The Lutheran Way: Blending the Confessional and the Pietistic

I found Mark Ellingsen’s essay on Lutheranism to be both informative and fascinating. I certainly identify with Mark’s early acknowledgement that Lutheran is a title, a label attached to his faith by critics of the movement early on. The followers of Joseph Smith came to be known as the “Mormonites” or the “Mormons.” Unfortunately the latter title stuck, and we as a people have been stuck with it for just short of two hundred years.

As recently as the Church’s October 2021 general conference in Salt Lake City, one of the senior leaders of the church put it this way: “Mormon [a prophet-leader in the Book of Mormon] is not our Savior. Mormon did not suffer and bleed and die for us.” Joseph Smith said it well: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven [1 Corinthians 15:1-4]; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” This is why we are seeking to be known as the Church of Jesus Christ.

Members of my faith would generally not speak in terms of the Confessional and the Pietistic facets of the faith in the same way that Mark does about Lutheranism (pages 1-3). We do have, however, what I think is a close approximation to those distinctions: the difference between the doctrine (orthodoxy) of the faith and the spirituality or daily practice (orthopraxy) of the people in everyday life. First of all, for Latter-day Saints correct doctrine or theology is crucial. The correctness of a teaching or writing is determined by holy scripture and by what is taught (by way of scriptural commentary or interpretation) by our senior Church leaders.

The fifteenth President of the Church, Gordon B. Hinckley (1910-2008), said: “I have spoken before about the importance of keeping the doctrine of the Church pure, and seeing that it is taught in all of our meetings. I worry about this. Small aberrations in doctrinal teaching can lead to large and evil falsehoods.” As to the power of correct doctrine in the minds and hearts of the people, another prominent leader within our faith, Boyd K. Packer (1924-2015), taught: “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel.”

As to Pietism, Latter-day Saints would be prone to speak of an individual’s personal spirituality. The depth of one’s spirituality is a result of such practices as personal purity, daily personal prayer, daily scripture study, regular church attendance, partaking weekly of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, fasting from bread and water—all of which bring one into closer communion with the Savior. Further, we believe that God’s barometer of righteousness is the heart. The extent to which a woman or a man is drawing closer to Christ may be discerned largely by how that individual manifests what the Apostle Paul called the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25), an expanding love and concern for people all about us.

Latter-day Saints are taught repeatedly of the importance of both sides of the equation. For example, a person can have a profound depth of understanding of the gospel, even be a brilliant biblical scholar or theologian, and yet be a complete jerk, one who is proud, self-seeking, and almost blind to the needs and feelings of others. On the other hand, one can be a marvelous example of Christlike service to everyone within reach, but at the same time know very little about the doctrine of Christ. That is, they do not possess a reason for the hope within them (1 Peter 3:15). In other words, they are severely limited when it comes to defending the faith or presenting a message that is as stimulating to the mind as it is soothing to the heart. Striking a proper balance here is extremely difficult. During my years as dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University, I sensed that I had two interrelated responsibilities: (1) to assist, encourage, and provide support for 70 full-time faculty members in their study, research, and publication efforts; and, at the same time, (2) to caution them regularly to never yield to academic arrogance.

In the fourth paragraph of Mark’s paper (page 2), he mentions that the Confessional side of Lutheranism “has more of an appreciation of the Sacramental heritage than does Pietism, and it may emphasize salvation by grace more than Pietism does.” This expression stumped me. I would think that the principle that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone would be especially emphasized among those striving for greater piety. Mustn’t Pietism be built upon a complete reliance on the merits, mercy, and grace of Jesus Christ? Or is it that that the doctrine of the grace of God is taught and emphasized more within the Confessional strand than the Pietistic. I’m sure the answer is simple and that I’m missing something, but I would appreciate a brief clarification from Mark, if possible.

In paragraph 11 (page 4), Mark mentions that Luther “was open to invoking angels and Mary (whom he called the Mother of God). . . . All the Saints may pray for us, he claimed.” I really should know more of the life and ministry of Martin Luther than I do, but I am interested in Luther’s attachment to Mary, the mother of Jesus. I would be surprised to learn that, of all the things Luther opposed or rejected within the Roman Catholic Church, one of them was not a rejection of an overmuch veneration of Mary. Or did that come decades or centuries after Luther’s time? Most Evangelical Protestants or Mainline Christians that I know today would not be comfortable with Mariology. How would most Lutherans feel about this emphasis today? How would they feel about Luther’s spiritual attraction to Mary?

In paragraph 13 (page 5), Mark indicates that “even embracing theosis would raise no problems from the Evangelical Catholic wing of Lutheranism, as Luther himself seems sometimes to have endorsed the concept.” This was not new to me, since one of the doctrinal topics we pursued as a part of the Mormon-Evangelical dialogue (2000-2022) was theosis or deification, a variation of which is a belief held by Latter-day Saints. As a part of our readings for that particular dialogue, we asked Veli-Matti-Karkkainen at Fuller Seminary to lead our two-day discussion. We read Velli’s short book, One with God: Salvation as Deification and Justification (2004), as well as some writings by Latter-day Saint scholars on the topic.

It was while reading that book that I encountered statements from Martin Luther on the topic of theosis. I have two questions: (1) Do we know to what extent Luther had interactions with Eastern Orthodoxy and their perspectives on deification? and (2) How would the doctrine of theosis be understood or received by the typical Lutheran woman in the pew or the everyday Lutheran man on the street? How would people in the congregation react if the local Lutheran pastor were to quote “If one knows himself, he will know God and knowing God will become like God” (Clement of Alexandria) or “The word was made flesh in order that we might be enabled to be made gods” (Athanasius)?

