Today I’ll continue our series on the different Christian denominations with some discussion on Lutheranism, one of the largest denominations within Protestantism. There are approximately 66 million Lutherans throughout the world, 9.5 million of which are in the United States. The Lutherans in the United States generally belong to one of three major groups known as synods: the largest being the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), followed by the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS), and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS).
As should be obvious, the name “Lutheran” comes from the primary instigator of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther. Luther was a historically fascinating individual and I’d recommend reading about his life. Raised in a peasant German family, Luther was blessed to receive an education in law. However, after a promise made to St. Anne for seemingly sparing his life in a storm, he entered an Augustinian monastery and would eventually teach as a professor of Scripture. As Luther was coming of age, the evils and corruption in the Church were probably at their worst in history. Church offices were bought and sold to the highest bidders, and higher offices were largely occupied by the wealthy and aristocracy who could afford them. Many parish clergy were not faithful to their promises of celibacy. Monasteries became wealthy and lax in their observances. To be fair, while there were certainly many devout Christians and great saints that lived during this period, it was a dark time in which the Church needed much purification.
As a young monk, Luther suffered from depression and probably a great deal of scrupulosity as well, which was probably not unusual for his time. Both personally and theologically, he wrestled greatly with the question of how one knows he is saved. It wasn’t until Luther came across the passage in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “The just man lives by faith,” that his mind was put at rest. It would be this notion of justification by faith that would serve as his interpretive tool for the whole of the Scriptures.
Following Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, debating the selling of indulgences (another corrupt practice in the Church at the time), he adopted other positions against the authority of the Pope, infallibility, and devotion to the saints. Luther’s ideas became widely circulated due to the new invention of the printing press. After he was convicted of heresy and considered an outlaw by the German emperor, he was given protection by Frederick the Wise, one of the German princes. As Luther’s ideas caught on and spread, other reformers adopted more ideas and practices for “reform” with which even Luther was uncomfortable. Many priests and religious abandoned their vows and married. Luther himself married an ex-Cistercian nun and together they had six children. Various German princes sided with Luther and parted company with the Catholic Church. By doing so, they were able to seize the property of the Church in their territories.
While Luther developed no formal statement of faith for his followers, one of his colleagues, Melanchthon, developed the Augsburg Confession, which is still an authoritative statement of belief for Lutherans today. Rather than intending to form another church, Luther hoped instead that the Church would’ve adopted his ideas for reform. He was also saddened and frustrated to see moral standards sink even lower in communities following the Reformation than they had been in the Catholic Church prior to it.
As far as the major differences today between Catholics and Lutherans, there are the doctrines of which I spoke last time underlying Protestant theology: Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura. Lutherans also only hold that there are two sacraments: Baptism and The Lord’s Supper (-- their understanding of the Eucharist is also different from ours). They also do not have the same approach to Mary and the saints, and they reject our teaching on Purgatory and indulgences. There are also variations in teaching on morality and social issues between the various Lutheran synods.
While there are many differences between us, we can say that Lutherans are generally closest to us as Catholics in belief compared to other Protestant denominations. The Lutheran service derives from the Catholic Mass, and so one would naturally experience many similarities in our worship. Given the Catholic and Lutheran background of our communities (Hewitt, Auburndale, Blenker/Sherry), many of us have good friends, family members, and spouses that are Lutheran. May we continue to learn more about our similarities and differences, and pray for full restoration of unity in the future.