An Open Letter to Lutherans

Dear Pr. X,

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For some twenty years I was Lutheran. I read the Book of Concord many times, and spent innumerable hours arguing Lutheran theology. I enjoyed the give and take, the parry and thrust, the lively debates and the hostile arguments. Eventually, however, the arguments weren’t enough. The jargon wasn’t enough. The Book of Concord wasn’t enough. Eventually I discovered questions for which Lutherans had no answers, and Lutheran arguments that were inconsistent, short-sighted, and just plain wrong. And so I am writing this letter concerning some of my struggles with the Lutheran faith. Maybe I’m wrong in my conclusions, or maybe I’m wrong for writing this. May God forgive me.

A few years ago I was introduced to Vincent of Lerins and the Vincentian Canon: Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus; that which is believed everywhere, always, and by all. This is the classic definition of catholicity, and the standard by which Vincent of Lerins proposed to discern truth from heresy. I find myself troubled by this, as the Lutheran doctrine of justification, the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, fails this crucial test; and in failing this test, the Lutheran church is revealed as schismatic and sectarian rather than part of the church catholic.

The early church seems to have held to the Christus Victor or the ransom theories of the atonement. The idea of atonement as a satisfaction of God’s offended honor was a late development, coming from Anselm of Canterbury’s book, Cur Deus Homo, written in the 11th century. From the Protestant Reformation came the idea of Penal Substitution, which is derivative of Anselm of Canterbury, and made popular in the 16th century by Luther, Calvin, and the Protestant Reformers. (See Dr. Masaki, Contemporary Views on Atonement, Concordia Theological Quarterly, October 2008) Since forensic justification is such a late development, how then is it catholic? And if the doctrine by which the church stands or falls is not catholic, how then are Lutherans part of the one, holy, apostolic, and catholic church?

St. Athanasius, writes the following in Chapter 2 of On the Incarnation:

The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required. Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all.

This is clearly not substitutionary atonement, and clearly not penal satisfaction. For Athanasius, justification is not forensic, no matter how Dr. Weinrich spins it. (Weinrich, God Did Not Create Death: Athanasius on the Atonement, Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vol. 72, Num. 4)

Polycarp, disciple of the apostle John, writes the following in his Epistle to the Philippians:

…our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sins suffered even unto death, [but] “whom God raised from the dead, having loosed the bands of the grave.” “In whom, though now ye see Him not, ye believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory;” into which joy many desire to enter, knowing that “by grace ye are saved, not of works,” but by the will of God through Jesus Christ. (Polycarp, Epistle to the Philippians, chap. I)

While this passage does not provide the details of soteriology, yet it is significant that Polycarp provides not even a hint of substitutionary atonement, nor any idea of juridical satisfaction. Polycarp does not see salvation in terms of the Father seeking satisfaction for his offended honor, nor in terms of the Father as judge seeking to fulfill some juridical mandate.

This focus on forensic justification to the exclusion of other views was exemplified for me when I attended a symposia at Concordia Theological Seminary. Dr. Just was given the topic of Justification in the book of Galatians. He concluded that in Galatians, Paul spoke of justification more in terms of a recreation than as forensic. As it happens, I was seated next to the recently departed Rev. Klemet Preus (writer The Fire and the Staff, and son of the late Dr. Robert Preus). Rev. Preus was incensed by Dr. Just’s presentation, and I later saw him commenting on it in a vociferous manner to Dr. Wenthe, the President of Concordia Theological Seminary. This became quite a contentious issue among the so-called Confessional Lutherans, many of whom accused Dr. Just of the Ossiandrian heresy for suggesting that justification could be anything other than forensic. But of course, Dr. Just was correct, as born out by scripture.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (1 Cor 5:17-21)

This idea of justification as regeneration or recreation is even found in the explanation of the Small Catechism on the Sacrament of Holy Baptism:

What does Baptism give or profit?–Answer.

It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

Which are such words and promises of God? Answer.

Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Mark: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

How can water do such great things?–Answer.

It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost, as St. Paul says, Titus, chapter three: By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying. (SC IV, 5-10)

This leads me into another problem with Lutheranism: its antinomianism. Yes, I know the arguments about the third use of the law, but in the words of Dr. Phil: “How’s that working out for you?” Lutherans give lip service to the third use of the law, yet most Lutheran pastors don’t preach it, and most Lutherans don’t live it. “You are free,” as my Lutheran pastor once sermonized, “you don’t have to do anything.” Let’s see what Polycarp would say about that.

He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, false witness; “not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing,” or blow for blow, or cursing for cursing, but being mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching: “Judge not, that ye be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that ye may obtain mercy; with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again;” and once more, “Blessed are the poor, and those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God. (Polycarp, Epistle to the Philippians, chap. II)

Lutherans do not preach this way, and would consider it the preaching of the law. The law is a curb, a judge, and a guide, many say. Lutherans do not believe, teach and confess that we will be raised “if we do his will, and walk in His Commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness.” Lutherans do not preach the law as a guide for holy living; Lutherans especially do not preach the law as a necessity for salvation, as did the early church. Lutherans preach that we have been set free from the law of sin and death, as sayeth the scriptures, but then neglect the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15); and again, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (John 15:10).

