„Lutheranism” — What’s in a Name?

For those who know and appreciate the faithful Scriptural teachings of Dr. Martin Luther, it can be quite disturbing to see the name of Luther associated with church bodies that blatantly teach contrary to what is clearly set forth in the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions.  Perhaps the most egregious example of this is found in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), which also happens to be the largest “Lutheran” church body in the United States.  And while an obvious argument could be made that those who so thoroughly depart from sound Lutheran (Biblical) teachings have no business calling themselves “Lutherans,” there are also those who advance the argument that no churches and no Christians should be called Lutheran.  One notable person who asserted that point quite strongly was Luther himself.  In 1522 he wrote “A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to All Christians to Guard against Insurrection and Rebellion,” in which the Reformer firmly stated:  “I ask that men make no reference to my name; let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans.  What is Luther?  After all, the teaching is not mine.  Neither was I crucified for anyone.  …How then should I —poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am— come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name?  Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after Him whose teachings we hold” (Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 45, pp. 70–71).

So then why do we call ourselves “Lutherans”?  Why does every single congregation in our Conference (as well as the Conference itself) have the word “Lutheran” in its name?  What does it even mean to be truly “Lutheran”?  It certainly does not mean that we worship Luther, or make him our “Pope,” or place his writings on a par with the Bible; nor do we praise and defend everything that Luther ever said or did.  On the contrary, we readily acknowledge that he was a fallible, sinful human being (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 5:12).  But by calling ourselves “Lutherans,” we testify that we follow the example of Luther in holding firmly to the teachings of Holy Scripture and rejecting the doctrines of men (cf. Matthew 15:9) —including all teachings based upon tradition or rationalism.  Furthermore, by calling ourselves “Lutherans,” we also confess that we believe and teach without reservation the doctrines that Luther and the other faithful men who aligned themselves with him set down in writing and included in the Lutheran Confessions, namely, the Small and Large Catechisms of Luther, the Augsburg Confession, the Apology [Defense] of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, and the Formula of Concord.

Now if we believe that the doctrines set forth in those Lutheran Confessions are a correct exposition of what the Bible teaches in the matters which they treat, then we must not seek to disassociate ourselves from them (and from the correct teachings of Scripture by extension) by shunning the title “Lutheran.”  Later in the same year as the above-cited quotation from Luther (1522), while still maintaining that he did not want his followers calling themselves “Lutherans,” he also rebuked those who sought privately to align themselves with him but, in order to avoid persecution, publicly disavowed the name of Luther.  In his “Receiving Both Kinds in the Sacrament,” Luther writes:

There are some among them [those whom Satan has now begun to persecute] who think that when they are attacked they can escape the danger by saying, “I do not hold with Luther or with anyone else but only with the holy Gospel and the holy church, or with the Roman church.”  For saying so they think they will be left in peace.  Yet in their hearts they regard my teaching as the teaching of the Gospel and stand by it.  In reality this kind of statement does not help them, and it is in effect a denial of Christ.  Therefore, I beg such people to be very careful.  (Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 36, p. 265).

He goes on to say:  “If you are convinced that Luther’s teaching is in accord with the Gospel and that the Pope’s is not, then you should not discard Luther so completely, lest with him you discard also his teaching, which you nevertheless recognize as Christ’s teaching.”  Luther then accentuates his point by referring to how the Apostle Paul told Timothy:  “Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me, His prisoner” (II Timothy 1:8), saying:

If it had been enough here for Timothy to confess the Gospel, Paul would not have commanded him not to be ashamed also of Paul —not of Paul as a person but of Paul as a prisoner for the sake of the Gospel.  Now if Timothy had said, “I do not hold with Paul or with Peter, but with Christ,” when he knew that Peter and Paul were teaching Christ, then he would actually thereby have denied Christ Himself.  (Luther’s Works, American Edition, op. cit., p. 266).

Similarly, since we acknowledge that Luther was a faithful teacher of God’s Word, we are not ashamed to align ourselves with him by calling ourselves “Lutherans.”

