Lutheranism

The system of religious beliefs ascribed to the followers of Martin Luther* is generally called “Lutheranism.” The term may also be used in reference to the activities of the churches calling themselves “Lutheran.” Both of these aspects are discussed in this article.

Lutheranism's doctrinal position is embodied in the Book of Concord* (1580), consisting of the three ecumenical creeds, the Augsburg Confession* and its Apology, Luther's Small and Large Catechisms, the Smalcald Articles,* and the Formula of Concord.* Justification by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ is the primary doctrine accented by Lutheranism. Because of original sin man is in need of reconciliation with God. Reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins are the essence of justification; the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer who accepts it by the action of the Holy Spirit. It is not man's merit or works, but solely the grace of God that makes him justified before God. Sola gratia and sola fide are the phrases used to summarize this doctrine, most carefully explained in Article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. Good works are the fruit of faith. A good tree bears good fruit, Luther said, so a believer does good works. These good works, too, are the fruit of the Spirit. The believer, simul justus et peccator (“justified but still a sinner”), strives against evil and labors to do good. His spiritual life, according to Lutheran doctrine, is endangered and sustained by the means of grace. These are baptism, the Word, and the Lord's Supper.

The Word of God in Lutheranism is often equated with the canonical writings of the Old and New Testaments. These have been given by divine inspiration and therefore are authentic, reliable, and able to accomplish their divine purposes. Their purpose is, first of all, “to make wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” They are also meant, according to Lutheranism, to instruct men in questions of morality, to comfort him in tribulation, to refute those who repudiate the Christian religion, and to teach divine doctrine. By the Word the Holy Spirit calls men, enlightens and instructs them, sanctifies them, and gathers them into His church. The Scriptures are the sole source, rule, and norm of faith, sola Scriptura.

The sacraments-baptism and the Lord's Supper- are more than cultic rites. Baptism is regarded as the water of regeneration, a means by which the new birth is effected, especially in infants. The Lord's Supper is not a mere memorial meal, but was instituted by Christ for the forgiveness of sins, the strengthening of faith, and as an expression of union with Him and with fellow believers. In the bread and wine of the Holy Supper the body and blood of Christ Himself are present, Lutherans teach. They believe in the Real Presence (not to be termed “consubstantiation”).

Lutheran theology is strongly christocentric. The message of Christ's redemptive act is the central message of the Scripture; being reborn in Christ and rising to newness of life are the essence of baptism; Communion with Christ and partaking of His body and blood are the essential of the sacrament of the altar. Solus Christus is the heart of Lutheran theology.

Lutheranism emphasizes the differences between Law and Gospel. The Law condemns; the Gospel saves. The Law terrorizes; the Gospel comforts. The Law reveals God's wrath; the Gospel reveals God's grace. Regarding predestination, Lutheranism teaches that God has elected certain men for salvation in Christ Jesus before the beginning of the world. This doctrine is given for the believer's comfort, to assure him of his salvation. Lutheranism does not teach an election to reprobation.

Christ Jesus, in Lutheran theology, is true God and true man. With the Father and Holy Spirit He is a member of the Holy Trinity, of the one Godhead. He became incarnate, born of the Virgin Mary, in order to fulfill the law, suffer, die, and rise again for the atonement of mankind. In him the two natures, the human and the divine, are united in one Person. This union is true and real, a personal one, and a perpetually enduring one. Lutheranism adheres to the formula of the Council of Chalcedon*: “We confess one and the same Jesus Christ, the Son and Lord only- begotten, in two natures, without mixture, change, division, or separation.”

To Him is given the Headship of the church. The church is made up of all those, but only those, who trust in Christ Jesus as their Savior, Redeemer, and Mediator. They have entered into a saving fellowship with Christ. The church is holy, because its members are sanctified by the Holy Spirit. It is one, because it has one Lord and is united to Him; it is apostolic, because it is founded on the proclamation of the apostles, the gospel of Christ; it is catholic, or universal, because it is not restricted to one people, nation, or time. Lutheranism, too, speaks of the church invisible and the church visible. The church invisible is not discernible in a structure; the church visible is made up a structure. The marks of the true church, according to Lutheranism, are the pure preaching of the Word of God and the correct administration of the sacraments according to Christ's institution.

