I was born into a Lutheran Christian family, was baptized and confirmed within the Lutheran Church, and, God willing, will die in that communion. Unlike a number of Lutheran colleagues and friends who have become Roman Catholics or are tempted in that direction, I have never seriously contemplated leaving Wittenberg for Rome. I refuse to define myself as a Protestant, but I find it theologically impossible to call myself a catholic except in the lower case. The Augsburg Confession of 1530 seems to me a thoroughly persuasive exposition of the essentials of the Christian faith.

I offer the above deposition as preface to confessing my dismay”I cannot say despair because despair is a sin”over the state of Lutheranism in America today. The two major U.S. Lutheran church bodies are the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the mainstream Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Within both of these churches one can find large numbers of local congregations in which orthodox faith, sacramental integrity, sound preaching, and missions of charity live and flourish. But both church bodies display at their center symptoms of decay and fatigue that make it difficult to sustain hopes for their long-term health.

The LCMS, in which I grew up, tore itself apart during the early 1970s in a desperate struggle over the interpretation of Scripture. All Lutherans affirm the Bible as the inspired word of God and the source and norm of doctrinal fidelity. But Lutherans do not all mean the same thing when they speak of inspiration. The LCMS insists on a belief in verbal inspiration that makes the Bible incapable of error on any point and requires that it be read as expressing literal truth on all matters to which it addresses itself, whether or not those matters are of intrinsic theological significance. Other Lutherans understand infallibility and inerrancy to refer to issues essential to the Gospel, and they would not insist, as would Missourians, that skepticism concerning, say, the historicity of Adam and Eve undermines scriptural authority. On this point, I am convinced, the LCMS has entrenched itself in an untenable position. Insistence on literal inerrancy, whatever its uses in arresting doctrinal laxity, leaves the LCMS vulnerable to charges of biblicist obscurantism.

A related problem for Missouri is its susceptibility to the sentimental evangelicalism and preoccupation with church growth that pervades contemporary conservative Protestantism. The LCMS has a long history of flirting with neo-fundamentalism, and its narrow biblicism puts it in perpetual danger of absorption into the evangelical Protestant world. Missouri’s long tradition of confessional orthodoxy resists such absorption, but styles of evangelical piety alien to the Lutheran tradition are now widespread in the Synod.

As for the ELCA, of which I am now a member (I prefer to say that I belong to a congregation that holds membership in the ELCA), it has succumbed to the weaknesses of the liberal Protestant mainline at a rate faster than even the most jaded cynics anticipated at its founding in 1987. As everywhere else in liberal Protestantism, its central headquarters is staffed by modish theological bureaucrats in thrall to the latest liberationist, feminist, and multiculturalist whims. It governs itself, at every level, according to a race-and-gender quota system that ensures politically and theologically correct outcomes. Many of its seminaries have been similarly infected (though significant pockets of resistance remain in place).

The upshot is drearily typical of the Protestant mainline-a sour estrangement between a self-consciously “prophetic” national bureaucracy and a mostly traditionalist membership that puzzles over what went wrong and wonders what might be done to set things right. (Given the iron law of oligarchy and the dysfunctional culture of niceness that dominates religious discourse, the answer is, “not much.”) Protests are mounted, traditionalist caucuses and newsletters spring up, mutterings are heard about new or reorganized institutional structures. And among the Lutherans, as among all the other oldline Protestants, not a lot changes.

It is not mere nostalgia that induces my regret over the erosion-at both ends of the theological spectrum-of Lutheran distinctiveness. The only point of remaining Lutheran in an ecumenical age is if one believes that Lutheranism has something of continuing value to offer within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Confessional Lutherans rightly insist on the centrality of the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. That is the touchstone of the Reformation heritage, and Lutherans who depart from it have forsaken their reason for being Lutheran in the first place.

But this understanding of the doctrine of justification is not peculiar to Lutherans. What is more precisely Lutheran is the setting of that doctrine in a dialectical theological framework. The Lutheran dialectic takes a variety of forms: the emphasis on the Law/Gospel distinction as hermeneutical principle and theological guide; the understanding of social ethics and responsibilities according to the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms; the conception of the human condition as essentially Simul -we are at once, Luther insisted, sinners and saints, enemies of God and yet fully redeemed participants in His eternal glory.

There is not room here for a full explication of these distinctively Lutheran perspectives. But they command attention because they conform to the reality of our lives. They fit the rough contrariness of our experience; they are at once contradictory and true. We yearn to be followers of God even as we rebel against His injunctions. The Lutheran Simul captures our reality better than do visions of perfection or divinization or anticipation of the eschaton. Lutheranism engages us in our doubled condition and reminds us of its founder’s central insight, confessed as he died, that we are all beggars before God. Day by day, Luther understood, we die and rise again. There is no straight line toward the beatific vision. There is only the perennial reminder of our baptismal identity: He who gave us life will, in the face of all our perversities, call us back to Himself.

These understandings are not, of course, exclusive to Lutheranism. They are part of the Christian patrimony. St. Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans of the good that he would that he did not and of the evil that he would not that he did. But it is within the Lutheran tradition that the antinomies of the faith have been most vibrantly kept alive.

I remain a Lutheran because I find its construal of the human reality and the divine dispensation persuasive. I am tempted to despair because the Lutheran sensibility seems variously at risk in its current institutional manifestations and I find it difficult to imagine how things might be turned around. But that, I admonish (and console) myself, is not my business. It is hard enough being faithful without worrying about success.