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In recent years those of us who are Lutherans have witnessed a steady stream of Lutheran theologians—many of them among our heaviest hitters—leaving the Lutheran communion of the catholic tradition to join either the Orthodox or, more often, the Roman communion of that tradition. We have come to a point where those of us who are not inclined to cross either the Bosporus or the Tiber should perhaps no longer simply rest content in such an inclination but should offer an account of it. Obviously, a fully developed account would go well beyond what I can offer here—or, probably, anywhere. But, still, it is worth thinking through why one might stay put. 

This has its dangers, of course. Some of us will recall how R.R. Reno, having put into print the argument for remaining an Episcopalian, not too long thereafter became a Roman Catholic and had to explain the twists and turns of his thinking. What I offer here, however, is neither an argument nor yet an apologia, but simply an explanation. Part of such an explanation—though surely not the whole—is probably always personal, for matters of temperament enter into our thinking on such matters. Inertia has always been a powerful force in my life. I have long known that what seems to have been Luther’s temperament is not mine, and, had I been around in the early sixteenth century, it’s likely I would have remained a catholic of the Roman communion. But I was not, and, hence, I have to think through what sort of reasons I might have now for doing what I am temperamentally inclined to do—stay where I am.

A significant part of that account is thinking through how one understands what it means to be Lutheran. Many of those Lutherans who take most seriously our relation to Rome like to think of Lutheranism as a reform movement within the Church, which movement would be happy to go out of existence if rapprochement with Rome could be achieved. Although I have for quite a few years regarded myself as an evangelical catholic—or, at least, existed on the fringes of that movement as a fellow traveler—it does not make sense to me to think of Lutheranism, or the Church more generally, in ways that largely bypass what five centuries of history have produced. Nor am I certain that focusing on institutional reunification is the use of our energy that best serves the one Church. And while a greater degree of sharing in “holy things” might be achieved short of institutional reunification, I suspect we deceive ourselves if we suppose that the two can be easily separated.

To be sure, Lutheranism did come into existence because of the break with Rome. It was originally a reform movement within the Roman communion, and its leaders did not from the outset have as their goal a separate ecclesial existence. But that was almost five hundred years ago. The Lutheran churches, whose heirs we Lutherans today are, gradually developed an identity distinct from Rome’s, even while claiming as their own the catholic tradition—its central Trinitarian and Christological teachings formulated before and at the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon; its belief in baptism as the sacrament of initiation and in the Eucharistic presence of Christ’s body and blood; its determination to care for the vulnerable and voiceless, including the unborn.

So, for example, the first articles of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 acknowledge and affirm received aspects of the catholic tradition—about the Triune God, original sin, and Christ as the Son of God—before the Confession ever turns to questions that were in dispute. Being Lutheran is, therefore, one way of being catholic. Lutherans exist primarily to do what the church catholic should seek to do in every time and place: shape the lives of Christian people in faithful obedience, and be the voice of Christ in and to the world.

In this country, of course, Lutheranism has become what we now call a denomination. Not a church incorporating all the people of a country (as once was the case in, say, Sweden) but a fellowship of Christian believers separated and distinguished from other such groups within the same land. But then, of course, so has Rome become a denomination in this country. If Rome persists in not being entirely willing to think of itself as a denomination, I have no quarrel with its reluctance. My own denomination, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, likewise resists (at least officially) thinking of itself in that way, the only difference from Rome being a billion members or so.

In attempting to shape the lives of the faithful and bear witness to Christ, all Christians who claim the catholic tradition as their own should, of course, hope to agree on the faith and life to which they testify in the world and which they seek to practice in their life together. That considerable progress toward such agreement between Lutherans and Catholics has been made is evident—most obviously in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification released in 1999. I cannot see, however, that this sort of agreement requires or, even, is necessarily helped by the sort of institutional arrangements—with respect to the office of the ministry, for example—that “healing the breach” of sixteenth-century ecclesiastical separations would entail, and, in fact, the most substantial differences today may lie less in the understanding of justification than in ecclesiology.