It would certainly be wrong and sinful if we were to call ourselves “Lutherans” either because we were following Luther instead of Christ, or if we were using that title to make unbrotherly divisions within a group of like-minded Christians.  We would then need to be admonished and corrected with the reproof given by St. Paul to the Corinthians, saying:  “Every one of you saith, ‘I am of Paul;’ and ‘I of Apollos;’ and ‘I of Cephas;’ and ‘I of Christ.’  Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?” (I Corinthians 1:12–13).  “For while one saith, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are ye not carnal?  Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed?” (I Corinthians 3:4–5).  Thus it is important that we clearly explain what we mean and what we do not mean when we call ourselves “Lutherans.”  Dr. C. F. W. Walther reports that Georg, Margrave of Brandenburg, at the time of the Reformation, responded to an accusation (which was meant to be an insult) that he was “Lutheran” by stating:

I have not been baptized on Luther.  He is not my God and Savior.  I do not believe in him, nor will I be saved by him.  And in that sense, therefore, I am not a Lutheran.  But if I am asked, if with heart and mouth I confess the doctrine that God has given once more through His salutary instrument, Dr. Luther, then I have no second thoughts or shame over calling myself Lutheran; and in this sense I am and will remain a Lutheran my whole life (“Der Lutheraner,” Vol. 1, No. 4, October 19, 1844, page 15, translated by Joel Baseley).

That kind of clear distinction is good for us to make when we are asked about why we use the name Lutheran in a description of our Christian faith.

Now some would say that, when talking to others about our religious beliefs, it is wiser to avoid mentioning Luther or the Lutheran Confessions but to restrict ourselves to statements such as:  “I’m a Christian, and I believe what the Bible teaches.”  Such an expression is certainly good and true; however, it is not really saying enough about what we believe, since Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Methodists, non-denominational Evangelicals, etc. (even the anti-Trinitarian Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) also call themselves “Christians” and also say that they believe what the Bible teaches.  We would definitely not want people to confuse what we believe with what those other groups teach and profess; nor would we want them to think that we all basically share the same faith.  Thus we call ourselves “Lutherans” so that we distinguish ourselves from other so-called “Christian” groups, which teach a great many things contrary to the Scriptures.  Likewise, we use creedal statements, such as those found in the Lutheran Confessions and not simply state, “The Bible is our creed,” so that we distinguish ourselves from the many other groups who say that they believe and follow the Bible, though they really do not.  Other titles that could apply to us in certain respects, such as “Protestant,” “Evangelical,” or “Reformed,” might sufficiently disassociate us from the Romanists and the Eastern Orthodox, but would not testify to any differences between us and the rest of outward Christendom.

But the name “Lutheran” does mark an important distinction in the Protestant landscape.  Non-Lutheran Protestants —which can basically be broken down into the two categories of Arminian Reformed and Calvinistic Reformed— typically distort, on the basis of human reason, the pure doctrines of God’s Word in their teachings (particularly in the areas of Christology and the Sacraments).  For example, unlike the Reformed, true Lutherans accept what the Bible teaches about the true, real body and blood of Christ being present in, with, and under the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26–28; I Corinthians 10:16; 11:27); and, unlike the Reformed, true Lutherans accept what the Bible teaches about the benefits of Baptism as a “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), as a means through which the forgiveness of sins is offered, given, and sealed (Acts 2:38; 22:16), and thus as a means through which sinners are saved (Mark 16:16; I Peter 3:21).  Distinguishing themselves from the other religious groups that arose in the wake of the Reformation, those who have followed the Scriptural example and teachings of Luther have, down through the years, used the name “Lutheran” as a testimony to their faithful adherence to the Bible, since Luther was a faithful teacher of the Scriptures, and since the Lutheran Confessions rightly set forth the doctrines of God’s Word in the matters which they treat.