On page 8 Professor Ellingsen addresses the Lutheran belief in humanity’s fallen and lost condition as a result of Adam and Eve’s actions in Eden, as well as one’s individual sinfulness. I am in complete agreement that it is absolutely necessary for an individual to understand the nature and impact of the Fall (the problem) in order to grasp the need for redemption and reconciliation through the Atonement of Jesus Christ (the solution). One must know the seriousness of the malady in order to fully appreciate the Medication.

At the same time, if all that a person ever hears in church or reads in religious literature is how broken, warped, twisted, and evil the members of the human race are, won’t some individuals (maybe many) simply give up, throw in the towel, and conclude that they are not spiritually capacitated to go to heaven hereafter? I know that the solution is to teach them of the life, ministry, atoning work of the Savior and His grace, but what about those who simply miss that part of the sermon or were texting at the time the pastor or teacher was glorying in the Lord’s Atonement? What if those who are told repeatedly that they are totally depraved never return to church or never become involved in mid-week Bible study?

Please forgive my ramblings. I have just encountered so many men and women through the years who choose to disassociate themselves with organized religion. Today they are called “the nones.” They insist that rather than being elated about the “good news” of the Christian message, they feel they have been fed an ever-present diet of “bad news” relative to their spiritual condition. (By the way, I don’t believe the answer is to deliver the good news like Robert Schuller or Joel Osteen might do.) Is there a more effective way, a more hopeful way to teach the plight of fallen humanity and the need for a Savior in a manner that listeners or students do not feel hopeless, do not see themselves as being beyond the pale of saving grace? There must be.

I appreciate very much Mark Ellingsen’s excellent distillation of Lutheranism. It has broadened my perspective, corrected some misconceptions, and prompted me to do some serious reading.

1 reply
  1. Mark Ellingsen
    Mark Ellingsen says:

    Dear Robert.
    What an education I received from your response about the Latter Day Saints’ heritage! So neat to learn that something like the Lutheran dialogue between Confessionalist and Pietist approaches exists in your tradition. My guess is that that such a distinction exists in most of the Protestants traditions. The other exciting aspect of a dialogue between us pertains to the Latter-Day Saints’ endorsement of something like theosis/deification. But first let me try to put your mind at ease regarding Lutheran veneration of Mary. According to the Lutheran Apology of The Augsburg Confession (XXI), Mary does not act as a mediator, does not give life. She is not on Christ’s level. But like all the saints she deserves honor and strengthens our faith, not unlike the honor your tradition affords to Latter Day Saints like Joseph Smith.
    In response to your questions about Lutherans and deification, I hasten to note that the average Lutheran in the pews does not even know what deification is or that Luther taught something like it. Few Lutheran pastors are aware of the references to deification that I cite, though it is increasingly known among Luther Scholars. Those of my branch of American Lutheranism (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) warmly receive it, and those of the more theologically conservative variety (The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) would reject this finding. Regarding Luther himself, it is clear that he was aware of the presence of this concept in Eastern Christianity, and we know that there was a dialogue through written correspondence in the late 1550s between Lutheran theologians in Tübingen and the Patriarch of Constantinople about Lutheran statements of faith. Luther’s early followers clearly saw compatibility with Eastern Christianity to motivate this effort to gain the Ecumenical Patriarch’s support.
    In the paper shared with you and all our colleagues I pointed out a text in which Luther seems to embrace theosis (Complete Sermons, Vol.4/2, pp.279-280). The theme of being united with Christ is also in line with this concept (Smalcald Articles, III.13; Apology of the Augsburg Confession, IV.72). I understand your discomfort with the Lutheran/Augustinian pessimism about human nature (Romans 7). Will it discourage following Jesus? But could it also encourage the guilt-ridden to feel that he/she is not so bad, at least no worse than anyone else, and then God’s forgiveness becomes even more impressive? If that is not a helpful approach for the Latter Day Saints, how about the compromise I suggested to our Orthodox spokesman David Ford? His tradition sometimes speaks of sin as sickness. And so I asked him as I now ask you:
    Could we say that sin is a sickness like drug addiction or in the sense that even the vaccinated can still carry COVID? Would that be as acceptable in your heritage as it would be in mine? If not, let’s look for other areas of convergence to overcome the problems here.
    One more question: Though to be sure the Lutheran stress on spontaneity and freedom would not be characteristic of Latter Day Saint teaching with its concern to affirm the importance of good works, but is there anything in your tradition’s doctrine that would forbid the spontaneity and situational ethic which some Lutherans teach in the name of Luther and St. Paul (Gal.5:1; Gen.22:1-19)? As you reflect on this matter, there is one other aspect of Lutheranism which could be promising for our dialogue. Unlike other Protestant traditions we have not identified which books belong in the Bible. In short, in principle Lutherans have an “open canon.” In short, nothing forbids me, a Lutheran pastor, to preach and teach on the Apochrypha of the Catholic and Eastern traditions. This could open doors to my church receiving The Book of Mormon. Not in our lifetimes, to be sure. Lutherans share with the Orthodox tradition something like the consensus fidelium, the belief that a document’s or a theological idea’s authority is demonstrated by its reception among the faithful over time (Formula of Concord SD,
    Rule and Norm). Who knows what the Holy Spirit will show to the faithful in next centuries, and in the meantime the dialogue about the authority of these additional Books could continue.

    With thanks for the dialogue,


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