Friday, August 12, 2005

What Are We Standing For: A Disembodied Ideal or "Actually Existing Lutheranism"?

The post below on Charles Porterfield Krauth raised two issues that I think have lurked around the latest string of posts [at Here We Stand] on the name game: Lutheran, evangelical, catholic, or FFSCCOTTS.

Eric Phillips noted that Krauth had a stance on the Sabbath that doesn’t seem in line with confessional Lutheran ideas today (or the Augsburg Confession). FDN found Krauth’s triumphalism tedious and unhelpful. Thomas and Josh noted that they didn’t have a whole lot of connection to the LCMS as a body as opposed to the ideas of the Lutheran confessions and particular congregations that embody them. To me all of these questions revolve around the one of loyalty: is Lutheranism primarily a body of pure doctrine that is embodied here and there in congregations, some of which might not have the proper alphabet soup attached after the name? Or is it primarily a definite living community whose practices, despite being a mix of good and bad like all human communities, are worthy of some degree of respect and deference on the sole grounds that they are the traditions of our fathers in the faith?

I vote for the latter, for "actually existing Lutheranism" (to borrow a phrase from Rudolf Bahro) as that to which we need to be loyal. Who knows what is the chicken and what is the egg here, but the fact that I love Krauth, and Walther too and the fact that denominational loyalty is also very important to me both seem connected to my vote on this issue. It is good to have ideals, but not good to have them to the extent of coming to feel that no church in a 100 mile radius actually embodies much of your ideal. But then, I have to deal with the fact that Eric implicitly raised: Krauth and Walther were not in communion, so what is this this "actually existing Lutheranism"? Can actually existing Lutheranism go against Scripture and the Book of Concord and still be Lutheran, as ELCA does today? Or is it just the LCMS? Or just the ELS/WELS communion? Maybe I’m muddled, but I believe that there is a true middle ground between accepting anyone with the mere name Lutheran and on the other hand, for example, dividing over technicalities of theories of ministry. The LCMS, WELS, ELS, and once upon a time the American Lutheran Church (which upheld Krauth’s legacy before its final capitulation to modernism and ELCA) were all truly formed by the Book of Concord not just positively but also negatively by a rejection of what was hostile to that confession, whether it be Schmucker’s American Lutheranism, or Prussia’s Union church. Their differences never should have been church dividing and they attained communion in the 1950s, but due to our sins and the ravages of liberalism in the ALC have now fallen out.

But why do we need to bother with this alphabet soup, and these sub-Lutheran LCMS congregations, and the Lutheran church members who seem to not know the difference between what they believe and "generic evangelicalism" or "bland Protestantism"? To answer that question, I would hope people would read this story about two churches, Catholic and Lutheran, in a midwestern town targeted by fundamentalists. (I highly recommend this testimony for anyone who cares about the future of his or her church.) The Lutheran church lost large numbers of its parishioners, but the Catholic church didn't. One reason was, the Catholic church, hearing of the impending fundamentalist start-up, began a sermon series focusing on how oppressed Catholics have been by the Protestants, and then in later sermons moving on to the Catholic distinctives. As the priest himself explained, the kind of "us vs. them" sentiment produced by the first "they're out to get us" sermons was not exactly what he wanted in the way of long-term true spiritual insight, but it was essential both in keeping the less involved, less doctrinally aware members on board during the crisis, and in focusing the more involved, more doctrinally aware people on the issue at hand.

Maybe in an ideal world, team loyalty would play no part in our feelings toward religious truth. We would all work at a level of high theory and pure doctrinal commitment. But this isn't an ideal world. Churches have members who aren’t too involved right now, who aren’t really interested today, but might become interested tomorrow if we can "hold" them till today. Churches that don't inculcate in their members some measure of "triumphalist" thinking, that don't inculcate practical loyalty to the concrete, actually existing church body, well, such churches are sitting ducks for - - for Catholic triumphalism, for Bible-church triumphalism, for Eastern Orthodox triumphalism, for non-denominational triumphalism. In that situation a little "We ARE LUTHERANS" can stiffen your spine even when you feel like slouching.

None of this is to excuse bigotry or saying false things about other churches. Convictions about truth and loyalty to a real community are not incompatible with each other or with human sympathy for all people and Christian sympathy for all fellow Christians--Greg’s contributions on the comment threads of this site is an illustration of this.

Anyway, this is why I not only don't object to, but identify strongly with "Protestant," with "evangelical," and "Lutheran." These are the terms that helped hold together the Christians in America’s Church of the Augsburg Confession in the 19th century, under Walther and Krauth, and kept her alive so that she could take me in today as my mother today when I was fleeing the false mother of Calvinism. I am always struck by how much better our situation in America is than our beloved fellow Lutherans in England. Why? Because we had millions of Germans and Scandinavians coming over to help us, and because we had church founders like Walther and Krauth who kept those Germans and Scandinavians LUTHERAN. Without them what would we have? At the time, maybe keeping "on message" meant triumphalism and "Johnny one note" repetition, but that’s why being a pastor and being an academic are two different things. If they were happy to be Lutherans, evangelicals, and Protestants, what objection can I have to those names?

Originally posted at Here We Stand

Labels: ,