For my part, I believe that the Church’s genuine oneness need not be translated into institutional unity. If this commits me to believing that the one holy catholic and apostolic Church is “invisible,” that’s all right. Invisibility in this sense is not a way of escaping from time, place, and embodiment. On the contrary, it is a way of taking time seriously, a way of recognizing the multiform manner in which the one Church—under, surely, the governance of the Holy Spirit—has taken shape in human history. Energy devoted to reshaping Lutheran ministries and practices in order to make them satisfactory to Rome is energy better spent, I suspect, in shaping the lives of Christian people in faithful obedience and in being the voice of Christ in and to the world.

Moreover, while the fragmentation and multiple forms of the church catholic have certainly been problematic in many ways, they have also been the source of many gifts to the Church. Isaac Watts captured this—essentially biblical—image of the Church’s oneness nicely:

Come, let us join our cheerful songs
With angels round the throne;
Ten thousand thousand are their tongues,
But all their joys are one.

A church without the hymns of Charles Wesley is one I would rather not contemplate. Indeed, one need only occasionally attend a Mass here and there (an experience that has never failed to prove disappointing for me) to be forced to ponder what a world without classical Protestant hymnody would be like. Or consider how wonderfully Calvin pulled together Christian teaching in the Institutes, a marvel of succinctness (which Luther could never have given us!). If those in the Lutheran communion of the church catholic need to learn—and they do—to acknowledge the important contributions a magisterium can sometimes make to the life of the Church, those in the Roman communion of that same church catholic must be reminded that the believer’s encounter with the risen Lord is not always mediated through the voice of that magisterium and that the Church is also well served when its people—like the Beroeans—examine the Scriptures daily “to see if these things [are] so.”

None of this is to deny the immense importance for all Christians of the Roman church. The rest of us are all parasitic upon it, and its achievements and contributions are immense. If the Church as the body of Christ must, as Bonhoeffer put it, take up space in the world, then it is simply a fact that the Roman church takes up a great deal of such space. As a member of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, I think of myself, as I noted at the outset, as also laying claim to the catholic tradition, but one would have to be an utter fool to miss the significance of the fact that Rome takes up far more space in the world—and therefore embodies Christian faith and faithfulness in the world in a manner harder to ignore—than does the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. Of course, Rome also takes up this space in ways that should perhaps concern us, for it does so not only ecclesially but also through the Vatican’s character as a political entity—a blurring of distinctions that suggests that not all of the old sixteenth-century arguments have lost their significance.

If we Lutherans ourselves were clearer that to be Lutheran is to claim the catholic tradition as ours, we would avoid some of the mistakes that have gone a long way toward hollowing out Lutheranism in this country. In particular, we could get rid of the annoying tic that leads so many Lutherans to try—constantly—to articulate something distinctively Lutheran (a sure sign we are worried that our continued existence cannot be justified and, irony of ironies, must seek to accomplish that justification ourselves). What is distinctively Lutheran is to think of ourselves first as catholic—as catholics who found at a certain point in history that they needed to reform the Church and, in the process, became independent churches themselves. No one has more clearly articulated the danger of a constant search for Lutheran distinctives than that very distinctive Lutheran, Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote in his Journal:

Lutheranism is a corrective—but a corrective made into the norm, the whole, is eo ipso confusing in the next generation (when that which it was meant to correct no longer exists). And as long as this continues things get worse with every generation, until in the end the corrective produces the exact opposite of what was originally intended.

And such moreover is the case. Taken by itself, as the whole of Christianity, the Lutheran corrective produces the most subtle type of worldliness and paganism.

It is, unfortunately, not hard to illustrate what Kierkegaard had in mind. If I am an inattentive, thoughtless, or even abusive husband and father—and my neighbor is just the opposite, an exemplary husband and father—what Lutheranism too often has to say to us is exactly the same: that before God we are sinners in need of justifying grace. And if I want help to become more like my exemplary neighbor, the message is likely to be precisely the same: that I am a sinner in need of grace.

