What do you think of when you hear the phrase “Lutheran identity”? For many of us who were raised Lutheran, our sense of this identity may be linked with a specific culture. But not all Lutherans have the same heritage. So what is specifically Lutheran about Lutheran identity?
Together with all Christians, Lutherans are rooted in the Scriptures as the source of our Christian faith and life. When we identify ourselves as Lutheran Christians, we are doing so with a particular history (the Reformation movement sparked by Martin Luther in 16th-century Germany) and we are claiming a particular theology expressed in the Lutheran Confessions.
The Lutheran Confessions are a collection of documents, mostly authored by Luther and his colleague Philipp Melanchthon, published together in 1580 as The Book of Concord. These documents addressed both beliefs (what we think about God, sin, salvation, the church, etc.) and practices (determining whether priests can get married, if we need a pope, whether Christians are required to fast or to go to confession, etc.). Most Lutherans are familiar with at least one of these confessional writings: Luther’s Small Catechism.
These documents weren’t written to establish Lutheranism as a separate denomination. They were written to explain that the way Lutheran Christians understood and practiced their faith was authentically Christian, even though it differed from some of the ways in which Roman Catholic Christians understood and practiced their faith. At the heart of the Lutheran Confessions is the Reformers’ understanding that the gospel is the promise of the free gift of God’s love, forgiveness and new life, for Christ’s sake.
Familiar Lutheran phrases like “justification by grace through faith” or “law and gospel” or word and sacraments as “means of grace” aren’t found in the Bible but in the Lutheran Confessions. The ideas themselves are scriptural, but the language we use to talk about these ideas is drawn from the insights and convictions of our Reformation forebears. Just as a prescription for glasses or contact lenses shapes how we see things, this theological language shapes how Lutherans read, interpret and apply the Scriptures.
The ideas themselves are scriptural, but the language we use to talk about these ideas is drawn from the insights and convictions of our Reformation forebears.
Let me offer a few examples of how our theology shapes our practice. Lutherans call the sacraments “means of grace” because we believe that baptism and communion are ways through which God’s grace is given to us. This is one of the reasons we baptize infants. Unlike some Christians who talk about baptism as a symbol of committing oneself to Christ, Lutherans insist that God’s grace comes to us without any effort of our own. Baptizing infants reminds all of us that we are on the receiving end of God’s grace; we can’t do anything for ourselves.
Because we believe the sacraments are “means of grace,” we say the body and blood of Christ are “really present” in the bread and wine of communion. Jesus himself comes to us in this meal. For a long time, it was common for Lutherans to receive communion for the first time after they were confirmed. That made it easy for people to think of communion as a kind of reward for passing confirmation class. Today, in most Lutheran congregations, children commune much earlier. This change reinforces the message that communion is a gift of grace that doesn’t depend on our ability to understand it.
When they begin their ministry, Lutheran pastors and deacons promise to preach and teach in accordance with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. While we don’t think the Confessions are equal to the Scriptures, we accept them as faithful explanations of the Scriptures and as valuable resources for shaping how we think about, talk about and practice our Christian faith as Lutherans.
Of course, not all of the students at ELCA seminaries are Lutheran. While Lutherans study the Lutheran Confessions, students from other Christian traditions study the theology of their church body. This creates a rich opportunity for students to deepen their theological understandings by actively engaging those whose understandings may differ.
If we think of the Christian faith as a piece of music, we might think of distinct denominational or confessional theologies as different musical voices in a choir, like soprano, alto, tenor or bass. Although the musicians sing different notes, together they create a sound much richer than any one voice could produce alone. Our goal is to form students who sing in a Lutheran voice—and who contribute to a rich Christian harmony.