Lutheranism is a mainstream Protestant branch of Christianity. It emerged in Germany during the Reformation of the 16th century. It is based on the teachings of German theologian Martin Luther (1486-1546) who rejected parts of the theology and organizational structure of the Roman Catholic Church. Originally a term of derision coined by enemies, its adherents came to call themselves "Lutherans." After a series of religious wars that lasted to 1648, the status of Lutheranism stabilized, dominating Scandinavia and the central and eastern parts of Germany. Today it is also well represented in Africa, Indonesia and the United States.
The two main branches of Lutheranism in the United States are the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the more conservative Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the two of which agree on most doctrines but differ on the degree of independence permitted to the local congregation.
Lutheranism began when Luther, annoyed at the Catholic Church's selling indulgences and other practices that he considered to be non-scriptural, posted his 95 Theses on the doors of churches throughout Germany. Unable to reach an accommodation with Rome over the differences, Luther and his followers broke away from the Catholic Church and formed what became known as the Lutheran Church. This breaking away was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Melanchthon as organizer
Luther was the theologian and his close friend Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560) was the organizer. Historians debate Melanchthon's exact role, ranging from a few who say he ruined true Lutheranism, to those who see him as the real genius of the Reformation who determined its course. Luther was no organizer, and, as a theologian, no systematizer. Melanchthon was both, though with limitations. The Lutheran approach to spreading the word of God could not be effective without trained preachers who knew how to use the Bible and were in sympathy with the spirit of the time as represented in the Renaissance. His ability to meet this need by making schools and universities, as well as all their teachings, subservient to the preaching of the Gospel was Melanchthon's peculiar gift. Luther recognized this and was not blind to his own restrictions. He justly admired Melanchthon's skill in getting at the kernel and formulating it instructively and systematically, even though the latter's work as the "preceptor of the Reformation" inevitably resulted in a narrowing of Lutheran concepts which was not without momentous consequences.
The Church a School
This reduction of Luther's thoughts appears in what Melanchthon has to say of the Church in the third edition of his Loci communes (1st ed. 1521, 3rd ed. 1543). Interest in the organization and in its officials and specific functions here comes to the front. Melanchthon compares the Church with a school, and considers his definition of it as a "coetus scholasticus" to be a complete refutation of the papal definition of the Church as a kingdom. The Church consists of teachers and the taught, who are to be distinguished one from the other, and it must set forth the Bible as the sole truth. In case of doubt as to the meaning of the Bible, the principle to be followed is that the word of God is itself the judge, "with," it is characteristically added, "the confession of the true Church." Luther might have written all this, though to him the Church was more than a school, and the word of God more than a mere matter of teaching. The pastors, or teachers, too, seemed less important to him than to Melanchthon, and he did not lay as much weight as the latter on the harmony of all Church doctrine.
Melanchthon wrote his Loci originally as a brief compendium of the great truths of the Bible for the private edification of those who were reading the scriptures; but in the two later editions he aimed to produce a text-book for the Church as a school, and to collect all the articles of faith and arrange them in proper order. This was done primarily for the use and benefit of the teachers in the school (i.e., the pastors), especially as bitter experience with the fanatics had made a theological education seem a necessary requisite for the preacher's office. In all three editions of the Loci justification by faith is the center of pure doctrine, and the chief article of the faith. The entire content of the Bible is arranged under the headings, "doctrine of the law" and "promise of grace." The law is God's exacting will, the Gospel his helping will. Since Adam's fall, and because of original sin, man's power is so weakened that he can not fulfil the most external requirements of the law, to say nothing of actually pleasing God. Accordingly, the effect of the law is to terrify and produce contrition. The Gospel then reveals God's grace (i.e., his mercy), which is founded in Christ as the mediator and propitiator, and makes justification known as a free favor for Christ's sake, consisting in the remission of sins and assuring of reconciliation or acceptance to life eternal. The Gospel, however, does not abrogate the law, and therefore it requires not only faith, but also conversion. God works through the Holy Spirit, perfecting faith and helping to fulfil the law. The Gospel leads to regeneration, or the restoration of original righteousness, which will be perfected in heaven. Precise definition is highly characteristic of Melanchthon and sometimes leads him to set rather artificial limits to various concepts. He shows an inclination to retain as many of the old institutions as possible, and tries to prove that the Lutheran exegesis of the Bible is in harmony with the historic teaching of the Church catholic. He presents Luther's doctrine of penance or repentance, though without the force of personal experience which animated it in Luther, and for him conversion lasts practically throughout life. Baptism is the sacrament, or sign, which marks entrance into the Christian life and the state of grace, the transition from the dispensation of law to that of the Gospel. Its efficacy endures for the whole life.
