Presentation of the Augsburg Confession of Faith c. June 25th, 1530

Friday, April 23, 2010

21st Century Lutheranism - Part 1: How Did We Get into This Mess?

Surveying the current state of affairs that we as Lutherans in America face, it is not a pretty picture. Those of us who consider ourselves Confessional Lutherans have many challenges ahead of us, regardless of which synod we make our home in. It is easy for us to look out onto the evangelical landscape of America and criticize that which we see. Pop psychology, vacuous forms of worship, and the obliteration of the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone dominate the church. Yes, all of these accusations of American Christianity are true. However, they are now true of us, as well. Whether LCMS, WELS, or ELS, the effects of American Christianity have invaded our synods and have devastated all that is true of our beloved Lutheran Confessions, both in doctrine and in practice. In my own synod, the WELS, the effects of the church growth movement have been particularly insidious. We are only now just starting to combat it.

In order for us to move forward, however, we must also look backward, and see what events in our history have led to the current climate.

Being neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet I wondered how to go about predicting the doctrinal trends and problems for Lutherans in this century. Put yourself in the place of an observer in 1900, looking ahead and trying to imagine what lay ahead for Lutheranism in the bright new century, the 20th century of the Christian era, the 5th century for the Lutheran church. Things were looking good. The 19th century had been the best time for Lutheranism since the life of Luther.

The 19th century had not gotten off to such a great start. The effects of Pietism and the Enlightenment were being felt throughout the Lutheran church. As the 300th anniversary of the Reformation rolled around, the Prussian Union had appeared as a state enforced plan to put an end to an independent, confessional Lutheran church. Throughout the century the acid of historical-critical methodology would continue to eat away what remained of the scriptural foundations of the Lutheran theology faculties of Germany.

Yet amazingly, in the midst of this crisis there would be a rebirth of confessional Lutheranism, which would return the teachings of Luther and the Confessions to a prominence that was unmatched since the mid-seventeenth century. In some respects Luther’s teachings were put into practice more fully in the 19th century than they had been in Luther’s own time, because now for the first time the Lutheran church was free from the entanglement and pressures of a state church that had prevented the implementation of Luther’s biblical principles of church and state and church and ministry.

The location of this rebirth was not, of course, Germany, but the New World. The man at the center of this resurgence of true confessional Lutheranism was C. F. W. Walther. To be sure, he had predecessors, allies, and successors in America and to a lesser extent in Europe, but more than any other individual Walther embodied the newfound vitality of confessional Lutheranism. As the 19th century came to a close, the Missouri Synod and the other confessional synods drawn into fellowship with it in the Synodical Conference of North America were well positioned for rapid growth in their new homeland, for mission expansion throughout the world, and to be a source of strength and encouragement to smaller confessional churches throughout the world. The rising material prosperity brought on by the industrial revolution, a revolution in transportation and communication (the steamboat and railroad, the telegraph and telephone), and the arrival of the electrical age seemed to foreshadow a great age of opportunity and expansion for the church. Colonial empires provided open doors for missions around the world. Rapid advances in automobiles and air travel were widely anticipated. Some bold futurists even predicted that by the end of the 20th century it would be possible to send pictures instantaneously around the world in color. Optimism abounded for what was coming for society and the church.

To be sure, there were some ominous clouds on the horizon. Confessional revival in Europe was barely a ripple in the pond. The poisons of evolutionary theory and negative criticism continued to undermine the vitality of Lutheranism. In the North American heartland the election controversy of the 1880s had caused the first major fracture in the alliance of solidly confessional Lutheran churches. In eastern Lutheranism Schmucker’s “American Lutheranism” which was a voluntary embrace of the principles of the Prussian Union, had been beaten back, but the old eastern Lutheranism had not experienced a true confessional revival. Even this wing of American Lutheranism, however, could produce a theologian of the quality of Charles Porterfield Krauth. The doctrinal differences separating the Synodical Conference from the predecessor bodies of the ALC were issues like pulpit and altar fellowship, lodges, conversion and election, millennialism, and open questions. These were not trivial questions, but there was unity in fundamental doctrines.

It was obvious that, as always, there were dangers facing the Lutheran church as the new century broke, but who could have foreseen the depth of the disaster that the 20th century would produce for Lutheranism around the world. In Germany the church was devastated by two world wars, Nazism, Communism, secularization, and a total surrender to critical views of the Bible. The Lutheran lands of the North became secular societies, more heathen than many mission lands of the third world. In the mission societies and revival movements within the national churches and in the tiny confessional churches a small remnant still carries on a faithful testimony, but the voice of confessional Lutheranism is almost silent in its European homeland.

In America, the new stronghold of Lutheranism, liberal eastern Lutheranism, as embodied in the ULCA and LCA, has swallowed up the moderate Lutheranism of the midwestern ALC. Groups like the Ohio, Buffalo, and Norwegian Synods, once so close to the Synodical Conference, are now absorbed into the ELCA merger, which retains a paper profession of loyalty to the confessions, but has abandoned virtually every teaching which they confess. Gone is even a paper profession of the inerrancy of Scripture. Gone is a firm confession of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament. Gone is “by faith alone,” the core principle of the Reformation. Added to all of this is the ELCA’s decision in August of 2009 to allow the ordination of homosexual ministers and it is clear that “American Lutheranism” has won after all.

The LCMS, the anchor body of the once solidly confessional Synodical Conference, has slid over into the slot once filled by the so-called moderate Lutheranism of the old and new ALC. In 1900 who could have imagined that by the 1930s Missouri’s staunch position would already be suffering serious erosion, that by the 1960s historical criticism would dominate its theological training system, that at the end of the century it would be abandoning the small confessional Lutheran churches that it had helped bring into being and working more closely with the Lutheran World Federation. Even today many around the world have a hard time believing it is really true. The recent political actions of the hierarchy of the LCMS has only further exacerbated its decline. Along with the unionism and syncretism that followed in the wake of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, the leadership of the synod has now embraced the broad evangelical principles of church growth, the weakening of liturgical practice, and its end result, the loss of a sacramental theology. Its willingness to overlook the actions of those which violate its stated doctrines is indicative of the powers that be to turn the synod into one of bland American Christianity.

Of more than 60 million Lutherans in the world fewer than half a million belong to church bodies that stand firmly on the doctrinal platform and the fellowship practices of the old Synodical Conference. A few million more belong to church bodies trying to hold a compromise position between the stance of the Synodical Conference and the extreme pluralism of the Lutheran World Federation.

Talk about doctrinal challenges for Lutheranism! One hardly knows where to begin. Begin, we must, however, if we are to recover that which our forefathers spilled their blood to gain; the clear proclamation of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.


  1. Woohoo! Another confessional blog! I look forward to more of your insights. Also, I am proud to be your first commenter :)

  2. LOL Iggy, thanks! For being my first get, uhm, yeah, this brand new shiny..uhm, reply?

  3. You're drinking too many pints to be first! Slows reaction time, don't you know?

  4. Wow! Thanks for putting all the work into this. I'm bummed I wasn't quick enough to be the first commentator, and it seems I'm several days late and a couple dollars short, but at least there's always beer...

  5. Ellie,

    It appears beer causes one to lose out on lots of stuff. But it is worth it don't you agree?