The Lawyer and the Monk

Response to Mark Ellingsen, “Lutheranism: An Evangelical Catholic Way to Follow Jesus”
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Reformed Tradition

The Lawyer and the Monk

Martin Luther was a monk. John Calvin was a lawyer. That contrast in vocational callings is the clearest way to consider the differences between how the Lutheran and Reformed traditions follow Jesus. Those differences, in my view, are more matters of style than of serious substance. Of course, theological distinctives can be uncovered and explored. But in the end, the Reformed tradition’s response to Lutheranism can be framed by the way a brilliant lawyer and a passionate monk, each fearlessly committed to following Jesus would relate to one another.

In the past four decades, that relationship has begun to flourish as each have lived more deeply into what it means to be the church catholic. In 1997, the “Formula of Agreement” was officially adopted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and three Reformed partners, the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ. This ecumenical agreement was reached after 32 years of dialogue over theological differences which had persisted between the Lutheran and Reformed churches since the Reformation.

The Formula Agreement established “full communion” between these denominations. That means they each agreed to:
• recognize each other as churches in which the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered according to the Word of God;
• withdraw any historic condemnation by one side or the other as inappropriate for the life and faith of our churches today;
• continue to recognize each other’s Baptism and authorize and encourage the sharing of the Lord’s Supper among their members;
• recognize each others’ various ministries and make provision for the orderly exchange of ordained ministers of Word and Sacrament;
• establish appropriate channels of consultation and decision-making within the existing structures of the churches;
• commit themselves to an ongoing process of theological dialogue in order to clarify further the common understanding of the faith and foster its common expression in evangelism, witness, and service;
• pledge themselves to living together under the Gospel in such a way that the principle of mutual affirmation and admonition becomes the basis of a trusting relationship in which respect and love for the other will have a chance to grow.

This is an ecumenical agreement which is having real consequences. Pastors in the RCA, the PC(USA), and the UCC can be called to serve congregations in the ELCA, and vice versa. This happens readily and has opened fresh opportunities for ministry. I was privileged to be General Secretary of the RCA when the Formula of Agreement was adopted. Beyond sharing at the pulpit and table, it has nurtured mutually enriching relationships between the RCA and the ELCA, as it has done for the other Reformed partners. And this continues. Next month I’ll be preaching and presiding over communion at an ELCA congregation, as has happened hundreds of times with Reformed and Lutheran Ministers of Word and Sacrament. All this would have been highly problematic before the Formula of Agreement declared full communion between us.

Given this, it would seem to violate the spirit of our full communion for me, from the Reformed tradition, to bring any sharp critique of Mark Ellingsen’s excellent presentation of how the Lutheran tradition follows Jesus. We spent 32 years in theological dialogue to determine we could now go forward together, following Jesus, based on what we hold in common, which I want to strongly affirm.

In the spirit of “affirmation and admonition” that is part of the Formula of Agreement, however, I can point to distinctives in our two traditions, but choose to frame these more as contrasting styles and points of emphasis, reflecting the dispositions of a lawyer and a monk. One notable example is how each tradition appropriates “freedom from the law.” Mark Ellingsen writes that Luther’s understanding of this truth led “the first Reformer and his tradition to avoid exhorting the faithful how to live with guidelines, commands, or discipline…. for good works are spontaneous.”

The Reformed tradition would demur. Its high emphasis on teaching comes from the conviction that Scripture instructs us how to live as those saved by grace. This comes, of course, through study, discernment, and the work of the Spirit, but results in some clear ways to behave, and rules to follow. Of course, my tradition often makes these onerous, excessive, and guilt-producing. But there’s a reluctance to say that good works are “spontaneous.” However, think about this. Lawyers place treasure and trust in words and rules. Monks place treasure and trust in spiritual practices.

Mark Ellingsen describes in a very helpful way the various streams that flow within the broad Lutheran tradition. He personally identifies with the “Evangelical Catholic” stream which places a central emphasis on the sacraments and liturgical practice. For those carried in this stream, “the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglo-Catholic heritages are regarded as the closest allies of Lutheranism.” Protestantism, as such, may even be rejected.

