"our churches dissent from the church catholic in no article of faith but only omit some few abuses which are new and have been adopted by the fault of the times"
-- Augsburg Confession XXII Prologue
It is sometimes said that the churches of the Anglican Communion seek out a 'middle way', or via media, between Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity. They retain the liturgy, sacraments and the creeds while simultaneously professing the supremacy of the Bible in determining the requirements for salvation.
At the same time there is another family of churches, under the name of Martin Luther, which practices a quite different version of this via media. Lutherans have retained the historic liturgy and doctrines of the church catholic (i.e. the "universal" church), maintain the holy sacraments as means of grace (including the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion), profess the ancient creeds, and follow the church year. At the same time Lutherans profess the gospel of justification by faith and the firm belief in the scriptures as the sole measure of our knowledge of God and His plan for our salvation. For these reasons Lutherans can be said to be both Protestant and Catholic and yet neither Protestant nor Catholic. This is the nature of a middle way between the two.
In recent history, Lutherans in North America have flirted with full-blown Protestantism. Today the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest Lutheran body in North America, maintains full communion with four Calvinist churches (Reformed Church in America, Presbyterian Church [USA], United Church of Christ, Moravian Church in America) none of which believe in the real physical presence of Christ in the eucharist. It also shares altar and pulpit fellowship with the Episcopal Church, a body which has itself gone far in abandoning catholic theology despite retaining catholic forms. There is the firm possibility that the ELCA will in the near future become just another member of the ultra-liberal wing of Protestantism it has embraced.
At the same time, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS), the second largest Lutheran body on the continent, has within itself Church Growth Movement forces seeking to bring it closer to the conservative 'evangelical' and 'non-denominational' churches which at best ignore and at worst reject the liturgy, the sacraments and the creeds -- in sum, most of what "has been believed everywhere, always, and by all" (a famous definition of "catholic") in the Church.
Lutherans should not be afraid to oppose both these trends. It is important to remember that, despite common parlance, Lutherans are not Protestants.
The intention of Martin Luther and those who signed on to the Augsburg Confession was to reform, not reject, the Church as he found her. Luther's hyperbole in addition to the well-exercised anti-Roman Catholic sentiments of many contemporary Lutherans aside, those following Luther share many practices and points of theology with Rome. Luther even fought pitched battles against the "enthusiasts" and "sacramentarians" who refused infant baptism and a regularly called pastorate, denied the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharist, and in fact denied the sacraments altogether as means of God's grace.
Lutheran churches recognize and celebrate the sacraments of Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, and Holy Confession and Absolution. They maintain the traditions of the holy liturgy as the greatest expression of the divine service (God serving His people through Word and Sacrament), including the confession and absolution of sins, the sign of the cross, and the great hymns of the Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria Patria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). They preserve the "Office of the Keys" and the holy ministry. They profess the ancient creeds of the Church, the Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian, as summary statements of the true faith repeated since the first centuries of the Church, including belief in "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church." In a Christmas sermon, Luther said "he who would find Christ must first find the Church . . . he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her." All these things separate Lutherans from the true Protestants who reject the Church and believe all they need is an individually packaged faith. Instead, we are catholic.
At the same time, Lutherans are people of the Holy Scriptures who profess the Word of God as, in Luther's words, "the true holy thing above all holy things". We are evangelical in the truest sense of the word, professing the Good News of salvation by faith through grace and no merit of our own. In fact, Luther's choice for the name of the churches which accepted his reforms was not "Lutheran" but "Evangelical", as Lutherans are still known in Europe.
And though Lutherans share this foundation in the Word with Protestants, we reject any restorationist nonsense to 'get back to the primitive church'. Even though it is the profound hope of the Church and the promise of God to be the holy bride of Christ, there has been no time that the church was without spot or wrinkle (Eph. 5: 27) which might serve as a model which we could reproduce. Even The Twelve counted Judas a member!
Although the Lutheran churches bear the name of a man, they are founded upon the rock of Christ and the teachings He entrusted to His apostles. Orthodox Lutheran churches are part of that una sancta, that "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" in which all Lutherans confess belief. We believe and proclaim the Good News. We are both evangelical and catholic, to the point that many Lutherans call themselves "evangelical catholics". In fact, the basic argument of the Augsburg Confession is that the real catholics are Lutherans! Above all, we are not Protestants.
© 2001 Darel E. Paul
A 1999 on-line discussion of this article may be found on the
Catholic Information Network Apologetics/Ecumenism mail list.
An official LCMS statement on this subject can be read through this link,
"Does the Lutheran Church consider itself part of the 'Protestant' church?"
An excellent primer on evangelical catholicism in the LCMS:
Evangelical Catholics and Confessional Evangelicals: The Ecumenical Polarities of Lutheranism
Two articles on evangelical catholicism (less convincingly) in the ELCA:
Turn Out the Lights?
In Defense of Sectarian Catholicity