Go West, Young Man!

ruminations by Peter M. Berg 

For many thoughtful Lutherans this is a time of great angst. We followers of Luther are struggling to justify taking up space on the ecclesiastical planet. We’ve never quite fit in. Like your slightly eccentric cousin with the quirky behavior we seem to put a damper on ecumenical gatherings, the Lutheran compromisers notwithstanding. This anxiety is nothing new. Doctor Luther struggled with the not unjustified question, “Are you the only one who is right?”


Over the past year or so most of the major (and minor) Lutheran theological journals of a confessional bent have felt the need to deal with the catholicity of Lutheranism and Lutheranism’s future in the greater scheme of things. For some the questions are fundamental to our existence. Is the Lutheran Church a reforming movement within the Body of Christ? Is the Lutheran Church a bona fide Christian tradition which can claim equal standing with Rome and the East? Should the Lutheran Church cease to exist and be subsumed in one of the two larger traditions? Does it really matter?


Perhaps another question begs to be asked:  Do we really need to be anxious? Classical Lutheranism has the right mix of good grace theology, sacraments and liturgy. Of course here we must largely act upon theory, for classical confessional Lutheranism seems to be the Holy Grail gone missing. Just the same we are potentially in possession of the right stuff. Perhaps we ought to be a bit more grateful than we are and a little less gloomy. Yet many in our tradition are in the pits. So why the angst? Well, for one thing no one is beating down our doors. In fact, some of our brighter lights are beating a path to Rome or Constantinople. Our confessional theologians are getting testy and are sniping at each other. For those who care about such things, our churches aren’t growing and the money isn’t coming in. These kinds of things make for frayed nerves at ecclesiastical cooperate headquarters. And let’s face it, we confessional types who pride ourselves at being above such bother are not immune to a case of the jitters either.


Brothers and sisters, isn’t it time to step back and take a long look at ourselves? Doesn’t all this anxiety have the scent of the Theology of Glory? Is this the only incense that we Lutherans have left? The right way is the narrow way and often the lonely way. We may cast envious eyes toward Rome and the East about any number of covetable things, but most of these are already a part of our heritage and simply need to be reclaimed, such as the reinstitution of private absolution, the use of the Western Rite, an every Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, etc. Although we each have our own nuances, Rome, the East, and the Church of the Augsburg Confession all share the same theology in regard to the person of Christ and revere (at least officially) the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. This puts light years between the three largest traditions and our somewhat Nestorian Protestant counterparts. As an aside the theological division with regard to the Real Presence demonstrates that the minority is not always right. Just the same, much still divides the Big Three. And finally, when it’s all said and done, which “orthodoxy” shall we embrace: Rome’s or that of the East? Rome will only accept the East on the Vatican’s own terms and the East plays by the same rule - a mutual cancellation of sorts. Join one or the other and you’ve turned your back on a considerable chunk of Christianity. Who’s right? Who has the goods?


Brothers and sisters, faithfulness to our calling means that we will have to turn our backs on both traditions, our regrets notwithstanding. The theology of grace in both Rome and the East are haunted with the “monster of uncertainty.” In spite of some wonderful exceptions Roman and Eastern preaching is simply awful, or should we say that the preachers are being true to their respective theologies. One finds little comfort here for troubled souls. Awful Lutheran preaching, and there’s plenty of it, is due to preachers being false to the Augustana fathers and those earlier churchmen who went before them.


Brothers, God grant us discernment and strength to be faithful to our calling. We pastors made a solemn vow on our day of ordination. On that day many of us were mired in Synodical Conference Protestantism. For that reason the journey of confessional pastors has always been westward, to reclaim a treasure given to our fathers. Continue to hold the course, bothers. Go West, young man!  §



The Reverend Peter M. Berg conducts the Holy Liturgy using the Western rite every Sunday at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois.