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Religion Library: Lutheran

Early Developments

Written by: Ted Vial

Lutheranism spread quickly in Germany following Martin Luther's debate with the Roman Catholic Church over indulgences in 1517 because the core of Luther's theology-a liberating sense of God's forgiveness and grace-struck a chord with many of Luther's contemporaries.Following Luther's death in 1546, Lutheranism underwent three important developments.The first, in the 16th and 17th centuries, goes by the name Protestant Scholasticism or Protestant Orthodoxy.The second, in the 18th and 19th centuries, resulted from the influence of rationalism.Finally, also in the 18th and 19th centuries, the development of pietism influenced Lutheranism.

After Luther's death (1546), his colleague Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) adjudicated a series of disputes about the proper interpretation of Luther's theology.The result of these disputes as a whole was a shift in the tenor of Lutheranism, from an experience of grace to an emphasis on correct doctrine.For example, John Agricola (ca. 1494-1566) argued that Luther's understanding of the Gospel meant doing away with the law as a means to salvation.Agricola took this to an extreme that is called antinomianism ("against the law"), contending that one had no obligation to fulfill the law and even that good works were detrimental to salvation.(This disregards Luther's view that, while good works do not earn salvation, the justified Christian, filled with the Spirit, will perform works of love for his or her neighbor.)In opposition, George Major (1502-1574) insisted that, while God alone justified humans, good works were necessary for salvation.(This too clearly contradicts Luther.)Melanchthon acted as a mediator in the controversy, suggesting that while one could not say that good works were necessary for salvation, one could say that good works were necessary.While this does not distort Luther's position, neither is it in the same spirit. For Luther, doctrine was never considered independently of a genuine relation to faith.

Similar disputes arose over the proper relationship of the church to civil government, free will, and the way in which Christ was present in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.One party, which called itself the "Gnesio-Lutherans" (or "genuine Lutherans"), accused Melanchthon of being a "crypto-Calvinist" and Philipp Melanchthon's supporters were dubbed "Philippists." Melanchthon was less concerned to draw sharp theological lines than some of his Lutheran colleagues.He proposed language for the Augsburg Confession that said that in the Lord's Supper the body and blood of Christ were "truly exhibited" (the original creed said "truly present"). The words spoken at the moment of consecration, "This is my body . . .", meant to Melanchthon that the body and blood of Christ were received in the elements, not necessarily that the bread and wine were the body and blood.This flexibility in doctrine allowed Melanchthon to reach common ground with Calvin on the Lord's Supper.


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