I find a striking pattern in the epistles of the blessed apostle. The first two thirds are usually concerned with matters of theology, while the latter third is concerned with matters of church order, and with prescriptions for holy living. The epistles to the Corinthian Church are even more explicit, mixing prescriptions for church order and discipline, theology, and exhortations to holy living throughout these letters. How we live as Christians mattered to the apostle. We are to live out our faith; we are to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Other New Testament authors say the same. James tells us to resist the devil (Jas 4:7). In his exhortation to holy living, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews write: “Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (Heb 12:4).

Let us examine some of the works which preserve the church order of the early church. The Didache (a.k.a. the Teachings of the Apostles), is a very early work, perhaps written as early as 70 AD, possibly preserving for us the church order of Jerusalem. The Didache contains very little doctrine, but is mostly concerned with matters of church order, church practices, and holy living. (Anonymous 2004)

In the third century, Hippolytus (c. 170-c. 236) wrote his Apostolic Traditions, preserving the church order and practices in use in Alexandria, but containing none of what we today would call doctrine. (Hippolytus 1997)

The so-called Constitutions of the Holy Apostles appears to be a second or third century work (with fourth or fifth century interpolations), which preserves the church order and practices of the churches in Asia Minor. This work consists of eight books, most of which are solely concerned with church order and holy living. Only the sixth book against Heresies contains any doctrine—and apart from a creedal portion in Section III entitled An Exposition of the Preaching of the Apostles, most of the work consists of a description of various errors or of the prescriptions of the apostles. What we would term the doctrinal portion of this work is surprisingly brief. (Anonymous, Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 2004) From these we may surmise that doctrine was considered a mystery, passed on orally in the early church, and that how one lived and worshiped was also a matter of great concern in the early church.

This conclusion is born out by the Anti-Nicene Fathers, who over and over again exhort their readers to holy living, to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. This is such a common theme that I am forced to ask why this same fervor for holy living is lacking amongst Lutherans? I once noted that I received more moral guidance from Dr. Laura, a secular Jew, than from my own pastor. I wondered why that was, and presumed that it was because my then pastor was from a more liberal wing of the Missouri-Synod. But I have since been forced to reexamine my conclusion since I see this same tendency no matter on which side of the theological or political spectrum a Lutheran pastor falls.

Lutherans are more concerned with purity of doctrine than with purity of life. Of course purity of doctrine is important, but doctrine does not save. We do not work out our own salvation through more and more learning, but through prayer and fasting, through fear and trembling, through progressive sanctification, through peering into the glass darkly and in doing so becoming more and more like Christ. It does not appear that the early church was terribly concerned with dogma, only reluctantly defining it when forced into it as a necessary means of preserving the faith against heresy. Yet Lutherans (and others) give each other litmus tests, creating ever greater delineations of dogma which we proclaim to the benchmark by which we measure the faith, and by which we determine our essential unity. Thus dogma becomes a means of establishing divisions and creating breaches amongst the faithful, not of uniting the body of Christ. I’m not suggesting we create a lowest-common-denominator faith, but I am suggesting that we make the mistake of equating doctrinal purity with rightness before God, of presuming that God is more pleased with us for our right belief than our right living.

I could go on and on about the flawed arguments of the Lutheran Confessions and how radical they are, and how in some cases they are contrary to Scripture. But this letter has gone on much too long already. Instead, I will quote from Luther’s Winterpostille of 1528: “Marriage is far superior to the celibate religious life, and not only because it is clearly instituted and honored by God. It is an estate of ‘faith,’ for those who enter into it should be convinced that they are doing God’s work and fulfilling their calling. It is an estate of love, for in it one “must and should” help and serve others.” (Kreitzer 2004, 98) I note that this directly contradicts our Lord’s words in Matt 19:11-12, and the argument of the blessed apostle, who proclaims virginity to be preferable to marriage (1 Cor 7). Luther’s argument in this Winterpostille underlie the arguments in Articles XXII and XXVII of the Augustana, and similar arguments made elsewhere in the Book of Concord. In these areas the reformers describe Romish abuses of monasticism and, instead of providing the necessary corrective, they eliminated the practice altogether. While Philip Carey in his article Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant considers Luther to be a conservative reformer, the views and actions of Luther in these areas are quite radical in their theology and their practical implications for the Christian life.

And with this we are back to the Vincentian Canon; Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus; that which is believed everywhere, always, and by all; and I pose the following question (and yes, I know it is begging the question): how do Lutherans deny catholicity and yet consider themselves to be part of the one, holy, apostolic and catholic faith?

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