Lutheranism and Scholarship
Having devised the formula of the Church as a school, Melanchthon proceeded to bring the Evangelical faith into connection with Humanism. He started with the old familiar idea of natural law, declaring that it is not only approved by the reason, but is also found in the Bible, being in the background of revealed law. God has provided that men shall know his providence from nature and has given them understanding to distinguish between good and evil. By the fall man lost the clear knowledge of the natural law which he had originally possessed. The Gospel brought something wholly new, not indicated in the natural law, namely, redemption through Christ and justification by faith, and this now leads back to the original condition. Certitude is restored by the spiritual law imparted by revelation in the Bible. If, now, as Christian, and by supernatural means, man is again certain about God, the study of the natural knowledge of God has interest and value for him and for the Church. Faith attains to somewhat of the character of rationality by virtue of the natural law, though even this law is supernaturally conditioned as based on the creative activity of God. By means of this concept of natural law Melanchthon succeeded in finding an ideal foundation for the knowledge of the Church in the knowledge of reason no less than scholasticism had done. His theory was, however, only superficial here, for he really had in mind two realms of knowledge: a higher, that of Biblical revelation, and a lower, that of human reason; and he felt that one must first learn of the former, to understand the latter. He refrained from high speculations about God, the law, the doctrines of the Trinity, and the two natures of Christ, contenting himself with the belief that all divine secrets would be revealed in heaven. It is significant that he thought of heaven too as a school. He did not appropriate Luther's ethical conception of blessedness. That justice is in itself blessedness, that love is the essence of life everlasting he did not understand. God desires, he held, to be known and honored; and blessedness is the eternal reward of those in heaven to hold converse concerning God and the divine essence, now at last completely known. Herein is the most considerable reduction of Luther's teaching as formulated by Melanchthon.
Church and State
In the interest of the new faith Melanchthon undertook the reorganization of the entire system of higher education, and rendered no slight service to the entire field of science and letters. His Loci became the theological text book of the generations which followed him, and his manuals of philosophy, which he prepared as propædeutic, were no less noteworthy. In this undertaking, however, he needed the help of the secular authorities, and it was he who laid down the rules for the relations between the Lutheran Church and the State. He believed that the magistracy was sanctioned by reason, and also that it was, on unmistakable Biblical authority, positively ordained by God, the secular officials being called to be guardians of the entire law, i.e., the natural law and the decalogue. Revelation defines the sphere of their duties. They must open the way to the pure doctrine of the Bible and regulate the higher institutions of learning; but it is not for them to interpret the Bible or to formulate the faith. Their place in the Church is among those who hear, not those who teach. The preachers, as ministers of the word, are independent, and as authoritative for secular officials as for all other laymen, though in purely civil affairs the clergy are subject to civil authority.
Lutheran orthodoxy may be treated briefly after depicting Melanchthon's system. It lived and moved in the understanding of the Gospel to which Melanchthon gave words and form, notwithstanding the controversies of Gnesiolutherans and Philippists, and the preference shown for the former when the princes were compelled to take sides (see Philippists). For it the Bible was the only actual authority of faith, even the creeds adopted serving merely to settle points of controversy, and the task of theology was to interpret, systematize, and defend in pedagogic fashion what the Bible contained. The classic theologian of the period, Johann Gerhard (q.v.), gave little space to the confessions in his Loci, (9 vols., Jena, 1610–22) and treated them only incidentally. It is not meant that Gerhard, or any one, was indifferent to the confessions, but he was so fully convinced that they accorded with the Bible and bound to nothing except what was in the Bible that he could give them a very secondary place. It was far more important to show that Lutheranism and the early Church were in harmony, and that the new teachings were supported by the testimony of the Church Fathers. Practically the confessions were important chiefly on the political side. The Augsburg Confession served as a statement of the Evangelical faith which could be used juristically in dealings between Lutheran states and the Empire; and the states often felt the need of documents which could be appealed to in matters of uncertainty in their internal church policy.
