Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Balkanization, continued

My previous post on the state of American Lutheranism has prompted some interesting comments, which you can read below (and please check-out Lee's extended reply at verbum ipsum). Two points have been raised. First, most agree that the ELCA no longer possesses a distinctive Lutheran identity. As lutherpunk says, "We really have become nothing more than bland American Protestants, absorbing all the worst from mainline Protestant culture". Secondly, some argue that it's possible to be faithful to the Augsburg Confession in other churches. Luthsem makes a good point by saying that he hopes "for a more ecumenical future with article 4 of the Augsburg Confession [i.e., justification] being the article which the church stands or falls on." I agree that all serious Lutherans should share this goal, as it would mean the ultimate fulfillment of Luther's Reformation project.

Luthsem's comment is interesting because, at first glance, it seems to me that the widespread dissatisfaction within the ELCA has very little to do with the doctrine of justification. Instead, what attracts people to other churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church, are their traditions, liturgies, and positions on social issues, not their fidelity to "the article on which the church stands or falls". The RC church is immensely appealing because, despite its faults, it provides people with a clear identity, which is something craved in this era of pervasive relativism. Conversely, the ELCA's identity has become quite diffuse, leaving many in the church without a clear picture of what the ELCA stands for. So, should we try to save Lutheranism by becoming progressively more "big-C" Catholic, or should we try to revive our own identity first (the latter process may involve restoring some "small-c" catholic elements as well)? In my opinion, this is the main question facing today's Lutherans.

Of course, our current "identity crisis" is a ridiculous and avoidable predicament, since one only needs to read a bit of Luther's writings or the Book of Concord to know what Lutheranism is all about - the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. If we were to return this message to its rightful place at the center of our worship and preaching, then I'm convinced that our current identity crisis could be resolved. Of course, some would argue that, in the wake of Vatican II and the Joint Declaration, there really is no difference between Catholics and Lutherans on justification. If so, then we Lutherans have lost our reason for being, and it's only a matter of time before the lights go out. But if not, then our Reformation heritage demands that we preserve our Lutheran identity by making it clear (especially to ourselves) why we continue to be Lutherans. A revival of the ELCA will require that we mine our Reformation heritage, just as Roman Catholics continually draw upon their rich tradition. By doing so, we just might create a church that people are eager to call home.

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