The Lutheran Way–Informing Both Evangelicalism and Anglicanism

Mark Ellingsen’s taxonomy of the different strains of Lutheranism is very helpful for understanding a tradition that is indeed internally diverse, and one that has long captured my interest. Martin Luther himself, of course, is a complex and, for many, a troublesome figure, especially his rhetoric about Jews. But for all his warts, Luther is an arresting man—raw and visceral and all-too-human, very much in contrast to the cool, almost detached rationality of John Calvin, even though the two of them shared similar theological insights. Luther ranted and stormed and threw inkwells at the devil, whereas Calvin comes across as measured and oh-so-rational.

Calvin’s systematic theology was essential for the broad theological enterprise of Protestantism, but he drew on Luther’s breakthrough, his “rediscovery of the gospel,” rescuing it (as he understood it) from the maw of medieval scholastic theology. Salvation by grace, as Mr. Ellingsen writes, remains at the center of Lutheranism.

As a historian, not a theologian, I cannot begin to respond to (let alone match) Mr. Ellingsen’s astute theological reflections. The Lutheran theological tradition is indeed rich and textured—and diverse.

It strikes me that the two traditions that have most shaped me and my experience of the faith, evangelicalism and Anglicanism, have each, in turn, been shaped by Lutheranism, although each amplified one dimension of Luther’s thought and all but ignored another.

Evangelicals seized on Luther’s emphasis on preaching; the reformer understood that a populace educated in the rudiments of Protestant theology was crucial to the success of the Reformation. For that reason, virtually every evangelical gathering culminates with the sermon, which can last anywhere from twenty to forty-five minutes, sometimes longer. Evangelicals by and large have not followed Luther’s example on the sacraments, however. True, Luther’s theological understanding of Holy Communion was something less than the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation—but not much. Evangelicals, on the other hand, adopted Ulrich Zwingli’s memorialist understanding of the Lord’s Supper: We take this bread and wine (well, grape juice, but that’s another story) to remember the life and death of Jesus. And for that reason, evangelicals rarely partake of Holy Communion.

(An informant told me a while back that Willow Creek in South Barrington, Illinois, offered plastic, thimble-sized containers of grape juice with a wafer sealed in foil for congregants in the narthex. The faithful could, if they chose, pick up the tidy packages and partake on their way to the parking lot. I expect even Thomas Bramwell Welch might be uneasy about that.)

The Anglican tradition moved in the opposite direction, toward an embrace of Luther’s sacramental theology (more or less), but a relative neglect of preaching. That’s not to say that Anglicanism (the Episcopal Church in the United States) hasn’t had good preachers (Phillips Brooks and Barbara Brown Taylor comes to mind, among many others). But for Anglicans, the sermon (or homily) is a way station on the way to the crescendo of the service: Holy Eucharist. (I intentionally keep my sermons short because I do not want to detract from the “main event,” the Eucharist.)

One obvious way to chart this divergence is to consider both ritual and architecture. In an evangelical gathering, the pulpit stands at the center, and the service culminates in the sermon (or “message”). In the Anglican tradition, the altar is central, the pulpit typically to the side, and everything culminates in the Eucharist.

Perhaps Lutheranism can teach both traditions, evangelical and Anglican, a better way, one that places value on both preaching and sacraments.