It is the year 1517, and furious over the church’s selling of indulgences — passes that supposedly get dead loved ones out of Purgatory — a grim Martin Luther is walking down a street in Wittenberg, Germany. Hammer in hand, he is prepared to nail 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church).
Well, all right. Researcher Erwin Iserloh writes that Luther did not need a hammer. Luther simply enclosed the 95 Theses in a letter he wrote to his superiors.
Among Luther’s present-day legatees are Eden Prairie’s five Lutheran churches. There is Christ Lutheran Church, part of the Wisconsin Evangelical Synod, holding that man is the head of the house and that God hates sin and the sinner. Victory Lutheran Church, part of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, holds that God created the family and that hell is eternal. Immanuel Lutheran Church, Prairie Lutheran Church, and St. Andrew Lutheran Church are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, holding that women can become pastors and that it is desirable to be ecumenical.
The Eden Prairie pastors acknowledge that the three pillars of Lutheranism are: the belief that Jesus is the Christ, that the Bible is the absolute Christian authority, and that faith (not works) is the way to salvation.
In his preface to his translation of the New Testament into German, Luther says:
For the gospel does not expressly demand works of our own by which we become righteous and are saved; indeed it condemns such works. Rather the gospel demands faith in Christ: that He has overcome for us sin, death, and hell, and thus gives us righteousness, life, and salvation not through our works, but through His own works, death, and suffering, in order that we may avail ourselves of His death and victory as though we have done it ourselves.
Pastor Brendan Prigge of Victory Lutheran Church declares that faith is all-important and at the same time that faith would almost inevitably produce good works. Good works can be “evidence” of faith.
Pastors of all five Lutheran churches note the long list of community work by their congregations.
Pastor Bryant Bakkum of Prairie Lutheran Church says that the Bible is absolute, but like Americans reading the Constitution, readers of the Bible can come away with different interpretations. Prigge does maintain that one section of the Bible can help one’s interpretation of another section of the Bible: “Scripture interprets Scripture.”
St. Andrew’s Pastor Matthew Fleming notes in Lutheranism the concept of a happy, blessed exchange of Christ’s goodness for man’s sinfulness. Caleb Keith, who oversees the 1517 Podcast network, dwells on Luther’s description of Christians as “simul Iustus et Peccator” (simultaneously justified and a sinner). Christ makes the difference in our lives.
Dr. Hans Wiersma of Augsburg College says that from Luther onward, the emphasis has been on Christian education. Luther translated the Bible into the people’s language. Luther created catechetical texts.
Music is so important in Lutheranism that Pastor Joshua Olson of Christ Lutheran Church reminds us that Lutheranism is known as “the singing church.” Speaking as a scholar, he traces singing back to the Old Testament’s oral tradition and the usefulness of chanting as a way to remember important lessons.
Contemplating the division of Lutheranism into several synods, Pastor Paul Nelson of Immanuel Lutheran Church warns that there is always the danger of one’s remaking God in one’s own image. He noted that these divisions can be encouraged by the deep divisions in our society’s politics in some ways. Bakkum sees the synods as branches of the same tree growing in different directions, with the same root and trunk.
Wiersma notes that Luther moved from the concept of an international Catholic church. With Luther’s translation of the Bible into German and with many European princes shaking off the supremacy of the pope, Lutheranism came to be expressed in the form of state churches. When immigrants came to the U.S. from various countries, they brought different varieties of Lutheranism with them.
It can be asked if Lutheranism is a white people’s religion. Olson says he hopes not because his son is from South Korea. Fleming observes that since Lutheranism is now all over the world, it is exceedingly diverse.
Should a Lutheran family devote most of its waking hours to church? Nelson notes that Luther declares that the church is not where religion is. Per Prigge, it is that religion that provides us with “peace and purpose.” Bakkum says that if you are a shoemaker, you should simply work to make the best shoes possible — “live out your vocation.”
If man is thought to be inherently sinful — contemptible — is this not a poor foundation for a relationship between God and man? Olson says that God hates sin and the one who does the sin, but God also sent the promise of Jesus. Bakkum says God chooses to be in a relation with us: “They are my creation.” Fleming says that God sees all our successes and shortcomings. Nelson observes that apparently, God finds something lovable in us.
Early in the history of Christianity, in the 300s and 400s A.D., when the church fathers were laboring to attract people to Christianity, St. Augustine emphasized the accessibility of Christianity through faith: “Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.” In the 1200s A.D., when Christianity had come to dominate Europe, St. Thomas Aquinas gave weight to good works.
Luther rejects indulgences and an emphasis on good works and circles back to the early Augustinian emphasis on faith. Of course, Wiersma does note that Luther was an Augustinian monk.
Today with their Bible, catechism, and music, Lutherans stride into the future supported by 500 years of faith.
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