All of which is, of course, true. But it is not the only theological truth, nor the one that always best suits our condition. A theology that has learned to speak in such a monotone about grace—always as pardon but not also as power—gives no guidance or direction to the serious Christian. The Christian life, engaged only in constant return to that pardoning word, goes nowhere. Even as profound a theologian as Helmut Thielicke, whose Theological Ethics is to my mind the richest example of modern Lutheran ethics, could think of ethics only as a prolegomenon to preaching—only, that is, as the means of exposing the need we all share for the proclamation of the gospel’s pardon.

The corrective that was once needed for a church that had come to think of penance simply as a balancing of accounts has been made into a norm, producing exactly the opposite of what was intended. H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is a profound book, but for Lutherans, at least, it might be better had he never written it. When “paradox” becomes our first and last description of the Christian life, it has become a substitute for serious thought—and, worse still, for discipleship.

Our problems are, of course, exacerbated by the obvious fact that there is not some single entity called “Lutheranism.” There are different Lutheran church bodies, and they will only become increasingly different unless they take care to think of themselves as Lutheran communions within the catholic tradition and not as one more branch of mainline Protestantism. This means that, unless and until the Orthodox and Roman churches alter their teaching on same-sex genital relations, or on the ordination of women to the priesthood, Lutherans will have no good reason to depart from the catholic tradition on these matters that we share with them. All the talk in the world about ecumenical concern and openness will be hard to take seriously unless our actions on such matters bespeak genuine catholicity. And to suppose that we should go our own way on these issues because of some distinctively Lutheran principle—such as a particular understanding of the relation between law and gospel—will only be another way of saying that we do not really think of the catholic tradition as our own.

In any case, simply rejoining Rome would hardly solve our problems. For one thing, there are powerful and learned theological voices within Roman Catholicism that—using the language of “fundamental option”—are likely to recapitulate Lutheranism’s decline into antinomianism. (Though, of course, the antinomianism is never genuine. The nomos is simply taken over from the culture, and so, for example, condemnation of divorce or homosexuality is softened while insufficient commitment to “sustainability” becomes a deadly sin.) 

Then too, at least in my (admittedly limited) experience, there too often remains in Roman Catholicism, with its Masses offered for the dead and its enormous attention to Mariology, a depiction of our relation to God heavily marked by almost magical transactions. (That language is surely not entirely fair, but I have not found a better way to describe what I have in mind.) In the hymn “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones,” we Lutherans have been happy to address Mary, the “bearer of the eternal Word,” as “higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim.” But it is a long way from that to the kind of esoteric and all-consuming attention given by Roman Catholics (and bishops of Rome) to, say, the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin at Fatima.

Moreover, once we Lutherans give up the obsessive search for something distinctively Lutheran—some teaching such as justification or the law/gospel distinction that must serve as the organizing principle of our entire theology—we will be free to recognize and augment the considerable contributions made by catholics of the Lutheran communion to the life of the one Church. We have, for starters, leaned against the Protestant tendency to think of our church bodies as freestanding and have been a voice for evangelical catholicity in the Protestant world. We have been deeply committed to the study of the Bible, to translation of Bible and liturgy into the vernacular of different peoples, to active involvement of the people of God in the governance of the Church’s life, to a rich tradition of hymnody, to an invitation to all believers to pursue holiness in their daily callings, and to the belief that Christians are addressed by God both corporately through the office of the ministry and singly by the head of the Church, the Lord himself.

I am aware, of course, that the direction I have charted here may seem idiosyncratic. Many Lutherans of all stripes continue to search for distinctively Lutheran teachings that offer a reason for our continued existence. Indeed, quite often these days, whatever their other differences, they alight on the same basic formula. The distinction between law and gospel, so powerful for the care of souls, gets turned into the organizing principle of an entire theology—a distinctive theology, to be sure, but one that, as Kierkegaard saw, “produces the most subtle type of worldliness and paganism.” We can do better, and, for the sake of the church catholic to whose tradition we lay claim, we should.

Gilbert Meilaender is the 2010–2011 Remick Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.