Ecumenism and Our Identity

John Hannah

Whenever we engage Christians who are not Lutheran, our own identity is challenged. We find ourselves asking questions like these: “Who are we as Lutherans?” “Where did we come from?” “Who were we?” “How did we get to be what we are now?”

The late, great Jaroslav Pelikan is said to have invented a very practical theological and ecumenical test. The test is taken by simply answering the question, “What would you be if you could not be Lutheran?” (Pelikan answered his question for himself by turning to Eastern Orthodoxy later in life.) In America God has placed Lutherans in a minority. We are necessarily engaged with a plurality of confessional families. We have a “default position” with respect to our Lutheran identity, as Pelikan observed. Until recently our primary default position has been one or another part of the Protestant family of confessional bodies that are neither Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox.

In the middle of the nineteenth century Samuel Simon Schmucker became convinced that Lutherans were just like all their Protestant neighbors. He went so far as to delete the sacraments from his “revised” edition of the Augsburg Confession. Likewise, Lutherans in Germany were expected to join a “union” of Lutherans and Protestants, forming a single church that, not so incidentally, abandoned the liturgy of the Lutherans. Fortunately, these efforts were successfully resisted. On both sides of the Atlantic church leaders revived interest and loyalty to the Lutheran Confessions. The Common Service of 1888, adopted by all American Lutherans in some form, restored the historic Lutheran liturgy, albeit without the weekly Eucharist. We adopted various measures to ensure continuity of our distinctive identity. For example, the Galesburg Rule asserted “Lutheran altars for Lutherans only.” The Missouri Synod developed more sophisticated enforcement measures, and sometimes its pastors would not admit even Lutherans to the altar. All this curious activity stemmed from the fear of assimilating Protestant liturgical practices and Protestant theology while we assimilated the American language and culture.

In spite of all such resistance to “unionism” (as it was called in the Missouri-dominated Synodical Conference) we succumbed to the temptation to be like the dominant denominations of America. In the past few years the ELCA has declared full communion with several Reformed bodies, the Episcopalians and others. Although the Missouri Synod is in communion with no other church body in the U.S., influential theologians (notably Francis Pieper and Robert Preus) found a common biblical hermeneutic with the Baptists and Evangelicals. Today many Lutherans abandon the liturgy in favor of American revival-style worship. It often appears that the only difference between the ELCA and the LCMS is which kind of Protestant each will become. Will we become Methodist, or will we become Baptist? If the Lutheran defenders of 200 years ago were to look only at today’s intra-Lutheran polemical propaganda and our assimilation of American Protestant habits, they would not recognize us. The efforts to prevent unionism did not work; we have adopted Protestantism as our default position.

Enter Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) has opened the way to another default position. Today we can speak to and learn from our Roman Catholic neighbors. We are back to where our Lutheran forebears were before 1563 when the Council of Trent ended. After Trent Lutheran and Catholic positions hardened. The bitterness would not soften until Vatican II. Now we can see how much we Lutherans share with our Catholic neighbors. We share a common liturgy. Even as Roman Catholics adopted many of Luther’s liturgical reforms (like facing the people from the altar), we adopted many of the liturgical reforms arising from the Catholic liturgical movement (like the three-year lectionary in the Lutheran Book of Worship of 1978 and all its derivatives, including the new Lutheran Service Book [LCMS] and Evangelical Lutheran Worship [ELCA]). Moreover, we share common dogma expressed in the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds. Alongside the creeds we have 1,500 years of theological tradition before the Reformation to which Luther and all the reformers were deeply indebted.

Of course the Catholic default position was always there, but before Vatican II we did not think it wise to acknowledge our rightful catholic heritage, so we tended to hide it. We sensed correctly that Catholics were not considered respectful Americans, and we thought it prudent to distance ourselves from their stigma, desperately hoping to be accepted by the “real” Americans (that is, Protestants). Now we know. Catholics are not un-American; Catholics are not anti-Christian. We can see that our course was not prudent and that we suppressed our Lutheran catholicity to our own loss. Slowly but surely we have regained confidence in our own rich confessional heritage.

With Lutherans recovering their substantive heritage and Catholics intent upon internal renewal, the stage is set for the remarkable dialogues. It is little wonder that the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues are highly respected as the premier example of ecumenical dialogue around the world. In many ways the Americans took the lead. The U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues were initiated in 1965 before the formal closing of Vatican II. The original planners started carefully with the obviously agreed upon subjects (Nicene Creed, Baptism) and then moved quickly to the increasingly more complex and conflicted (Eucharist, Ministry, Papacy). Justification, the primary concern of Lutherans, was one of the later, more complex topics. That doctrine was later taken up at the international level by the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican. By 1999 officials of both churches were able to sign the monumental Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

Members of the dialogues have compiled a marvelous record of achievement. My summary of that can be reviewed in an article that has also been published in the Daystar Journal (“Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogues since 1965”). Once they sat down at the table and talked face to face, the dialogue teams found much to agree on, much more than anyone might have thought back in 1965. Where they were not able to agree, they have recorded for future generations those issues that need yet to be solved. Although full communion has not been achieved, much deeper understanding and appreciation of the opposing sides has. It is no longer morally right to employ the old polemics against one another or to harbor the old prejudices. It is unfortunate that the dialogues have mostly remained the province of academic theologians. Pastors can correct that by using the readily available published results in parish Bible studies. Even more engaging would be to study them with Roman Catholic parish groups.

The dialogues continue to this day. It is all in the hope that some time in the future we may realize full communion with the church that represents half of all Christians in the world. The healing of the Lutheran and Roman Catholic division is only one of many accords needed in Christ’s church. As we search for a means to bring all Christians together, we might well look at the pope. There is no other figure, no other institution that has the potential to draw us all together. Perhaps that is why in 1537 Philip Melanchthon asserted he would be willing to accept the authority of a reformed papacy (Smalcald Articles, Kolb/Wengert, 326). In 1995 John Paul II stated that in spite of difficulties papal primacy “is nonetheless open to a new situation” and invited Christian leaders to “a patient and fraternal dialogue” (Ut Unum Sint). No one knows what may become of his proposal. That is in God’s hands. In the meantime we are placed here to do our part in not impeding the Holy Spirit’s work “that all may be one” (John 17.21).

“Who are we?” “Where did we come from?” All good questions. The more important one is “Who will we become?”

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