Lutherans Unique?

I said to another pastor on Thursday night that it makes me uncomfortable when Lutherans argue or present the case for why Lutherans are unique.  There are indeed some things on which Lutherans tend to focus (in a similar way, I think, to how Roman Christians focus on Mary): for example, the distinction between Law and Gospel (not, by the way, a paradox or even, really, a dialectic), or the primacy of Justification in any discussion of the Church’s ultimate existence.  But every time someone writes or says that “such-and-such makes Lutherans unique,” the “such-and-such” is either not unique to Lutherans, or it shouldn’t be.  Focusing, or even emphasizing, the uniqueness of Lutherans tends toward either the sectarian or the consumeristic.  If we are really unique, in that word’s actual meaning (“one of a kind”), then we are a sect.  If we are trying to get people to join us by saying why we are better than some others, then we have bought the consumeristic lie that we are in competition with the rest of American Christianity for an increasingly dwindling market share. 

On Saturday, I picked up the new First Things and, to my pleasant surprise, there was a short essay by Gilbert Meilaender [subscription required, but well worth it] (pp. 27-30) making much the same argument as I had (though, of course, with much more breadth and depth than I can–breadth and depth are characteristic of Meilaender).  Perhaps one of the reasons I like Meilaender’s essay is that I find myself nodding when he writes,

Inertia has always been a powerful force in my life.  I have long known that what seems to have been Luther’s temperament is not mine, and had I been around in the early sixteenth century, it’s likely I would have remained a catholic of the Roman communion.  But I was not, and, hence, I have to think through what sort ot reasons I might have now for doing what I am termperamentally inclined to do–stay where I am.

What does it actually mean to be Lutheran?  Some see it as a reform movement within the Church catholic, and some, like First Things‘ founder, Richard John Neuhaus (whose essay, btw, “How I Became the Catholic I Was,” is referenced by Meilaender’s title), as a reform movement that has accomplished its purpose, thus necessitating a return to Rome.  But, as Meilaender puts it, “it does not make sense to me to think of Lutheranism, or the Church more generally, in ways that largely bypass what five centuries of history have produced.” 

Although we have developed a distinct indentity from Rome, Meilaender points out what some Lutherans seem to have forgotten: that we claim the catholic tradition for our own:

…its central Trinitarian and Christological teachings formulated before and at the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon; its belief in baptism as the sacrament of initiation and in the Eucharistic presence of Christ’s body and blood; its determination to care for the vulnerable and voiceless, including the unborn.

So, for example, the first articles of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 acknowledge and affirm received aspects of the catholic tradition–about the Triune God, original sin, and Christ as the Son of God–before the Confession ever turns to questions that were in dispute.  Being Lutheran is, therefore, one way of being catholic.  Lutherans exist primarily to do what the church catholic should seek to do in every time and place: shape the lives of Christian people in faithful obedience, and be the voice of Christ in and to the world.

 Lutherans should indeed recognize that Rome is of immense importance for all Christians because we are “parasitic upon it, and its achievements and contributions are immense.  If the Church as the body of Christ must, as Bonhoeffer put it, take up space in the world, then it is simply a fact that the Roman church takes up a great deal of space…Rome takes up far more space–and therefore embodies Christian faith and faithfulness in a manner harder to ignore–than does the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.”  On the other hand, the space that Rome takes up is not without problems, since it takes up space as both an ecclesial institution and a political entity–“a blurring of distinctions that suggests that not all of the old sixteenth-century arguments have lost their significance.” 

But the part of the essay that strikes me hardest, that rings most true, is this:

If we Lutherans ourselves were clearer that to be Lutheran is to claim the catholic tradition as ours, we would avoid some of the mistakes that have gone a long way to hollowing out Lutheranism in this country.  In particular, we could rid of the annoying tic that leads so many Lutherans to try–constantly–to articulate something distinctively Lutheran (a sure sign we are worried that our continued existence cannot be justified and, irony of ironies, we must seek to accomplish that justification ourselves). 

And Meilaender quotes Kirkegaard to this effect: “Taken by itself, as the whole of Christianity, the Lutheran corrective [to the medieval Roman church] produces the most subtle type of worldliness and paganism.”  This magnifying and absolutizing of the Lutheran corrective of Justification by grace through faith alone, as true and necessary as it is, is why Lutherans (including myself) struggle with Adolf Koeberle’s The Quest for Holiness (that’s assuming anyone still reads this book; to my mind, the absolute best articulation of Justification and Sanctification that has ever been written) or Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship.  We often, like Luther (who was compelled by his situation), wear blinders to anything but Justification or the forgiveness of sins by pure grace.  Which is, not incidentally, why we (unlike Luther, Chemnitz, Gerhard, or Walther) have trouble preaching the Law as a good gift of God.  If the Gospel is good, and the Gospel always comes after the Law, our naturally antithetical ways lead us to perceive the Law as bad; reducing the message of the Scriptures to the Gospel (in its “narrow sense,” as Lutherans speak of it) necessarily and evidently leads to a form of antinomianism (as anyone surveying American Lutheranism can easily perceive).  “Though, of course,” as Meilaender parenthetically notes, “the antinomianism is never genuine.  The nomos [law] is simply taken over from the culture, and so, for example, condemnation of divorce or homosexuality is softened while insufficient commitment to ‘sustainability’ becomes a deadly sin.”

Moreover, once we Lutherans give up the obsessive search for something distinctively Lutheran–some teaching such as justification or the law/gospel distinction that must serve as the organizing principle of our entire theology–we will be free to recognize and augment the considerable contributions made by catholics of the Lutheran communion to the life of the one Church. … Many Lutherans of all stripes continue to search for distinctively Lutheran teachings taht offer a reason for our continued existence.  Indeed, quite often these days, whatever their differences, they alight on the same basic formula [bells and flashing lights should be going off! T.].  The distinction between law and gospel, so powerful for the care of souls, gets turned into the organizing principle of an entire theology–a distinctive theology, to be sure, but one that, as Kierkegaard saw, ‘produces the most subtle type of worldliness and paganism.’  We can do better, and, for the sake of the church catholic to whose tradition we lay claim, we should.

That last sentence is indicative of the whole thrust of the Lutheran Confessions (which is not actually the title.  They are not the “Lutheran” Confessions; they are the confessions of the Church catholic, and the confessors understood them this way, and this fact supports Meilaender’s thesis).  Lutherans exist, as always, to bear witness to, to confess, with all the saints the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ and its fruit in the lives of individual Christians and the whole Church, for the sake of the world.