Lutheranism Re-Examined

In writing my recent article on the Eucharist, I had to consider how my current thinking differs not only with the positions I held as a Catholic, but those I held as a Lutheran. The Eucharist is one of those areas. If I have to put a label on my Eucharistic views, I would say they come closest to those of Calvin, especially as expressed in the Consensus Tigurinus, which united the Reform movements of Zurich and Geneva.

I’ve also moved from the “Confessional Lutheran” view (that embraces the whole of the Book of Concord) closer in many ways to the position of the founder of my seminary, Samuel S. Schmucker, as expressed in various publications, including American Lutheranism Vindicated.

Of course I am not now a “Lutheran” in the sense of a member or a pastor of one of the Lutheran churches. I believe in Sola Scriptura, without any need to distinguish between norma normans and norma normata. The test for us cannot be what any individual or collection of individuals in history may have thought, but what does the Scripture say. I believe Luther uncovered tremendous truths of Scripture–but Zwingli and Calvin went further, the Anabaptists went further still on some points, as did Wesley, and others since.

So this article is for my own benefit; it’s a reflection on the path I’ve taken, and how I now see things differently as a result of that journey. I look at Schmucker because I went to the seminary he founded in Gettysburg. When I was there we laughed at him, and referred to his theology as “Schmucker’s Jam,” because we considered ourselves to be better Lutherans than he was. Now I turn to him and find a kindred spirit. In addition to the already mentioned American Lutheranism Vindicated, you may also find on-line his Elements of Popular Theology.

Schmucker produced what he called an “American Recension of the Augsburg Confession,” which was subsequently adopted by some of the Lutheran synods in the US (it is not used by any Lutheran group today). He eliminated the following elements that he saw to be contrary to Scripture:

1. The approval of the ceremonies of the mass.

2. Private Confession and Absolution.

3. Denial of the Divine obligation of the Christian Sabbath.

4. Baptismal Regeneration.

5. The real presence of the body and blood of the Saviour in the Eucharist.

I think several of these points are self-explanatory. I’m going to flesh out where I think Schmucker was on the right path, but didn’t go far enough.

The Augsburg Confession treats the Sabbath as a mere Jewish institution, and supposes it to be totally revoked whilst the propriety of our retaining the Lord’s Day or Christian Sabbath as a day of religious worship, is supposed to rest only on the agreement of the churches for the convenience of general convocation….

Our American churches, on the contrary, as well as some few in Germany, believe in the divine institution and obligation of the Christian Sabbath, or Lord’s day, convinced that the Old Testament Sabbath was not a mere Jewish institution; but that it was appointed by God at the close of the creative week, when he rested on the seventh day, and blessed it, and sanctified it, (Gen. ii. 2, 3,) that is, set it (namely, one whole day in seven,) apart for holy purposes, for reasons of universal and perpetual nature, Exod. xx. 11. Even in the re-enactment of it in the Mosaic rode, its original appointment is acknowledged, ‘Remember the Sabbath day–because in six days God made heaven and earth–and rested on the seventh; wherefore he, (then, in the beginning,) blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.’ Now this reason has no more reference to the Jews than to any other nation, and if it was sufficient to make the observance of the Sabbath obligatory on them, it must be equally so for all other nations before and after them.

‘Since therefore the observance and sanctification of a portion of his time, is based on universal reasons in the nature of man, especially as a religious being, and the proportion of time was fixed at a seventh, by the example and precepts of the Creator in the beginning; the Sabbath or religious observance of one day in seven, must be universally obligatory, and the abrogation of the Mosaic ritual, can at most only repeal those ceremonial additions which that ritual made, and must leave the original Sabbath as it found it.

Had Schmucker simply stopped there, I would be in agreement with him–except that he says the Bible enjoins merely “one day in seven,” whereas Scripture itself specifies the seventh day. Since he adopts the unscriptural notion that any day will do, he goes on to claim (without Scriptural evidence) that the apostles had authority to change the day to Sunday.

On baptismal regeneration he says,

In the case of all adults, the Scriptures represent faith in Christ as the necessary prerequisite to baptism, and baptism as a rite by which those who had already consecrated themselves to Christ, or been converted, made a public profession of the fact, received a pledge of the divine favor, or of forgiveness of sins, and were admitted to membership in the visible church. The same inspired records also teach, that if men are destitute of this faith, if they believe not, they shall be damned, notwithstanding their baptism. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, and he that believeth not, shall be damned,” Matt. xvi. 16. And Philip said to the eunuch, “If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest be baptized,” Acts viii. 37. “Repent and be baptized,” Acts ii. 38; viii. 62; xviii. 8. Hence if baptism required previous faith and repentance, or conversion in adults, and if, when they were destitute of this faith or conversion, they were damned, notwithstanding their baptism; it follows that baptism was not, and is not, a converting ordinance in adults, and does not necessarily effect or secure their regeneration.

Now that baptism cannot accomplish more in infants than in adults, is self-evident; hence if it is not a converting ordinance in adults, it cannot be in infants.

This very argument nullifies infant baptism–but Schmucker doesn’t see that. He accepts infant baptism as a tradition, and does not think to question it.

In Elements of Popular Theology (1834) Schmucker takes exception to the Augsburg Confession’s position of amillennialism, preferring instead a postmillennial position. He says (p. 289),

… [T]he millennium will consist of an extraordinary and general diffusion of Christianity successively among all the nations of the earth, effected through the increased application of the appointed means of grace in all their legitimate forms, by professing Christians, accompanied by extraordinary effusions of the Holy Spirit.

The best argument that he can advance for this unscriptural notion is that “It is probable from the very design of the gospel” (p. 290). He thinks the time for its commencement can be deduced from Scripture, and he references the 1260 days, counting them as years, and supposes the start is either the accession of the Roman power or the Islamic. I haven’t read anything he may have written about William Miller; he certainly shared his hermeneutical principles on these points, but had a very different view of the millennium, being unable to see the Scriptural truth that Jesus will return before the millennium.

Later in his section on eschatology he professes his belief in the immortality of the soul, dismissing those who would reject it as “infidels and materialists.” His sole proof is the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus; he doesn’t look at any of the Scriptural evidence for belief in conditional immortality.

So there are areas where I would go further than Schmucker, and areas where I think he properly went beyond the Augsburg Confession. But there is one area where he, I, and all strict “Confessional” Lutherans must agree, and that is on the primacy of justification by faith alone.

As it is put in the Augsburg Confession:

Article 4–1] Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.

And in the Smalcald Articles:

The first and chief article is this,

1] That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4:25.

2] And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1:29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53:6.

3] Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom. 3:23f

4] Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3:28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise 3:26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.

5] Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4:12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53:5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the [whole] world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us.

Likewise, in Article 13 of that same document:

1] What I have hitherto and constantly taught concerning this I know not how to change in the least, namely, that by faith, as St. Peter says, we acquire a new and clean heart, and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator. And although sin in the flesh has not yet been altogether removed or become dead, yet He will not punish or remember it.

2] And such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins is followed by good works. And what there is still sinful or imperfect also in them shall not be accounted as sin or defect, even [and that, too] for Christ’s sake; but the entire man, both as to his person and his works, is to be called and to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us [unfolded] and spread over us in Christ. 3] Therefore we cannot boast of many merits and works, if they are viewed apart from grace and mercy, but as it is written, 1 Cor. 1:31: He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord, namely, that he has a gracious God. For thus all is well. 4] We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, faith is false and not true.

This is the firm foundation of the New Testament and of the Reformation. This must be maintained, though all else fail.