Christianity: Lutheranism

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Christianity: Lutheranism

FOUNDED: 1517 c.e.


Lutheranism, named after the German preacher and professor Martin Luther (1483–1546), began with the publication of his Ninety-five Theses (1517), an attack on abuses of the Catholic Church, which precipitated the Protestant Reformation. Shaping the agenda of early modern Western Christianity, Lutheran theology argued that salvation came from faith alone and that Scripture, not the church, was the only basis of religious authority. The movement quickly spread from Germany across northern Europe, becoming one of the main strands of Protestantism.

Luther and his followers initially opposed the term "Lutheran," used derisively by opponents of his reforms. Many early churches preferred the term "Evangelical" (meaning "Gospel centered"), which became part of the official name of the church in many countries. In the seventeenth century Lutheranism was challenged by the Catholic Church's Counter-Reformation, which reduced the strength of Lutheran churches, especially in Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland; Communist oppression in central Europe further weakened the Lutheran movement.

By 2001, however, Lutheranism remained one of the largest Protestant groups, with 65 million adherents gathered in more than 200 churches in some 100 countries. The majority of these churches were founded during the Reformation in Germany, Scandinavia, and the Baltic countries. Newer churches in the European Lutheran tradition have been organized by immigrants in North and Latin America, Australia, and South Africa. Churches established by missionaries—especially in Indonesia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, India, and Namibia—have been growing rapidly.


Luther's call for reform initially concerned the Catholic practice of indulgences. An indulgence is a papal dispensation from punishment in purgatory, which in Luther's time could be earned by the performance of good works (good deeds) or by giving money to the church. Luther, a Catholic priest and professor at the University of Wittenberg, attacked the practice in his Ninety-five Theses on Indulgences, which he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church on 31 October 1517. The document spread rapidly through the new medium of print, and it launched a movement that became organized as Lutheran territorial churches in Germany, Scandinavia, and parts of central Europe. In 1521 the pope excommunicated Luther. Lutheranism was first defined in the Augsburg Confession (1530) of Luther's Wittenberg colleague Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560). A second colleague, Johannes Bugenhagen (1485–1558), pioneered a new church order by authoring constitutional documents for many territories and cities.

After significant disagreements among Luther's and Melanchthon's students, theologians produced the Formula of Concord (1577) and then the Book of Concord (1580). The latter contained the Formula and other Lutheran confessions of faith, and it initiated an era of "Orthodoxy" (1580–1750). The leading theologians of Orthodox Lutheranism—including Johann Gerhard (1582–1637)—wrote massive works on Christian dogma that relied on the metaphysics of Aristotle.

Criticism that the Lutheran church had become sterile and failed to cultivate religious devotion within society led to the Pietist movement, spurred on in the later seventeenth century by Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705), a pastor in Frankfurt and Berlin. This movement was centered in the German towns of Württemberg and Halle, where August Hermann Francke (1663–1727) started a foundation that promoted parish and individual renewal, Bible reading, and missionary activity. In 1748 Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg (1711–87) organized the Pennsylvania Ministerium, the first Lutheran synod in the United States.

In the eighteenth century Lutheranism entered a period of Rationalism, which placed emphasis on reason, and leading theologians of the era modified or laid aside traditional biblical doctrines. Opposing this Rationalism of the church, Claus Harms (1778–1855) of Kiel began a "confessional revival" (returning to sixteenth-century doctrinal standards) in 1817. N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783–1872) in Denmark and Gisele Johnson and Carl P. Caspari in Norway also advocated traditional Lutheran teaching to oppose the rationalist criticism of biblical doctrines. This struggle continued until the end of the nineteenth century, when Lutheranism experienced a rise in liberal theology, an attempt to adapt the church's message to prevailing social trends of the time.

In the nineteenth century German, Nordic, and Slovak emigrants established Lutheran churches in the Americas, Australia, and South Africa. At the same time, European missionaries took their message and customs to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the United States a movement to "Americanize" Lutheranism under the leadership of Samuel Simon Schmucker (1799–1873) was countered in the 1860s by Charles Porterfield Krauth (1823–83), among others, while Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther (1811–87) organized the synod of Missouri along strictly confessional lines.

