Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lutheran ≠ German

This Sunday Lutheran churches around the world will observe the Festival of the Lutheran Reformation of the Church – the 493rd anniversary of Luther’s nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. (A great little summary of that here.)

Wittenberg was (and is) in Germany.

Martin Luther was a German.

Many Lutheran theological books and hymns were written in Germany, by Germans.

Lutheran churches in the United States were primarily propagated and populated by Germans, or by Americans of German descent. (Take no offense, our dear Norwegian brothers!)

Therefore, in the minds of some (including some Lutherans), Lutheran = German.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Lutheranism is a conviction, not a culture; a confession, not a nationality. I would suggest that there is absolutely nothing that is uniquely German about Lutheranism, except for the fact that many Germans throughout the ages have been Lutherans, and some of them have handed down to us some real treasures composed in the German language, treasures which, once translated, cease to be "German" treasures and simply become part of the vast pool of Christian treasures.

The Lutheran Reformation began and thrived in Germany, but it was not a German event. It was an ecclesiastical event. Lutheranism is not one of many cultural religions. It is nothing but the return to the form of sound doctrine that existed in the early Church and among the Church Fathers following the apostles before the corruptions of the papacy took hold. Lutheranism is The Catholic Faith that is to be taught and believed throughout the world until Christ returns.

The Reformation restored to the Church the true nature of what it means to be “catholic.” To be catholic is not to be beholden to a pope in Rome, or to any man's teaching, or to any man’s whim. To be catholic is to stand on the orthodox truth of the gospel as it has been handed down to us by the apostles of Jesus Christ. To be catholic is to be bound to Christ by means of the one gospel of Christ, the gospel as the whole teaching of God that centers and culminates in the sending and sacrificing of His Son for the justification of sinners. To be catholic is to be freed from the allegiance to man and to culture and nationality and to understand one's place in the grand structure of the Church. To be catholic is to transcend tribalism and personal preference as people from every nation are united to Christ and to one another through faith in the gospel. It is to celebrate the true unity of souls who gather around the One Gospel, rather than to celebrate diversity or emphasize our differences.

The Reformation also restored to the Church the practices that correspond to the gospel. Purchasing forgiveness by buying an indulgence – that practice does not correspond to the gospel. Preaching sermons that have more to do with building castles in Spain than with faith – that practice does not correspond to the gospel. Turning the worship service (i.e., the Mass) into man’s work for God instead of God’s work for man – that practice does not correspond to the gospel. Prescribing acts of penance to merit the forgiveness of sins, frightening God’s people with fictitious stories of purgatory, sending Christians to the saints for help – these are not practices that correspond to the gospel.

Keeping the festivals of the saints, not to pray to them or to benefit from their merits, but to give thanks to God for these gifts to the Church and to learn to imitate their faith and their way of life; preaching people to the Sacrament on the Lord’s Day and on festivals; restoring the Mass as the place where God works and God serves in the Means of Grace and His people receive; teaching people to make the sign of the cross, not as superstition, but as a daily remembrance of their baptism into Christ crucified; pointing people away from themselves and ever and always to Christ, Christ and only Christ for forgiveness, assurance, comfort and strength to bear the cross – now those are practices that correspond to the gospel! These are Lutheran practices, and there's nothing German about them.

When we believe, teach and confess the words of the Lutheran Confessions (whether in Latin or German or English), we are not confessing German truth, but Scriptural truth which is true for all men alike, regardless of their nationality.

When we use the Western Rite of the Liturgy, as the Reformers did, we are not worshiping in the “preferred style” of the Germans. The Western Rite of the Liturgy is not German at all. Its texts are not German texts, but Scriptural texts, ecclesiastical texts. Its order is not a German order, but an order naturally flowing from its content of Word and Sacrament, an order that has been around for over a thousand years and has been used in virtually every country around the Western world. When we worship like the Reformers worshiped, we are not worshiping like Germans. We are worshiping like Christians, among whom the German Reformers are certainly to be counted.

When we chant in worship, as the Reformers did, we are not singing in the “heart language” of the Germans. We are using a very simple, modest melody with just a hint of God-given beauty and artistry, so that it still draws far more attention to the text than it does to itself. When we sing "A Mighty Fortress," we are not singing a German hymn. We are singing a Christian hymn, the text of which speaks of Christ and His embattled but victorious Church throughout the world, the tune of which is accessible to Christians from any culture who are willing to learn it. (See here for an example from the Congo.)

When (or if) we use a pipe organ, we are not using the “heart instrument” of the Germans. We are using an instrument that has proven its ability to support the voice of the congregation. Many people of German descent (like myself) would never think of listening to organ music during the week. But they (myself included) agree that it is a (but not the only) useful churchly instrument for accompanying the singing of God’s people.

This Sunday afternoon, my congregation will be hosting a joint Reformation service that is based on the Deutsche Messe (the "German Mass"), Luther's German version of the Western Rite. The service will be chanted a la Deutsche Messe, including the Scripture lessons. It will also include several old, Lutheran chorales composed hundreds of years ago by German composers in Germany – though sung now in English. Much of the service will be accompanied with an organ (as well as piano, trumpet and violin).

But let no one make the mistake of calling this Divine Service a "German" service, or a service for "Germans." The food served at a Lutheran potluck may well be German. But the Food served at a Lutheran Divine Service – there’s nothing German about it, no matter how many Luther hymns may be sung.

Lutheran ≠ German. Lutheran = Orthodox. Lutheran = Christ-centered. Lutheran = gospel-centered. Lutheran = catholic. Lutheran = Christian.

A blessed Reformation to all of our Intrepid Lutheran subscribers and readers!

Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr'!


Lisette Anne Lopez said...

"Lutheranism is The Catholic Faith that is to be taught and believed throughout the world until Christ returns."

Good point!

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Fantastic Post - and congrats on being the Issues Etc Blog of the Week.

Pastor Jeff Samelson said...

Congratulations on making Issues, Etc. Blog of the Week!

Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...

Pr. Brown,

Thanks for your kind words! I don't always comment, but you put out some very solid insights at the Confessional Gadfly. Amen, Amen and Amen to this one: I Have an It's Time of My Own.

And may you find the WELS to be equally ready for such an inspiring venture!

En Cristo,

Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...

Thanks, Pr. Samelson!

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