The most important theological achievement of the time of orthodoxy was a highly developed doctrine of the Bible; controversy with the Roman Catholic theologians, especially the well-equipped Jesuits, drove the Protestants, who rejected the Roman appeal to tradition and the Church, to declare the Bible the sure and only word of God, to which they maintained that they could appeal with better right than could their opponents to the pope. The divine plan for the salvation of fallen man was though of by many as somewhat more miraculous than by Melanchthon; faith and comprehension of the Bible were considered a purely mechanical operation of the Holy Spirit; the theory of blessedness was still further transformed; metaphysical speculation about God involved consequences which Melanchthon had not had in mind; and new paths were entered upon in the doctrine of the sacraments. On the other hand, the interpretation of loci went on quite in the spirit of Melanchthon. Finally, there was a coherence of idea based on the concept of God's interest in the law. the dogma of satisfaction, rendered by Christ to God in place of the sinner, stood in close relation to the thought of law, even of a natural law. In it the orthodox theology showed that it had made Melanchthon's interpretation of Luther its own and was still animated by it. It is no accident that this dogma has been the most lasting part of the orthodox doctrine.
The most striking thing in the piety of the period was its unruffled content. Never since has the Evangelical faith been so sure that it was right. It must be admitted that the moral impulses to faith were not felt as they were by the immediate disciples of Luther and Melanchthon. There was a sort of habitual acquiescence in the inevitability of sin, and the hope of heaven was a large element of orthodox piety. Men was no special tasks before them in the world; Melanchthon's teaching had brought about its logical result by putting all ideal direction of life in the hands of the clergy. The people [for the most part] learned the catechism and listened patiently to the instruction of the pulpit; they attended faithfully on the word of God and the sacraments—and with that they were content.
The Lutheran denomination is considered to be the first Protestant church to form. The main cause for the split from the Catholic Church was Luther's belief in justification by faith alone. Lutherans believe that the Bible, as a divinely inspired book, is the source of all revealed divine knowledge. Lutherans use a similar liturgical format to those of the Catholics, Methodists and Anglicans. Some other characteristics of the Lutheran Church are the use of Luther's Large and Small Catechism as an educational tool, belief in the real presence in communion but not transubstantiation, and infant baptism. Lutheran doctrine is summarized in the Book of Concord, which contains the famous Augsburg Confession.
Today there are more than 70 million Lutheran adherents.
- Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
- Lutheran Church Missouri Synod
- Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod
- Church of Sweden
- Church of Norway
- Church of Finland
- Church of Denmark
- Church of Iceland
- Bodensieck, Julius, ed. The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church, (3 vol 1965), ECLS perspective
- Cimino, Richard. Lutherans Today: American Lutheran Identity in the Twenty-First Century (2003) excerpt and text search
- Hillerbrand, Hans J. ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. (OUP 1996); the book is online at many academic libraries; excerpt and text search
- Lagerquist, L. DeAne, The Lutherans (Denominations in America) (1999) excerpt and text search
- MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation (2005), influential recent survey excerpt and text search
- Marty, Martin E. Lutheran Questions, Lutheran Answers: Exploring Christian Faith(2007) by a leading scholar excerpt and text search
- New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1911), major sources of older scholarly articles; mainline Protestant perspective
- Vol. 1: Aachen - Basilians
- Vol. 2: Basilica - Chambers
- Vol. 3: Chamier - Draendorf
- Vol. 4: Draeseke - Goa
- Vol. 5: Goar - Innocent
- Vol. 6: Innocents - Liudger
- Vol. 7: Liutprand - Moralities
- Vol. 8: Morality - Petersen
- Vol. 9: Petri - Reuchlin
- Vol. 10: Reutsch - Son
- Vol. 11: Son of Man - Tremellius
- Vol. 12: Trench - Zwingli
- Vol. 13: Index