Pietistic revivals in Scandinavia, led by Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771–1824) in Norway, Heinrich Schartau and Carl Olof Rosenius (1816–68) in Sweden, Frederik Gabriel Hedberg in Finland, and Vilhelm Beck (1829–1901) in Denmark, revitalized nineteenth- and twentieth-century parish life. Twentieth-century Lutheran churches experienced a variety of theological movements, including the existentialism of German scholar Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976).


Lutheranism, in its theology, has tended to follow Martin Luther's understanding of the Christian faith. Luther believed that human beings are righteous, or free from sin, in two different sets of relationships. As God's creations, they are righteous through his grace and favor; they enter this relationship through trust or faith in God. In relation to other creatures, especially other human beings, human beings practice righteousness in acts of love (corresponding to God's commands) at home, at work, and in political and religious communities. Because human beings, according to Lutheranism, do not love and trust God above all he has made, they exist as sinners in a broken relationship with God; this is exhibited in their failure to love his other creatures. To restore human being's trust in him, God the Son (Luther maintained the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity) became human as Jesus Christ, suffered the condemnation that God had pronounced on sinners, died, and reclaimed life for them through his resurrection. God justifies (restores to righteousness) sinners by forgiving their sins; through Christ he creates within them trust in God; and through the Holy Spirit he calls and moves them to new obedience, which enables them to practice love toward their neighbors.

Luther taught that certain people are chosen by God to be saved (although no one is excluded from salvation). In this form of predestination, people are brought to trust in God by the Holy Spirit through the "means of grace"—oral, written, and sacramental forms of God's Word. The Word is given authoritatively, according to Luther, in the Holy Scriptures, which the Holy Spirit inspired. Bible reading and preaching form the foundation of Lutheran piety.

Luther had initially emphasized baptism as a primary way that God creates believers, but its importance for daily life receded as subsequent generations regarded it only as an entry point to the Christian life and not the basis for pious living. Lutherans continued to focus, however, on the Lord's Supper (the Eucharist, or Communion) as a means through which God expresses his will to forgive and provide life. Luther believed that Christ's body and blood were present in the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper—bestowing on recipients God's grace and forgiveness—but he did not try to define the nature of this mysterious presence (unlike the Catholic Church, which used the Aristotelean concept of substance in its doctrine of transubstantiation). Differing views over the true presence of Christ in the bread and wine led to conflict between the Lutheran and Reformed strands of Protestantism; the latter viewed Christ as spiritually, but not literally, present in the Lord's Supper. The two traditions attempted to resolve this conflict with the Leuenberg Agreement of 1973.


Luther taught that faith in Christ, not moral living and the performance of good works, leads to salvation. Even so, flowing from their faith in Christ, believers have an obligation, or a "new obedience," to perform good works. It is Christ's forgiveness, liberating believers from sin and evil, that frees them to serve their neighbors in love. Lutheran Pietists emphasize a strict adherence to moral codes, some forbidding pleasures such as dancing or card playing.


Lutherans view the Bible as the only authority for their teachings and approach to life, and Luther insisted that doctrine come from Scripture alone (though he did not mean it was to be used apart from Christian tradition). Most Lutherans have also turned to the Augsburg Confession (composed in 1530 by Philip Melanchthon) and to a collection of confessions of faith compiled with it in the Book of Concord (1580), which have provided an interpretation and summary of Lutheran teachings.


Lutherans retained most of the central symbols of the medieval Catholic Church. Unlike some Protestants, they are not opposed to the use of images, although they discarded representations of saints that involved superstitious practices. The crucifix (a cross with the body of the suffering Christ) is often the preferred expression of the cross.


Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century territorial princes encouraged the development of Lutheran theology, culture, and values and gave the church political support. Such princes included John (1468–1532), John Frederick (1503–54), and August (1526–86) of Saxony (now in Germany), electors of the Holy Roman Empire; Landgrave Philip (1504–67) of Hesse (now in Germany); King Gustavus Adolphus (1710–71) of Sweden; and Duke Ernst the Pious (1601–65) of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (now in Germany).