That can make those in the Reformed tradition uncomfortable. We’d ask, “Where is the role of preaching?” Pastors in both our traditions, after all, are Ministers of Word and Sacrament. The Reformed tradition highlights the centrality of the Word being proclaimed from the pulpit. That’s even reflected in the traditional architecture of Reformed congregations, with the pulpit at the center. Admittedly, it also has meant that the sacramental life in traditional Reformed worship often has been impoverished—a trend now being reversed in some Reformed congregations.

Mark Ellingsen wonderfully underscores the Lutheran commitment to the church catholic, and its ecumenical understandings. But my guess is that he and those in the Evangelical Catholic stream of Lutheranism might be more enthusiastic about the Lutheran ecumenical dialogues with the Episcopal Church, Orthodox Churches, and the Roman Catholic Church than with Formula of Agreement. Nevertheless, within the U.S. context, the ELCA has played a major ecumenical role in reaching out in all these directions with intentional commitment and theological depth. A similar role is played globally through the Lutheran World Federation.

A final word of affirmation for the Lutheran tradition, in helpful contrast to my own, comes in art and aesthetics. For various reasons probably rooted in sacramental theology and practice, the Lutheran tradition never divorced itself from work of the Spirit through aesthetics, and the senses— “smells and bells” and much more. You often see the difference even today when entering a Lutheran, versus a Reformed congregation. My tradition, to the extreme, often eliminated any “distractions” in art or images that would prevent congregants from simply hearing the Word. The Lutheran tradition, historically, has been more aesthetically inviting. But here again, I see the legacy of a monk and a lawyer.

The Reformed and Lutheran traditions are mutually enriching. Thankfully, in recent decades we’ve become far more intentional in opening our doors to this gift of the Spirit. John Calvin and Martin Luther never met one another in person. But the legacies of the lawyer and monk are intersecting each other today in ways that help both to follow Jesus more faithfully.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson

2 replies
  1. Mark Ellingsen
    Mark Ellingsen says:

    Dear Wesley,
    What a neat way to describe our historic differences! I love the idea of boiling it down to Calvin the lawyer and Luther the monk, as long as we indicate that Calvin’s law firm did not have too many wild parties, and that Luther’s monastery had frequent gatherings during which good beer was served, and that the monks enjoyed conversation with and about women. After all, Luther did like to party.
    Before engaging in some content, I can reassure you that I am not part of that Evangelical Catholic tribe who laments Lutheran-Reformed ecumenical agreements in the name of ties to Catholicism or the watering down of Lutheran uniqueness. Personally, I agree with your concluding comments about how we enrich each other’s traditions. I like to worship better with Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholics, preferring the way they build their worship spaces. But there is no one I like talking theology better with than Reformed theologians of the Barthian or Kuyperian stripe. They/You are Lutheranism’s real ally as I see it, for the Reformed stress on the sovereignty of God and grace along with an Augustinian realism about human nature is right in line with Lutheran thinking. Of course I have to take that back a little if my Reformed partner is Zwinglian on the Sacraments (more on that when it’s your turn), but if in line with Calvin and Christ’s Real Presence I have a brother.
    The stumbling block for purposes of this project seems to be the spontaneity of good works. You make a wonderful case for why this is problematic from a Reformed perspective, and I have another formula in my general reaction to all the responses (which I intend to be related to yours) which aims to account for why the Reformed and other heritages do not endorse this model. In a way, though, could it not still be argued that the kind of confidence Lutherans have in the transforming character of grace (could we call it grace’s sovereignty) need not be incompatible with Reformed faith? Is it possible from your side to concede that the Lutheran spontaneous, situational ethic is a legitimate option at least in some contexts, as I can say with the Pietist and Orthodox segments of Lutheranism that the Reformed belief that Scripture instructs us how to live is in line with the Biblical witness? Look forward to the prospects of further dialogue on this and other issues you might raise.

    Your partner in reform,

    • Dr. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson
      Dr. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson says:


      Thanks much for this response. In truth, I didn’t see it earlier. My apologies. And I find myself in agreement in how a Reformed view can embrace the “spontaneity of grace” in particular settings. But because of the general disposition of many in the Reformed tradition, we’re often not good at that. And as you suspect, I’m no Zwinglian. You do have a partner and ally.



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