However, there have been many false teachers and false churches and church bodies that have also used the name “Lutheran.”  Shortly after Luther’s death, there were those who called themselves “Lutherans” but taught contrary to what Luther rightly taught on the basis of Holy Scripture (F. Bente, Historical Introductions, §131, Concordia Triglotta, p. 103).  For example, Philip Melanchthon, who many people believed would continue to defend and promote the true doctrine as taught by Luther, began advancing a false teaching known as synergism —the teaching that man must work together with the Holy Ghost in order to bring about his conversion (either by active cooperation with the Spirit, or by lesser resistance)— contrary to such passages as I Corinthians 2:14; 12:3; Ephesians 2:1–9, as well as the excellent statement of Luther in his Small Catechism:  “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith” (The Third Article, What Does This Mean?).  Indeed, not all who call themselves “Lutherans” believe and teach what Luther believed and taught.

Just because a church or denomination calls itself something, does not mean that its self-designation is accurate or factual.  For example, the Roman Catholic Church is not catholic or “universal” in the true sense of the word, for that would mean that it is the very Una Sancta —the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints (the whole number of true believers in Christ).  Likewise, the Eastern Orthodox Church is not orthodox in the true sense of the word, for that would mean that it teaches correctly in every point of Christian doctrine (“ortho-” = pure; “dox” = doctrine).  Similarly, just because a church calls itself Lutheran does not mean that it follows in the footsteps of Luther and the faithful Lutheran confessors of old.  No, within “Lutheranism” nowadays, the basic Reformation principle of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) is not consistently taught or followed, since so many teachings and practices that the Scriptures clearly condemn are promoted or at least allowed to continue without correction.  The ELCA as a group does not even take the Bible literally in matters such as the creation of all things in six 24-hour days and the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  In the LCMS (Missouri Synod), there is no consistency of doctrine and practice; thus the Scriptures are not rightly used “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16), nor do these “Lutherans” “shun profane and vain babblings” (II Timothy 2:16) in their midst.  The WELS (Wisconsin Synod) —as well as the COLC and ELS— do not “hold fast the form of sound words” (II Timothy 1:13) but distort the clear teachings of Holy Scripture in the doctrine of the Church and its Ministry on the basis of human investigation and creative interpretations.  Manifestly, therefore, it should be understood that randomly trolling in the sea of “Lutheranism” in the hopes of finding a church body that is faithful to God’s Word is not a wise course of action.

Thankfully, those who desire to find a true-teaching local Christian congregation need not haphazardly stumble through a list of all the different church bodies and denominations that have nice sounding, even “Lutheran,” names.  The Lord has given us the Scriptures to use in determining what visible churches are true and which ones are false.  So if a local church or a church body teaches and/or practices contrary to what is taught in the Bible and refuses to hear and to heed correction (cf. Brief Statement, §29), that is a heterodox (“hetero-” = other than [pure]; “dox” = doctrine) congregation or church body and one to be avoided (no matter whether or not it has “Lutheran” in its name).  “Mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them” (Romans 16:17).  Emphasizing the importance of testing with Holy Scripture all those who claim to be teachers of God’s Word, the Apostle John writes:  “Believe not every spirit, but try [test] the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (I John 4:1).  By the grace of God alone, we in the Concordia Lutheran Conference are able to pass that test; and all our members are encouraged to verify what they are taught with what is clearly written in the Bible, as did the Bereans with respect to the teachings of Paul (Acts 17:11).  Furthermore, we invite those outside our Conference who are curious about what we teach to contact any of our pastors to give them opportunity to testify and to demonstrate both what we believe and why we believe it on the basis of Holy Scripture (I Peter 3:15).

Even though using the name “Lutheran” does distinguish us from many different false-teaching groups, it does not distinguish us from other false teaching churches that also use “Lutheran” in their names, as we have pointed out above.  Thus, we further specify that we are CLC Lutherans, or Lutherans of the Concordia Lutheran Conference.  And, thankfully, that title does give a clear testimony concerning what is taught in our congregations and in our seminary, and what is publicly available in our confessional documents (See www.concordialutheranconf.com).  May God the Holy Ghost continue to preserve us in the full truth and purity of His precious Word in both doctrine and practice!  And may we never be ashamed to declare our doctrinal agreement with Luther or any other faithful preacher of the Gospel (II Timothy 1:8)!

P.  E.  B.