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Lutherans took political leadership in various movements for national identity. For example, Lajos (Louis) Kossuth (1802–94) led the 1848 revolution in Hungary, and Milan Rastislav Stefanik (1880–1919) was a leader in the movement to create Czechoslovakia at the end of World War I.

The Swedish bishop Nathan Söderblom (1866–1931) led the ecumenical movement Life and Work; he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1930. Although many church leaders, including Lutherans, compromised with or promoted National Socialism, some opposed its tyranny; for example, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45) was executed for plotting to overthrow Hitler. That Ishmael Noko of Zimbabwe was appointed director of the Lutheran World Federation in 1994 indicates the growing significance of the mission churches for world Lutheranism.


Johannes Brenz (1499–1570) and Urbanus Rhegius (1489–1541), both contemporaries of Luther, helped shape Reformation teaching. Luther's student Matthias Flacius Illyricus (1520–75) composed the first Protestant hermeneutics (study of the principles of biblical inter-pretation) and pioneered Protestant church history. Martin Chemnitz (1522–86), Jakob Andreae (1528–90), and David Chytraeus (1530–1600) summarized the reformer's teaching in the Formula of Concord (1577). Johann Gerhard, Abraham Calov (1612–86), and Johann Andreas Quenstedt (1617–88) exemplify the thinkers of seventeenth-century Lutheran Orthodoxy.

The so-called Erlangen school of the nineteenth century (which included F.H.R. von Frank, Theodosius Harnack, and J.C.K. von Hofmann) attempted to use historical Lutheran thought to address modern problems. The work of Albrecht Ritschl (1822–89) and Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) represents an attempt to depart from traditional Lutheran theology in order to discuss the modern world on its own terms. In the twentieth century reactions against their ideas came from professors in the Erlangen school, such as Werner Elert (1885–1954) and Paul Althaus (1888–1966).


Lutheran theology prescribes no organizational structure. During the Reformation the church in Sweden retained bishops; most other territorial churches were governed by consistories (government-appointed commissions for the administration of the church) until the twentieth century, when some Lutheran churches adopted an episcopal form of government. Churches organized by immigrants or missionaries in the Americas, Africa, Asia, or elsewhere embrace a variety of governing approaches, including the autonomy of local congregations.


Lutheran reformers converted medieval Catholic churches with few, if any, changes in their structure or furnishings. The importance of proclaiming the Word of God makes the pulpit a central point of worship, and the altar and baptismal font are also significant because there God bestows life and forgiveness of sins through the Lord's Supper and baptism. Because Lutherans emphasize music, the organ is an integral part of the church.


Lutherans reject the idea that divine power is mediated through objects. Thus, they do not hold any objects to be sacred.


Lutherans continued to follow the liturgical calendar of the medieval Catholic Church and its system of pericopes (lessons read in Sunday worship), although the number of saint's days was drastically reduced to secondary celebrations of a few New Testament figures. Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost anchor the church year, and there is a focus on Christ's suffering during Passion Week, with special attention to Good Friday. In 1617 the Festival of the Reformation (31 October) was introduced.


Lutherans have never prescribed modes of dress, and there are a variety of clerical vestments in Lutheran practice. In Sweden and in certain areas of Germany, the medieval vestments have continued to be used; in other territories pastors wear a robe similar to sixteenth-century academic garb, sometimes with clerical bands or the ruff collar. The liturgical revival, or return to ceremonial worship, in the twentieth century led to the widespread use of the cassock (a full-length robe, usually black) and the surplice (a white outer garment) and later the alb (a long white robe) as vestments, particularly in North America.


There are no special dietary practices in Lutheranism. Compulsory fasting was abolished during the Reformation, though Luther urged its pious use. Moderation in eating and drinking is expected of believers.


Luther adapted the liturgy of the medieval Catholic Church and translated it into German. Over the years Lutheran churches have used the core of this historical liturgy, translated into the vernacular, for their services, emphasizing two elements: the sermon and the Lord's Supper. Congregational hymn singing plays a significant role in worship.


