Luther as Ecumenical Teacher

I had a bit of déjà vu this week, as I visited my seminary for an event for the first time in years. It was the annual Luther Colloquy, now expanded into a full week of activities as the Fall Academy. It was eerie, as the lectures I heard could have been given in their entirety when I was a student 25 years ago.  A presentation on “Luther and the Jews” added nothing new to what was said back then, while a presentation on whether Luther’s “Large Catechism” could serve as ecumenical common ground seemed to ignore everything that had happened in the Lutheran church over the past 25 years.

“We have a common baptism, and that is our starting point,” all agreed–without mentioning the fact that liberal Protestant circumlocutions for the Triune name are regarded by conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox as invalid.

“We share so much in the Catechism,” it was said–without mentioning justification by faith. “Oh,” some might argue, “wasn’t that resolved back in 1999?”  A large number of Lutheran and Catholic theologians thought that 1999 “Joint Declaration” a whitewash.

But let’s start by agreeing that Luther’s “Large Catechism” could be an ecumenical touchstone. I think it could–insofar as it reflects Luther’s presentation of basic Christian truth, for he insisted that truth be the basis of any Christian unity.  And these basic truths must not be compromised. This is most clearly stated in his “Smalcald Articles,” and the most fundamental point upon which there could be no compromise in his view was on the “chief article,” justification by faith alone.

Part II, Article I: The first and chief article.
1] That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4:25.

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.

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.

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.

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.

So when Luther sat down to write his catechisms, this was first and foremost in his mind. He didn’t intend these books of basic teaching to be contrary to the issues he was battling for, but rather as their presentation in a basic positive light–how they should be taught by fathers to their families, and by pastors to their churches.

And so he begins his Large Catechism by scolding pastors for their failure to do the basic teaching on the fundamentals of Christian faith:

We have no slight reasons for treating the Catechism so constantly [in sermons] and for both desiring and beseeching others to teach it, since we see to our sorrow that many pastors and preachers are very negligent in this, and slight both their office and this teaching; some from great and high art (giving their mind, as they imagine, to much higher matters], but others from sheer laziness and care for their paunches, assuming no other relation to this business than if they were pastors and preachers, for their bellies’ sake, and had nothing to do but, to [spend and] consume their emoluments as long as they live, as they have been accustomed to do under the Papacy.  …

To this there is added the shameful vice and secret infection of security and satiety, that is, that many regard the Catechism as a poor, mean teaching, which they can read through at one time, and then immediately know it, throw the book into a corner, and be ashamed, as it were, to read in it again.

Yea, even among the nobility there may be found some louts and scrimps, who declare that there is no longer any need either of pastors or preachers; that we have everything in books, and every one can easily learn it by himself; and so they are content to let the parishes decay and become desolate, and pastors and preachers to suffer distress and hunger a plenty, just as it becomes crazy Germans to do. For we Germans have such disgraceful people, and must endure them.

But for myself I say this: I am also a doctor and preacher, yea, as learned and experienced as all those may be who have such presumption and security; yet I do as a child who is being taught the Catechism, and ever morning, and whenever I have time, I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, etc. And I must still read and study daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, 8] but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and am glad so to remain.

Yes, indeed. There is laziness in our pastors and in our laity. There is laziness in our church leaders. And there is sin–pride that causes some to think they are above the simple teachings of Christian faith, above the simple statements of the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

So yes, I agree with the intent. The basic teachings of Christian faith are fundamental, and they must be the basis for any discussion of church unity. These must be the things that we assume, that we accept, that we proclaim, that we commit to heart and mind and not allow any pride or sophistry to get us to suppose that we are now above them.

What are these teachings?  The Creed says God created us, that he sent his Son to redeem us by his blood, that he is risen from the dead, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  The Ten Commandments are God’s Law, expressing his will for us.  The Lord’s Prayer is the simple teaching of the heart of Christian spirituality.  These, and marriage, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, are things that should be above controversy.

But what are the controversies in today’s churches?  The ELCA wants rapprochement with Rome, while saying to Rome, “We think you are wrong about marriage and sexuality and the nuptial meaning of the body. We want you to recognize our baptisms, and admit us to your table, but we want to baptize in any feminist way, and want you to accept it. We want to put behind us the teachings of justification by faith as proclaimed by Luther, and let’s just not talk about indulgences and merit and the saints.”

Both Rome and the ELCA embrace evolution–and neither offers more than lip service to the “Blessed Hope” of the return of Jesus Christ. They both embrace all kinds of spiritualities that are far removed from the simplicity of the Lord’s Prayer–labyrinths and meditations and liberation theology, from spiritualism to materialism, searching for things that are more than simple Christian faith.

To both, I think, Luther’s exhortation applies: study the catechism. Preach the catechism. Not his words, but the basic teachings of Christian faith. Preach and believe the fundamentals of the faith that are in the creed. Preach and teach the basics of the Ten Commandments. Don’t imagine that you know better than this. Don’t imagine that we know better. Don’t imagine that theologizing or liturgy are a substitute. For God’s Word abides for ever, and he does not change, and his Word retains its claim upon us.  This is most certainly true.