Lutherans do not insist on a uniform church polity. Some of the Lutheran churches are episcopal in character; some are congregational; others tend toward a presbyterial form of organization. Some are supported by the state; others are free churches or voluntary ecclesiastical societies. In its worship services Lutheranism tends to be ritualistic. Luther's “conservative reformation” retained much of the liturgy of the Western Catholic Church. There are Lutheran churches in the twentieth century, however, that have plain orders of service. The rites and ceremonies are regarded as adiaphora (“things indifferent”) so long as the Gospel is not vitiated or nullified by them. The holy ministry has been instituted by Christ. Ordination is a good ecclesiastical custom, stemming from the ancient church, but not absolutely necessary. Believers in Christ are a royal priesthood.

The largest concentration of Lutherans is found in Germany and Scandinavia. In the USA, Lutheran membership was 8,872,000 in 1971. Lutheranism is found in Africa, South and Central America, Canada, Japan, India, Korea, the USSR, and possibly even in China. The largest of the territorial churches in Germany is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover, with approximately 4,000,000 members. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saxony numbers 3,600,000 members. In Württemberg, Schleswig-Holstein, and Bavaria there are 2,500,000 Lutherans each; in Mecklenburg and Thuringia, a million Lutherans each. The Scandinavian countries are almost entirely Lutheran. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark numbers 4,300,000 members; that in Finland, 4,375,000 members. The Church of Norway is somewhat smaller, numbering about 3,500,000 members. The Church of Sweden is the largest of the Lutheran Scandinavian churches with 7,000,000 members.

The Lutheran World Federation is the ecumenical voice of Lutheranism. It was organized at Lund, Sweden, in 1947, having been preceded by four Lutheran World Conventions (Eisenach, 1923; Copenhagen, 1929; Paris, 1935; Lund, 1947). Assemblies of the Lutheran World Federation have been held in Hanover (1952), Minneapolis (1957), Helsinki (1963), and Evian, France (1970). The constitution of the LWF gives its doctrinal basis in Article II: “The Lutheran World Federation acknowledges the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the only source and the infallible norm of all church doctrine and practice, and sees in the three Ecumenical Creeds and in the Confessions of the Lutheran Church, especially in the Unaltered Augsburg Confession and Luther's Small Catechism, a pure exposition of the Word of God.”

The functions of the Federation are to further a united witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ; to cultivate unity among the Lutherans of the world; to foster Lutheran participation in ecumenical movements; to provide a channel for meeting the physical needs of the destitute; most importantly, to “support Lutheran Churches and groups as they endeavor to meet the spiritual needs of other Lutherans and to extend the Gospel.” The Lutheran World Federation consists of an assembly which meets normally every six years, an executive committee which meets annually, national committees, and commissions. Its headquarters are at Geneva, Switzerland. There, too, the executive staff, headed by a general secretary, is located.

The department of theology of the LWF has made some basic studies into the problems facing Lutheranism in the twentieth century. Its studies have centered on the unity of the church, freedom and unity in Christ, justification, and the church and her confessions. The Lutheran World is a quarterly journal published by the LWF.

Lutheran doctrine, polity, church structures, and federations cannot be treated as completely united. Even in doctrine Lutherans are not totally at one. Some Lutherans and Lutheran church bodies have been influenced greatly by modern biblical criticism in recent decades and have repudiated strongly held Lutheran beliefs. In the age of the Reformation there were the so- called Crypto-Calvinists, Lutherans who held to the Calvinistic doctrines of the Lord's Supper. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Pietism* gained a strong foothold in Lutheranism, both in Germany and in Scandinavian countries. Rationalism muffled Lutheranism's doctrinal accents, which were heard again only as a result of the revival of Lutheran Confessionalism in the nineteenth century. Lutheranism in North America, in general, has been more conservative than European Lutheranism.

Lutheranism's involvement in the questions of society and social welfare have varied from time to time and country to country. Lutheranism did not fail to emphasize the need to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and to be helpful in meeting his bodily needs. Due to the state control practiced by the Lutheran countries of Europe, this was often made a matter for the state rather than the church. In North America, Lutheran quietism resulted in a “hands off” policy in political and societal problems that persisted into the twentieth century.

Lutheranism's contributions to music, literature, the arts, and sciences cannot be recounted here. Its contributions are not confined to the “Lutheran” countries, but are evident in many parts of the world. Lutheranism's outreach has been an extensive one in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and its influence pervasive. Lutheranism has emphasized the educational aspects of the church's total task.

H. Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ET 1899; rep. 1961); E.L. Lueker (ed.), The Lutheran Cyclopedia (1954); C. Lund-Quist (ed.), Lutheran Churches of the World (1957); T.G. Tappert (ed.), The Book of Concord (1959); J. Bodensieck (ed.), The Encylcopedia of the Lutheran Church (3 vols., 1965).