Soundings

The Lutheran Tradition

May 2010    

The term ‘Lutheran’ refers to the teachings and practices associated with Martin Luther and the reforms he initiated

MOST HISTORIANS OF WESTERN CHRISTIANITY would mark Oct 31, 1517 as the beginning of the great intellectual and religious movement called the Protestant Reformation. On that fateful day, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg condemning the abuses of the indulgence system of the Roman Catholic Church.

Although Oct 31, 1517 symbolically marks the beginning of the Reformation, initiatives to reform the Church are evident much earlier. While seeking to reform the Church, Luther never intended to break away from it. However, during the years 1518 to 1521 he became more and more convinced that the only way in which the necessary reforms could be introduced was for Christians to separate themselves from the Roman Catholic system.

The term “Lutheran” therefore refers to the teachings and practices associated with Martin Luther and the reforms he initiated. Initially, Luther’s detractors used this term to identify the groups associated with the Reformer. But gradually, Luther’s followers themselves adopted the term as the official description of their churches.

If the birthday of the Reformation is Oct 31, 1517, the birthday of the Lutheran Church, historians maintain, is June 25, 1530, with the presentation of the Augsburg Confession. Soon the Lutheran expression of the Protestant Reformation spread to Scandinavia and other parts of Europe.

Lutheranism came to America in 1619, and the first Lutheran Church was erected in Wilmington, Delaware in 1638. Although it began as a small movement, by 1800 it swelled, resulting in the establishment of the first Lutheran Synod in Pennsylvania. In 1847, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LC-MS) was formed with Dr. C. F. W. Walther as President. Soon after seminaries were established for the training of Lutheran clergy: Concordia Seminary in St Louis, Missouri and Concordia Theological Seminary in Forth Wayne, Indiana.

In the early 1950s Lutheran missionaries from America started churches in Malaysia and Singapore. Although originally belonging to one diocese, the Lutheran church in Singapore felt the need to be constituted as a separate church because of the expansion of its work here. The Lutheran Church in Singapore was eventually constituted in October 1997.

A common way of characterising the Lutheran theological tradition is to focus on its fundamental doctrinal emphases: sola scriptura (Scripture alone), sola gratia (grace alone) and sola fidei (faith alone). These are the classical themes of the Reformation, but they are featured significantly in the Lutheran tradition.

Sola scriptura has to do with the source of Christian theology, the basis of our knowledge of God. Luther emphasised the primacy of Scripture over human tradition and speculation in the Church’s understanding of God and the world. By sola scriptura, Luther and the other Reformers insisted that theological knowledge – knowledge of who God is and what He has done – is made possible only by God’s revelation, to which the Bible bears witness. Luther maintained that the authority of Scripture in establishing the doctrines and practices of the Church far exceeded that of the pronouncements of ecclesiastical councils and popes. Only Scripture is infallible, while ecclesial authorities, insofar as they are derived from that of Scripture, are not.

Referring to Scripture, Luther has famously asserted, “This queen must rule, and everyone must obey, and be subject to her. The pope, Luther, Augustine, Paul, and angel from heaven – these should not be masters, judges and arbiters but only witnesses, disciples, and confessors of Scripture.” But Luther’s emphasis on the centrality of the Bible must not be mistaken for bibliolatry – the worship of the Bible. Neither does this emphasis imply that tradition has no place whatsoever in the theology of the Church. Like the other Reformers, Luther acknowledged the (secondary) authority of the ecumenical Creeds because they accurately and faithfully summarise the teachings of Scripture.

Sola gratia and sola fide relate to Luther’s doctrine of salvation, particularly his understanding of how the sinner is justified before a holy God. The doctrine of justification is one of the most important theological tenets for the Reformers of the 15th century. Against a particular interpretation of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church concerning salvation that places some weight on human merit or work, the Reformers maintain that sinners are made righteous solely by the grace of God (sola gratia) on the basis of the finished work of Christ on the cross. This salvation, which is made possible by grace, is received by faith alone (sola fide). For the Lutherans, faith itself is not work. It is rather a gift from God that enables the sinner to appropriate the salvific blessings that come from Christ. As the Formula of Concord so clearly puts it, “Faith does not justify because it is so good a work and so God-pleasing a virtue, but because it lays hold on and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy Gospel.”

LUTHERAN WORSHIP is profoundly Christ-centred in that it is the celebration of forgiveness, salvation and freedom from sin and death that is made possible by the death of Christ on the cross. Historically, the term that is used by Lutherans to describe Christian worship is Divine Service. It designates a time that is especially set apart from the mundane demands of work in order to focus attention on God. In line with the teachings of the great Reformer, the Divine Service comprises the proclamation of the Word of God, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Unlike other approaches in the Protestant tradition, Lutheran worship continues to use ecclesiastical art like crucifixes, paintings, stained-glass windows, and even statues of Jesus and the apostles. Lutheran theology and liturgy therefore express some of the richest aspects of the Protestant heritage, and indeed that of Western Christianity.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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