Lutherans are nothing new
This was their moment.
It was June 25th, 1530, in Augsburg, Germany; the 489th anniversary just passed this week. At three o'clock on that Saturday afternoon a group of princes who aligned themselves with the teachings of the Reformation (Luther himself was not present) began reading aloud their Confession of faith—what has come to be known as the Augsburg Confession, still the fundamental Confession for Lutherans.
In the thirteen years since Luther pinned his 95 theses on the Wittenberg door, the reform movement had spread and matured and taken on a life of its own. Now its leaders had the ear of Emperor Charles V, on a day that would prove to be every bit as important—and maybe more so—than October 31st, 1517. What would they say?
You would expect them to establish their distinctiveness—the new insights or practices that, in their minds, set themselves apart. You might think they'd tout how a reinvigorated church was emerging from the shell of the old. Or you might simply suppose that they'd torch their critics with a firestorm of Scripture.
But that's not what happened.
The Augsburg Confession begins without controversy.
Article I doesn't tackle the Pope or indulgences or even justification by faith. No, it's simply labeled "God." In this article the Lutherans espouse long-established Christian orthodoxy. They affirm the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D. They repudiate the ancient heresies. In short, they don't say anything especially headline-worthy.
And things don't much change from there. For twenty more articles the Lutherans lay out in simple, straight-forward, biblically-based prose the essential teachings of what you might call "mere Christianity." They address the definition of the Church, the place of good works, the use of the sacraments, the return of Christ, and so on. Most of the articles are so short that they're practically tweetable. Not exactly a blueprint for a revolution.
But then, beginning with Article XXII (On receiving both "kinds" [bread and wine] in the Sacrament), they take up their real beefs—and not just in Article XXVI on "the distinction of meats" (sorry, couldn't help myself). In these articles they address the abuses they have identified in the Roman church. So now it's gonna get serious, right? Let's get ready to rumble!
No, not exactly. Even in these seven articles the focus is not on disparaging their opponents so much as attempting to bring them back to a proper understanding of the gospel. For those looking for some rousing rhetoric or revolutionary aspiration, they will need to look elsewhere. What gives? What are these Lutherans up to?
They make explicit in the conclusion what is implicit throughout.
"These are the chief articles that seem to be in controversy," they write. "We could have mentioned more abuses. But here we have set forth only the chief points in order to avoid making this Confession too long." A sensible consideration, that.
They go on: "Nothing has been said or brought up for the rebuke of anyone. We have mentioned only those things we thought it was necessary to talk about so that it would be understood that in doctrine and ceremonies we have received nothing contrary to Scripture or the Church catholic. It is clear that we have been very careful to make sure no new ungodly doctrine creeps into our churches."
In short, the Lutherans want to make clear that they are...nothing new. How's that for a marketing strategy?
In good Lutheran fashion, let us ask: What does this mean?
A few brief thoughts. At the most basic level, it means that Lutheranism is best understood not as a distinct denomination, but as a reform movement within the Church catholic (i.e. universal). As Gene Veith put it several years ago, Lutherans are "Evangelical Catholics." And the Augsburg Confession presents something like mere Christianity in a Lutheran dialect.
It means, secondly, that Lutherans should beware what longtime Valpo prof Gilbert Meilaender calls the "annoying tic" of attempting to "articulate something distinctively Lutheran." This is not to say, of course, that Lutherans haven't brought anything of value to the Christian tradition—of course we have and do. Rather, this means that we ought to define and identify ourselves in terms of the glorious biblical truths that we embrace, rather than the contrary things we denounce.
Thirdly, it means that we ought to be leery of "neomania"—in philosopher Nassim Taleb's words, a love of the new and novel for their own sake. Of course, Luther and the reformers introduced many changes in their churches, but never for the sake of "disruptive innovation." Every change was made with the intent of returning to a more ancient biblical precedent. The words of Jeremiah well describe the reformation MO: "Thus says the LORD: 'Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls" (6.16).
But mostly, it means that we should be joyful.
God preserves His church. Christ is with us always, true to His promise. The Holy Spirit continues to guide us into all truth. The Augsburg Confession, and the Lutheran tradition that grew out of it, is but one more testimony to the triune God who is faithful (as one of my friends puts it) to fools and little children.
What else is new?
Read the Augsburg Confession