Carl Trueman: Lessons from Lutheranism

Carl Trueman: Lessons from Lutheranism January 17, 2024

Carl Trueman is a Reformed theologian who has become one of our best cultural critics.  I cite him quite a bit at this blog.

He was a speaker at a Doxology event (a Lutheran organization that helps pastors in the realm of spiritual care) and tells about it in First Things.  He said that a pastor asked him what he thought confessional Lutheranism could offer the universal church today.

In his article Lessons from the Lutheran Tradition in 2024, Trueman first says that there is a common ethos between the various kinds of “confessional Protestants” that sets them off today from both Catholics, in turmoil over the pope, and evangelicals, torn over our political malaise.  And that “confessional Protestants,” whether Lutheran or Calvinist or Anglican, can bring a perspective that all Christians need:

First, confessional Protestantism in general, when faithful to its defining documents, focuses the minds of believers upon the great truths of the Christian faith that take no account of the vicissitudes of the age. God, Trinity, Fall, Incarnation, redemption, and grace: These are truths that feed the mind and the soul, regardless of which side wins and which side loses elections. And they are the central concerns of the great confessional documents of Protestantism. Whether the Book of Concord for Lutherans; the Westminster Standards for Presbyterians; the Three Forms of Unity for the Reformed; or the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Homilies for Anglicans—all speak of the eternal weight of glory that is to come and thereby relativize the slings and arrows of this world as so many light, momentary afflictions. The implications of this are liturgical: The church goes about its ordinary work of proclaiming Christ in Word and Sacrament even as earthly regimes come and go. Thus it was in the time of Nero. So it is today.

Lutheranism specifically can offer two important confessional insights that would benefit all church bodies today.

First, the Lutheran distinction (echoing Augustine), between the heavenly kingdom and the earthly kingdom. This distinction is vital, especially in a time of deep political division and seductive political temptation. . . .

The Lutheran tradition, properly understood, offers a way of understanding both the importance of the role of the civil magistrate but also his limited significance for the things that really matter, those things that pertain to eternity. In a year where the usual Christian suspects on both sides of the political divide will likely be investing American partisan politics with eschatological significance, there is a need for a healthy dose of the modesty that Lutheran thinking on the earthly kingdom encourages.

Second is Luther’s Theology of the Cross:

Finally, confessional Lutheranism can offer today’s church a powerful understanding of the suffering of the church. Luther famously argued that the true theologian should be a theologian of the cross, placing the Incarnation at the center of revelation. God reveals himself under opposites. His glory is hidden in flesh, his power in the weakness of the cross, his triumph over death in the apparent triumph of death over Christ. The theologian too should expect this in his life: The faithful Christian finds his strength in weakness. And in his 1539 treatise, On the Councils of the Church, Luther calls possession of the cross one of the seven marks of the true church. The true church will be marked by outward weakness, will be despised by the world, and will suffer as she eschews the world’s methods for gaining power and influence.

Contrast the Lutheran theology of suffering with the prevailing fear of suffering that we blogged about yesterday!

I would add one more pervasive problem of our time, including our churches, that Lutheranism can help address:  The current rejection of objective, physical reality.

Postmodernists believe truth is relative and ultimately unknowable, with critical theorists insisting that truth claims are nothing more than impositions of oppressive power, while others believe that we create our own reality by the power of our minds.  Modernists, such as scientists, do believe in physical reality, but assume that it is dead and inert, with any kind of meaning existing only in the human mind.  This is all a version of the heresy of Gnosticism, which many Christians today are embracing, focusing on “the God within” or “me and Jesus,” and cultivating what is “spiritual” as a purely interior experience.

Confessional Lutheranism, though, believes that God works objectively through physical means:  the water of Baptism, the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and the language of His Word.  Not only that, the Lutheran emphasis on Creation, Incarnation, Christ’s presence in His Supper, and its understanding of human life, as expressed in the doctrine of vocation, all contribute to a Christian view of “reality” that is sorely needed today.


Illustration:  Luther Rose by Bickra01, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons  [See this for the symbolism.]

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