Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 86 (October 1998): 12–13.
When I was a child, Lutherans enthusiastically celebrated October 31 as Reformation Day. Today most of them quietly observe it. That movement from celebration to restrained observation is indicative of the ambiguous situation of contemporary American Lutheranism.
Not that the new attitude is necessarily a bad thing. The Reformation Day services of my childhood were unabashed exercises in Protestant triumphalism. Protestantism in those days still constituted the vital center of American religious culture. Lutherans were located some distance from the center of that center—which was occupied, more or less in order, by Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists—but on Reformation Day we could escape our marginal status and enter fully into the grand anti–papist communion. Catholic otherness was so much more Other than our own.
Reformation Day sermons duly praised God for allowing Martin Luther to rediscover the pristine gospel of grace alone through faith alone that Catholic works righteousness had managed to obscure. Just how far back the obscuring went was itself obscure. Whether the gospel had been lost immediately after Paul, after Augustine (the only post–apostolic churchman we ever heard much about), or as late as the Middle Ages was never entirely clear to me. But the important thing was that the gospel had indeed been lost and that Luther had found it again. Only rigorous doctrinal fidelity could prevent it being lost once more.
We took all this with great seriousness. I recall when I was ten or so attending an after–school class at church (taught, as it happened, by my father) that explained the differences between Lutherans and other Christians. It focused, inevitably, on where we differed with Catholics, and those differences—and their consequences—were presented with such stark and troubling force that I was moved to ask my father afterwards, "Are all Catholics going to Hell?" He looked startled by the question and quickly assured me that they were not. The answer consoled me—a number of my friends were Catholic—but also left me confused. If Catholic doctrine had the heart of the gospel wrong, how could its adherents not be damned? The best I could figure out was that only bad Catholics—those who opposed or misunderstood their church’s teaching—could be saved.
In retrospect, I suspect that my father’s apparent equivocation may have marked the beginning of the end of my childhood Protestant triumphalism. Over time, indeed, I became—along with many other Lutherans—uncomfortable with the Protestant label itself, and came to include myself in the camp of the "evangelical catholics." At the same time, while hoping for ecclesial reconciliation between Catholics and Lutherans, I knew that, if forced to choose, I would retain my membership in the Lutheran communion. My Reformation Day meditations are a good deal more complicated than they used to be, but I can still mark the occasion in good faith.
I do not present my situation as representative of most Lutherans. Indeed, I do not know what a representative American Lutheran would look like today. The fact is that we are of several minds as to the condition of our church and of its proper place in the larger Christian reality.
For some Lutherans, including many in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), rigorous doctrinal particularity remains the hallmark of true Lutheranism. The disputes of the Reformation era still resonate in their theology, and they maintain eternal vigilance against the presumed heresies both of Roman Catholics and of other Protestants. The rigor of their attachment to the sixteenth–century Lutheran Confessions sustains their theological seriousness, but that same rigorism makes them, at best, indifferent to ecumenical involvement with other Christians.
The distinguishing characteristics of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) are mirror images of those of the LCMS. The ELCA is enthusiastic in its ecumenism to the point of promiscuity. It recently entered into full communion with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ, none of which bodies (the UCC in particular) is noted for its doctrinal fastidiousness. (The same 1997 ELCA convention which approved that action narrowly defeated a Concordat of Agreement with the Episcopal Church, a decision likely to be reversed in the reasonably near future.) The ELCA is still officially committed to the Lutheran Confessions, but one wonders, in the wake of the agreement with the reformed churches, what is left of the Augsburg Confession’s stipulation that church unity requires agreement in the gospel and the sacraments. Lutherans and Reformed have historically held quite different understandings of, among other things, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Then there are the church–growth Lutherans, present in both the LCMS and ELCA, who are evangelical in style, pietistic in spirit, and focused on conversion of the heart and missionary outreach. They shun Lutheran particularity and are pan–Christian in outlook. They want simply to win souls for Christ.
That leaves, finally, those of us Lutherans who style ourselves as evangelical catholics. (The "evangelical," by the way, does not denote an affinity for evangelical Protestantism.) There are, it should be noted, differences among us. Some, if things come to the crunch, will stay Lutheran no matter what. Others are not at all sure of that. All of us think of Lutheranism as a confessional movement within the one Church of Christ. We are at once ecumenical in spirit—we cannot think of any sane definition of the Christian reality that leaves Catholicism (or Orthodoxy) outside of it—and committed to the distinctive Lutheran construal of the Christian faith.
It appeared recently that Lutheran–Catholic differences had been reduced to the margins by the release of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JD), a statement negotiated between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). The Declaration celebrated a new consensus on the issue that had been at the heart of the Reformation, a consensus that would repeal the mutual condemnations of the sixteenth century and, while admitting to lingering differences, would claim they were no longer church–dividing. Then came the Vatican response (see "Setback in Rome," Public Square).
Diplomatic niceties aside—negotiators from both the LWF and the Vatican office involved in JD’s drafting were left scraping great quantities of egg off their faces—the response indicates that the doctrinal convergence between Catholics and Lutherans may not be so great as some evangelical catholics have supposed. While affirming that "a high degree of agreement has been reached," the response lists eight points, in order of importance, "that constitute still an obstacle to agreement between the Catholic Church and the [LWF] on all the fundamental truths concerning justification."
Point number one states that, for Catholics, "the [Lutheran] formula ‘at the same time righteous and sinner,’ as it is explained [in JD] (‘Believers are totally righteous, in that God forgives their sins through Word and Sacrament. . . . Looking at themselves, however, they recognize that they remain also totally sinners. Sin still lives in them. . . .’), is not acceptable." Indeed, the response concludes (in the tortuous language of ecclesial diplomacy) that "it remains difficult to see how, in the current state of the presentation given in the Joint Declaration, we can say that this doctrine on ‘simul iustus et peccator’ is not touched by the anathemas" of the Council of Trent.
This is not the occasion for an elaboration or defense of the place of simul iustus et peccator in Lutheran theology. Suffice it to say it is at the very heart of the Lutheran understanding of the believer’s condition. Take simul and its ramifications away and you have taken away the dialectical theological framework that makes Lutheran theology Lutheran. And now the Vatican officially suggests that the doctrine is still anathema.
This leaves Lutheran evangelical catholics in an awkward position. The Vatican response urges further conversation on the issue, and it may be that the flat rejection of simul is not the Catholic Church’s last word on the subject. Maybe. The more likely prospect, I expect, is that the condemnation will stand, which suggests, for this and for other reasons, that the notion of full reconciliation between Catholics and Lutherans is an eschatological concept. The dialogue will continue, and we can hope and pray that even if full agreement on justification and other questions is not reached, they may nonetheless no longer be seen as church–dividing.
That is a process for the long haul. Perhaps the very long haul. In the meantime, Lutherans can continue in good conscience to observe—and even celebrate—Reformation Day. Not, to be sure, in a spirit of triumphalism, but not burdened with apologies, either.