Why Lutherans aren't (modern) Evangelicals

Category error! Teachable moment!

No surprise that Lutherans are bad at "evangelism" when evangelism is defined, not in terms of proclaiming and living the gospel, which we may also be bad at, but in terms of mission to convert. "Seeking and saving the lost" requires a functional definition of who the "lost" are.

Housholder, in the link above, has a problem, and it's a problem of precisely the catechesis he doesn't believe is necessary in today's world. As Kierkegaard also noted, much closer to our time and culture, "the education of nominal Christians" is a perennial problem. Those who think it isn't have a remarkable tendency to be exemplars for that fact. The problem is that we assume that Lutherans mean what Christians mean, and that Christians mean what the dominant cultural assumptions suggest that they do. Which results in the considered opinion that Lutherans have "no functioning eschatology" (by which he means a single violent end-times break with the long-running creation, a "destination" he desires, even though he disavows the "Darby-based dog and pony show" version), and "no theology of mission" (by which he means "we have no idea how to get someone saved"). Housholder goes on to talk about this last point, as though it were separate from the first, but I want to stop here for a moment. They're connected at a very deep level, because the modern Evangelical eschaton drives modern Evangelical mission.

If by eschatology you mean a global/universal endpoint, which we categorize in terms of armed conflict between the forces of the devil and the forces of God, no, we don't. That stuff, which you note Luther engaged in with respect to his own times, is called "apocalyptic" and has nothing to do with the actual future. Don't make the mistake of thinking that Luther believed that Leo X was *the* Antichrist as in the Millenialist/dispensationalist vision of Antichrist's role in the end-times. That is a profoundly literalistic and modern mis-reading of a profoundly classical rhetorical strategy of the faith. Genesis Rabbah engages in the same strategies with respect to Rome, reading Israel's future hope for victory and justice as a subordinated people into an eschatological triumph over the peoples that have subjugated them. Apocalyptic has everything to do with stories of hope. "We will win in the end." God will deliver us from our oppressors. It is entirely appropriate that the 16th-century Evangelical movement in which Luther was involved saw themselves in that way, as very plainly oppressed by the powers of the Roman church with and through its state allies.

It is perverse and offensive for modern, white Evangelicals, belonging to and exercising influence in and upon the dominant imperial government in the world today, to appropriate such rhetoric. It becomes hegemonic, which is what modern Evangelical missions are about. In its worst forms, it says to the oppressed that if they are not on the side of power, they will go to hell, because God is on the side of power. Evangelism driven by such an eschatological vision and dominant worldly power is what supports the "convert the heathens" notion of mission. Everybody must become Christian, and we have either a time limit, or a goal which we are trying to bring about, in the eschaton. It would be equally perverse and offensive for the magisterial Lutheran denominations of the world to uphold.

Housholder goes on to talk about confessionalism, and opposes the catechetical emphasis to the missional one. But before I touch that, I would like to correct a few minor points: 1) the Diet of Augsburg was about uniting the Holy Roman Empire for the sake of fighting the "Turk" -- Muslims were not "unthinkably far away," and 2) there was very clearly a significant amount of "frontier," much of it embattled. We're talking about divided European states under the HRE, each with their own governance and their own ideas about how things should be done, and a whole lot of tension along a whole lot of borders. The Reformation conflicts didn't help matters in Imperial terms. This is important, because Housholder says a lot of different things about 'the Church" and what it was and wasn't doing at the time. Catholics from a whole lot of places were out conquering the world and making it safe for the expansion of the gospel. I'd call that a form of "missional Christianity," even if I don't approve of its motives or methods. In the meantime, reforming German Evangelicals were quite busy with their own battles from underneath the Empire, many of which were concentrated on the home front, and consolidating a solidary and defensible position against overwhelming attacks. So Luther, among many others, and the catechetical enterprise.

Because of these niggling little details, you can see I might disagree with a statement like this: "So the Confessions were written in a time when the main job of the Church was not seen as evangelization or global missions. It was the education of nominal Christians (hence the writing of the iconic and ubiquitous Small Catechism)."

The confessions (including the many that aren't Lutheran) tend to be concerned with defense of a position in difference from the official teaching of Rome and its local enforcers. They aren't about "the main job of the church," nor are the catechisms our primary confessional documents. They stem from a concern on the part of a small-but-growing body of Evangelical theologians for the faith-lives of a small-but-growing body of Evangelical congregations and the souls in them. There was a lot of theological wrangling going on, and as is ever the case, theological wrangling can be dangerous to the people in the congregations, who are often bargaining chips in a battle of theologians' opinions. True then, true now. Catechesis is a pastoral theological concern, and this is emphatically true of Luther's Small Catechism. It is, in its own right, a profoundly important mission of the church. When our position is the teaching and proclaiming of the gospel, one might even dare to call it evangelism.

Oh, but wait, we were talking about the decline of the Lutheran church, I forgot ... he hadn't mentioned it at all until more than halfway down. And proposes that the solution to our problems as Lutherans is Arminianism. No, wait, it's charismatic Pentecostalism. Do I have that right? Our solution to not having a Lutheran theology of missions is not to develop a Lutheran theology of missions? I wonder what the quite large number of active Lutheran missionaries in the world would say about that. But wait, we're not actually talking about world mission as a solution to local church growth, are we? Seriously? Two red herrings? This is about "reaching the next generation"? Well, why didn't you say so from the start! I feel bad about having fallen for the first set of arguments, even though I do enjoy talking about historic Lutheranism and modern Evangelical piety.

Comments

  1. Okay, so how do we go about our evangelism in this "post-modern" world and keep our theology true?

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  2. Great question, though not what I meant by "modern Evangelicals" in distinction from how Lutherans historically refer to themselves.

    Don't worry about keeping theology true. That's not the important thing. Theology is always in need of correction. God is true to us, and God's actions in Christ are true for us. Tell and live stories that connect the very particular life of God in the world (as God is still active!) to our very particular lives in the world. Preach the gospel in its purity, deliver the sacraments according to that gospel proclamation, and rely on the grace of God in which we stand. And be corrected in the gospel every day.

    It's all we've got, really.

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  3. Wow. Great response. Thanks, again, sir.

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