Why I’m Almost a Lutheran

Martin LutherTrack this and tell me that God doesn’t work in mysterious ways:

1. When I was hired to come to a Baptist/Pietist/evangelical college as the new European historian, I was expected to teach an upper-level course on the Reformations. The last time I had studied this chapter in history was… oh, the first week of HIS102 my first year in college.

2. Having taught myself enough Reformation history to be dangerous, I parlayed my newfound expertise into a gig teaching an adult Sunday School on the subject. I remember almost nothing about that experience except (a) the time my projector failed and I had to improvise a lecture on the Radical Reformation, and (b) meeting my wife, dutifully attending alongside the aunt and uncle who were giving her lodging during her grad school years. (Yes, I dated one of my students.)

3. To complete the irony, it turned out that I had fallen hard for the daughter of a Lutheran pastor — whose son is now at Luther Seminary and living a few blocks from us.

So while I’ve managed to maintain my impossible-to-explain-briefly identity as a Covenanter — not this one, or this onethis one — along this unlikely path of mine, I’ve learned to appreciate a great deal about the Lutheran tradition. I’m an evangelical and a Pietist, but I’m almost a Lutheran, for the following reasons:


Simultaneously sinner and saint. Free lord of all, subject to none; dutiful servant of all, subject to all. The finite is the bearer of the infinite…

As a Christian scholar (and especially as an evangelical whose own tradition has tended towards more black-and-white solutions), I tend to agree with Richard Hughes that the Lutheran capacity for paradox is among the tradition’s major contributions to Christian thought:

Hughes, How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the MindOf all the paradoxes that abound in the Lutheran vision, there is none more supportive of the life of the mind than Luther’s notion of the two kingdoms. In his view, the Christian lives in the world and in the kingdom of God — or, to put it another way, in nature and in grace — and does so simultaneously. In fact, in Luther’s vision, God employs the finite dimensions of the natural world as vehicles that convey his grace to human beings….

Precisely for this reason, Luther suggested that the distinction we often wish to make between the sacred and secular spheres may be fraught with more ambiguity than we may wish to admit….

The truth is, the Lutheran tradition possesses some of the most potent theological resources for sustaining the life of the mind that one can imagine. It encourages dialogue between the Christian faith and the world of ideas, fosters intellectual humility, engenders a healthy suspicion of absolutes, and helps create a conversation in which all conversation partners are taken seriously. (Hughes, How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind, pp. 89, 93)


The fact that the tradition produced Bach and added his sola (to the glory of God alone) to those of Luther is almost enough by itself, but I appreciate Lutheranism for two other, more recent musical contributions.

F. Melius Christiansen
F. Melius Christiansen (1871-1955) – Minnesota Historical Society

First, the fact that the American Midwest has such stellar high school, college, and church choirs puts us substantially in the debt of F. Melius Christiansen (the Norwegian emigrant who in 1911 founded the choir at St. Olaf College of Northfield, MN) and those who continue that tradition at St. Olaf (Anton Armstrong, among others), Luther College of Decorah, IA (my wife’s alma mater), Concordia College of Moorhead, MN (René Clausen), and elsewhere. From Paul Benson’s synopsis on the history of the Scandinavian-American Lutheran choral tradition:

F. Melius Christiansen was a choral perfectionist par excellence and a romantic devotee who had a special instinct for the dramatic and a deeply spiritual nature. Christiansen’s frequently quoted statement that his art was his religion and religion was his art perfectly reflects the importance he placed on the choir’s singing. For Christiansen, the choir was much more than a vehicle for entertainment; it was always his goal to move the audience to a higher spiritual consciousness….

One must try to visualize the spirited a cappella singing of numberless isolated Lutheran congregations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Iowa, and the Pacific Northwest. These years of singing the old Lutheran chorales through bleak blizzards and searing summers fostered a love of choral music. Without the state-church trained musicians and the great organs of the European cathedrals, the pioneers developed a feeling for the sound of human voices blending together in choral and congregational singing.

Then there’s Marty Haugen…

I know that he’s in the United Church of Christ and writes for a Catholic publisher, but my favorite liturgical composer grew up in the American Lutheran Church, attended Luther College, and has composed a number of works popular within Lutheran worship. I could sing Holden Evening Prayer at every worship service and never be bored. (For that matter, we could just repeat his “Magnificat” on an eternal loop…)

As a member of Salem Covenant Church, I’m just happy every time “Gather Us In” and the other Haugen hymns in The Covenant Hymnal show up in my bulletin on Sunday mornings. If I were Lutheran, however, I’d swallow my annoyance at the sillier, more faddish aspects of the new ELCA hymnal and just trust that our worship planners would use Haugen’s Setting Two at least every other time we have Communion.

The Office of the Keys

There’s much that’s lovely in that setting, but like any Lutheran liturgy, it starts with words that confront us with ugliness. Addressing ourselves to the “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid,” we are instructed to confess our sins — all that’s particular about our falling short can be contemplated in silence, but together we confess aloud to God “that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”

I give full credit to my wife for helping me understand the importance of the Office of the Keys. Having grown up low-church evangelical, I was primed to view this — like most of the rest of the liturgy — as a rote recitation. But being married to a Lutheran helps me understand why our own worship services run substantial risks by not including confession of sin. Without that reminder of our own shortcomings, we risk approaching both Word and Sacrament with the mindset that we have perfect capacity to understand the former and no need of the grace conveyed in the latter.


