seemingly all Protestants view Luther as their forefather. Can Lutherans “claim” Luther more than other denominations?
Clearly all Protestants owe much to Martin Luther, for his work plowed much of the ground in which all forms of Protestantism took root and grew. Luther’s emphasis on grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, and the priesthood of all believers forms the bedrock of much of Protestant theology. Besides the obvious name connection, however, confessional Lutherans have maintained a direct connection to Luther’s written works and the Lutheran confessional writings of the 16th Century. Luther’s Small Catechism remains the primary tool of religious instruction among confessional Lutherans. Pastors within confessional Lutheran churches still adhere to the biblical teachings confirmed within the Lutheran Book of Concord (1580) and in particular the Augsburg Confession of 1530. Lutheran theology emphasizes the important distinction between law and gospel, and the fact that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are together with God’s Word the means of grace through which the Holy Spirit instills and strengthens faith.
What do you think of the quasi “reconciliation” on justification between Lutherans and Catholics, back in 1999? Is that a true reconciliation, and what were the main terms of this agreement?
As a confessional Lutheran I do not believe that “The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” signed in 1999 by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, resolved the differences between the two groups as is suggested by the document. While the document does speak of both sides agreeing to this proposition, that a Christian is “justified by God’s grace through faith,” and that consequently the 16th Century condemnations of each other’s theology no longer applies to their theology of today, it does not resolve certain key questions regarding the nature of justification, nor does it define the key concept of “grace,” which is of fundamental importance to the issue.
I believe the response of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, in its “An Evaluation of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ [JDDJ] by the Departments of Systematic Theology Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne and Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis” (1999), is clear and to the point. JDDJ does not settle the major disagreement between Lutheran theology and Roman Catholic theology on justification. Lutherans teach that justification is essentially a declaration of “not guilty” and “righteous” pronounced by God on a sinner because of Christ and His work. Roman Catholics teach that justification involves an internal process in which a believer is transformed and “made” more and more righteous. The non-settlement of this issue forms the chief defect of JDDJ.
Correspondingly, JDDJ fails to define clearly the word grace. Content to use the term “justification by grace,” the document does not resolve the classic question whether such grace is God’s undeserved favor (Lutheran) or whether it is a spiritual power poured or “infused” into the soul that enables one to love God and merit salvation (Roman Catholic). Rome’s view of grace as infused stands at the base of its theology of justification as a process. [page 8]
Who would you say is the most influential Lutheran leader in the United States today, and why?
That is a difficult question to answer, because Lutheranism within the United States is so fractured. Consequently, there is no single Lutheran who speaks for all Lutherans. There are dozens of different Lutheran church bodies within the United States, and so, consequently, there are dozens of presiding officers, all of whom are quite influential in their respective bodies. Bishop Mark Hanson leads the largest of those church bodies, the ELCA, while the Reverend Matthew Harrison leads the second largest of those bodies, the LCMS. They would be considered by most to be the most influential leaders in view of the membership of their respective bodies. In addition, however, there are over forty Lutheran colleges and universities, with all of their professors many of whom have contributed significantly to the world of education. Finally, there are twenty-three members of our new U.S. Congress who are Lutheran, all of whom would have considerable influence, but in their respective states and regions.
(For more information on Pastor Nolting, he can be reached at the Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Mankato, MN. This article is the final in a series on various denominations within the U.S.A. If you would like to see another denomination highlighted in a future Taber’s Truths column, please let us know- via a Comment.)