Monday, January 01, 2007

Can you be Evangelical without being Lutheran?

That might sound a strange question, but it's not. I am not asking "Can you be a Bible-believing, born-again, Spirit-empowerd Christian without going to a Lutheran church?" -- the answer to that is obviously "Sure, but why would you want to be?"

What I am asking is can you believe in Evangelical theology, that is, the doctrines characteristic of the (Augsburg) Evangelical Reformation, without being tied by human history and traditions to the churches of Scandinavian and German origin that in America we call Lutheran?

What are these doctrines? 1) Justification by faith alone; 2) baptismal regeneration; 3) the real and substantial presence of Christ's body and blood in Holy Communion; 4) the relative indifference of polity as defining the being of the church; 5) Scripture as the only binding norm of faith and practice.

This is of course a very minimal list, but the funny thing is, these five alone perfectly define not just Augsburg Evangelicalism, but Lutheranism as well. In other words, in practice, every congregation which affirms these five also affirms the whole kit and kaboodle of the Lutheran tradition, from the Book of Concord to Law and Gospel sermons to Waltherian congregationalism to Reformation Sundays to Concordia Press to beer. As far as the Book of Concord goes, I think this is because pretty much everything in it, despite its great length, can be related to these central points. But the further we go down the list of specifically Lutheran religious culture the less that is obvious. The question I'm asking is, what would/should the Lutheran attitude to Evangelical congregations of the above sort be -- assuming they were to exist? (I'm assuming further of course that these Evangelical congregations would also be orthodox both on the pre-Reformation controversies -- the Trinity and Christology -- and also on the post-Reformation controversies -- sexual morality, male-female roles, and inerrancy.)

The reason I think the question is worth asking right now is because of the on-going Anglican shipwreck. Among all the churches trying to survive this disaster (a summary is here), one would think that some of them might be open to affirming with us Evangelical theology. I know that it is precisely the more Protestant Anglicans who are likely to disagree on items 2-3, tending in a more Calvinistic direction. But surely there are some Anglican congregations with evangelical tendencies who would be interested in exploring the possibility of a fuller understanding of baptism and the Lord's Supper. And on question 4, if they insist on apostolic succession of bishops as part of the bene esse of the church, surely we can accept that as a legitimate option, as long as they accept the legitimacy of our ministry as well? Given that our worship and liturgy are pretty similar, isn't there room for real discussion aiming at full altar fellowship?

What would the benefits be? First, the imperative of unity with all who profess the Gospel rightly taught and sacraments rightly administered (again assuming that there is unity on the big issues of 2-4 and the points dependent on them). Second, non-Lutheran Augsburg Evangelicalism, even if small in scale, could be an important way to illustrate a point that the two (Lutheranism as a tradition/culture and Augsburg Evangelicalism as a teaching and practice of the Gospel) are not the same thing, despite being present in the same place. And from the point of view of the Anglican communities the larger resources of the LCMS and other confessional Lutheran bodies would presumably be beneficial. Again, much would need to be worked out, especially on the question of orders, but the Church of England has a long and well documented tradition of respecting the ministry of non-episcopal churches on the Continent. Disagreement on 2-3 is much more likely to be the real sticking point.

Are any such discussions happening? Does anyone sense this as an opportunity?

UPDATES: John Fenton of Conversio ad Dominum has made some comments about this proposal, seeing it as "Least Common Denominator Confessionalism". He takes particular exception to my reading of the polity question. I would only say that what the Augustana has to say about the church has to be read firstly in the context of the Catechisms and then of the Smalcald Articles:

I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms. I am also a part and member of the same, a sharer and joint owner of all the goods it possesses, brought to it and incorporated into it by the Holy Ghost by having heard and continuing to hear the Word of God, which is the beginning of entering it. For formerly, before we had attained to this, we were altogether of the devil, knowing nothing of God and of Christ. Thus, until the last day, the Holy Ghost abides with the holy congregation or Christendom, by means of which He fetches us to Christ and which He employs to teach and preach to us the Word, whereby He works and promotes sanctification, causing this community daily to grow and become strong in the faith and its fruits which He produces.

For, thank God, to-day a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd. For the children pray thus: I believe in one holy catholic/Christian Church. This holiness does not consist in albs, tonsures, long gowns, and other of their ceremonies devised by them beyond Holy Scripture, but in the Word of God and true faith.

There is the call of the congregation and there is laying on of hands and there is the office of the steward of the mysteries of God, all mentioned in the Scriptures, but anything beyond that is merely for the convenience of the church.

Secondly, Thomas Adams at "Without Authority" has a must read about Prussia and the "generic Protestantism." He bases it on a new book Iron Kingdom, which I really wish I'd gotten for Christmas (although what I did get is great too). Short version: Prussia originated "generic Protestantism" because her Reformed monarchs wished to transform a Lutheran people. We LCMS-ers have heard the story before, but what makes it interesting this time, is not how this affected us, but how central this experience was to building the idea of Prussia as Prussia -- the land of order, of public, of the universal over the particular.

Let me add also that another point of the book (I read large chunks of it in Barnes and Nobles) is that the Prussian ideal was by no means all reactionary junkers in pointy helmets, but one of planning, of peace and order, and of the common good above individual choices that form one of the mainspring of present-day European social democracy. The notorious Austrian corporal who got his political start in the rowdy beer-halls of Bavaria had only a most ambiguous relation to what made Prussia Prussia.

Labels: , ,