Luther's Small Catechism
The original 1529 edition of Luther’s Small Catechism – Wikimedia

For all that, I don’t fully identify with Lutheranism. Here I’m sure I’ve inherited centuries-old suspicions from the first Pietists, always on the lookout for “dead orthodoxy” and “dumb idols” and perhaps too keen to separate the regenerate from everyone else.

But it does strike me, for example, that most mainline Lutheran churches in my experience have emphasized structural sin to the virtual exclusion of personal sin. (Evangelicals, of course, tend to make the opposite mistake.) And I wonder how many 21st century Lutherans remember the second half of Martin Luther’s description of the Office of the Keys (in his Small Catechism): “It is the authority which Christ gave to his church to forgive the sins of those who repent and to declare to those who do not repent that their sins are not forgiven.”

As Hughes continues:

…the strength of the Lutheran tradition is also its weakness…. it is difficult — incredibly difficult — to keep both sides of the paradox alive and to nurture each simultaneously. It is all too easy to sacrifice one side of the paradox in the interest of the other. When the paradox dissolves in this way, the risks can be absolutism on the one hand and relativism on the other. (p. 93)

9 thoughts on “Why I’m Almost a Lutheran

  1. Chris-interesting post on being almost Lutheran. The capacity for paradox, the acceptance of mysteries rather than forcing a rational resolution of paradoxes, the emphasis on personal sinfulness despite being saved–all are valuable. The distinction between law and gospel and their interconnectedness is central to Lutheranism yet very difficult for Calvinists to understand. Calvinists stress the third use of the law but Lutherans bounce off of it back to the second use (showing us our sinfulness). At the same time the full Book of Concord is too much to swallow. Much of the language attacks an antiquated view of the Catholic church. For these, reasons I am encouraged by Lutheran bodies that accept most of the Augsburg confession but not the full Book of Concord. The Lutheran prayer book, the small catechism, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s creed–all are very comforting in daily devotions. Other traditions (eg Anglican) have similar tools but Lutheran basics are solid. Anyway, you might want to check out the AFLC and the proto-Lutherans (Moravian church). Of course, the ECC also has Lutheran roots.

    1. Thanks, Jim. You’ve mentioned the parts of the Book of Concord that I know best; I can’t say I know, say, the Smalcald Articles all that well. (Though I suspect that’s true of most contemporary American Lutherans.)

      1. The post was running long, so I deleted this section… But the chief connection to Lutheranism that I’ve experienced in Covenant churches is the continuing use of Luther’s catechism in confirmation classes. I teach our 8th grade confirmands most every year on Reformation Sunday, so it’s always fun to have them read Luther’s answer to “What is justification?” in the context of telling his story — knowing that I sat in the same kind of class years before reading the same answer.

  2. Hi Chris! I really enjoyed reading this entry today! I have to of course add that I was there that beautiful Sunday when your projector broke and you had to improvise through the Sunday School lesson. I again must confess I don’t recall much of what you taught as I was practicing pain management at the time (from Katie’s jabs into my ribs as I kept telling her to raise her hand and how badly I wanted her to make the first move towards dating you). She told me to be quiet a lot during that Sunday School session but she did have a smile on her face that she was unable to hide 🙂

    Personally, I loved liturgy in the church. I am so sad when it is criticized for being too repetitious or rote. I LIKED the consistency and repetition because I knew exactly what the words said and could focus on PERSONALLY cleansing my heart and confessing my sins rather than reading words (and we all know I had some confessing to do!). I always thought it was important that the church/parents instruct children on what to do with liturgy. Once a child can read AND understand what they are doing then it is important to teach the child to treat liturgy like a prayer and talk personally to God about your confessions. I truly felt peace afterwards. I LOVED it when my dad told us “ALL your sins are forgiven”. Phew! (Especially because my heart to hearts with God usually involved some sass talk with my daddy himself!).

    I am very interested in this Hughes gentlemen. Once I can put down my Divergent series, I may have to pick up his book for some more “light reading”. I’m not a theologian nor a scholar so I dare not talk about what I do not know. Well, that’s not true…I talk all the time. However, since this is quite a scholarly community I will refrain from writing much on my thoughts of the paradox until we have another opportune time to talk at Christmas! I’m sure Lena can fill me in…great blog!!

  3. As a longtime lover of liturgy (and alliteration!), I appreciated this analysis. I’ve always thought of it as something akin to eating. Even if I have the same breakfast every morning for 40 years, it’s still nourishing whether I notice or not. With liturgy, the words become part of me, of us, ready to confess that “we have not loved You with our whole heart.” Liturgy reminds us that our experience is not definitive, and that we can expand and refine our understanding of incomprehensible Divinity by echoing the confession and praise of those who have worshiped before us.

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