Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Are Lutherans Protestant?


Years ago, a fellow Lutheran told me, “The Catholics think we’re just like the Baptists; the Baptists think we’re just like the Catholics.” That statement is based on some broad generalizations. So it’s not completely true. But it’s not entirely false either.

My mother-in-law told me that she once asked a Lutheran pastor, “Are Lutherans Protestant?” I assume that she must have attended a service at a Lutheran church. Worship in many Lutheran congregations is very Roman Catholic in its style and feel. In fact, our published Communion liturgies are closely based on the Roman rite. I have several times had Roman Catholic visitors to my church remark to the effect that “You worship just like us!”

I’m sure that the pastor, in his reply to my mother-in-law, was well-intended. Unfortunately, his answer was convoluted and unsatisfying. I’m not, however, sure that I can do any better. The fact is the question “Are Lutherans Protestant?” is not so straightforward as it may appear.

On the one hand, Lutherans are the original Protestants. The word might not have been invented for us, but we are the first Christian group to whom it was applied. Only later were other Christians, who were not affiliated with Rome or the Orthodox (capital O) churches, called “Protestants.” In this general sense of “neither Roman Catholic nor Orthodox,” Lutherans are unequivocally Protestant.

On the other hand, some Lutherans pointedly reject the title “Protestant.” Lutheranism, they say, is not a protest movement. It is a reform movement. Luther and his compatriots sought only to correct some abuses within Roman Catholicism and thereby to restore the Church to a pristine state of theology and practice. To the end of his days, they (correctly) point out, Martin Luther considered himself a good Catholic (or was it “catholic?"). Later, more radical reformers, may deserve the title “Protestant,” but not us.

I have to admit that this point of view is appealing. Unfortunately, the idea that Luther’s reforms did not involve protest strikes me as a romantic fiction. In fact, the early Lutherans protested many Roman Catholic practices (e.g. the sale of indulgences) and doctrines (e.g. papal primacy). It also seems to me that there is an essentially, and perhaps dangerously, conservative impulse behind this thinking. If Luther’s reforms were not protests, but an attempt to repristinate Christianity, and if those reforms were successfully enacted in Lutheranism, then further reform, change, and progress are neither necessary nor desirable. Lutheranism then becomes locked in the 16th century, like a prehistoric insect encased in amber.

Still, I don’t want to move too quickly to embrace the term “Protestant.” The reason is that Lutherans are not “just like the Baptists” or any other Protestant group. (And yes, I know, those other Protestants are not all alike either). In theology and practice Lutherans have not really strayed too far from our Roman Catholic roots. Though not Roman, we remain a part of the Church catholic. We affirm the historic creeds and we abandon tradition only when it stands in the way of the proclamation of the Gospel. An old theology prof of mine described Lutheranism as a movement within the catholic Church.

Some Lutherans like to describe themselves as “evangelical catholics.” That’s really not a bad description. We are evangelical because of our commitment to the gospel (the "evangel") of justification by grace through faith. We are catholic because we are a part of the universal Church. Unfortunately the “evangelical catholic” moniker is applied inconsistently. Sometimes it is used in ways that are polemical, divisive, or just plain silly.

So what shall we say? Lutheranism is a movement within the Church catholic. Lutherans have certain distinctive emphases that set us apart from both the Roman Catholics and other Protestants. The Lutheran distinctives are gifts that we bring to the whole Church. We are catholic but not Roman. We are Protestant but with an asterisk.

What do you think? Whether you are Roman Catholic, Orthodox,
Lutheran, or some other kind of Protestant, I'd like to hear your take on the question "Are Lutherans Protestant?"


  1. So - are you saying that Lutheranism IS (it depends on how you define is!)still a movement withn the church catholic or WAS?