The Lutheran church practices infant baptism. Through baptism God establishes a relationship with a human being, leading him or her toward faith. Confirmation of adolescents affirms the baptismal gift of forgiveness of sins and serves as a person's entry into the Lutheran community.


In the traditional Lutheran areas of Europe, all children were baptized. In churches organized elsewhere by immigrants or missionaries, membership has also been bestowed through baptism, but there is the expectation that the person will receive instruction in the faith, often on the basis of Luther's Small Catechism (1529). Since the twentieth century Lutheran mission societies and church-run missions have spread their message to non-Christians through radio, television, and printed materials, and they have attempted in many countries to train members for evangelism.


Luther insisted that only God's Word should be used to persuade those outside the accepted faith, although Lutheran rulers in the early modern period sent dissidents into exile. Lutherans were active in forming the interdenominational movements Faith and Order and Life and Work, which merged to form the World Council of Churches in 1948. The Lutheran World Federation negotiated a "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" with the Roman Catholic Church (1999), recognizing a broad consensus between the two churches, noting remaining differences, and lifting historic mutual condemnations.


Influenced by Luther's emphasis on God's Word and the fundamental place of the Bible in Christian practice, early Lutherans promoted literacy and education throughout central and northern Europe. In the nineteenth century, as industrialization brought poverty and other social and economic changes, the church leadership failed to meet the needs of urban workers in Europe. This led to a widespread "Inner Mission," focusing on charitable works, in Lutheran areas. Notable were German pastors Theodor Fliedner (1800–64) and Johann Heinrich Wichern (1808–81), who worked in prisons, education, and hospital care.

In the twentieth century Lutherans led independence movements in Africa, in particular the former European colonies of Namibia (South-West Africa) and Tanzania (Tanganyika). European and North American Lutherans have also provided leadership in movements for social justice. Lutherans have founded their own groups, such as the North American organization Lutherans for Life, but they have often joined existing groups or worked with others to found organizations.


Luther's teachings on marriage (that it was the most honorable calling from God and the foundation of God's order for the world), his criticism of monasticism (rejecting a higher calling for monks), and his own marriage in 1525 (until 1521 he was a Catholic priest and unable to marry) provided a new model for sixteenth-century Christians. Parents continue to use Luther's Small Catechism in educating their children in the faith.


There is significant disagreement about abortion and homosexuality within North American and European Lutheran churches. Elsewhere—in Africa and Asia, for example—Lutherans generally hold more conservative positions concerning these issues. Of particular concern has been the question of ordaining homosexual pastors and whether to bless same-sex relationships.


Luther's gift for linguistic expression helped shape modern German, particularly through his translation of the Bible, and Lutherans have subsequently contributed to the national literature in various countries. In Slovakia, for example, Ludovit Stur (1815–56) and Josef Miloslav Hurban (1817–88) established a literary language and produced works that helped form the country's emerging national identity.

Although the great artists Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) and Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) were among Luther's earliest followers, Lutheran contributions to the visual arts have paled in comparison with the musical accomplishments of its composers—above all, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), who expressed his faith in his compositions. He built on a heritage of hymnody and composition that was begun in Luther's own circle by Johann Walther (1684–1748) and others and that was continued in the seventeenth century by Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672), Samuel Scheidt (1587–1654), and Johann Hermann Schein (1586–1630).

The Small Catechism

Since 1529 Lutheran children have learned the basics of their faith from Martin Luther's Small Catechism, a brief handbook for Christian living. Luther wrote the catechism to help the "common people, especially in the villages, [who] have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine." After a brief preface, it includes simple explanations of each line of the Ten Commandments, the Apostle's Creed (a statement of Christian belief dating from about 500 c.e.), and the Lord's Prayer (the prayer Jesus gave his disciples in Luke 11:1). It then answers basic questions about baptism, confession, and the Lord's Supper; provides instruction on daily prayers; and lists Bible verses summarizing the duties and responsibilities of Christians in everyday life.

Robert Kolb

See Also Vol. 1: Christianity, Protestantism


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Christianity: Lutheranism

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Christianity: Lutheranism