25 Jun Confessions of a Lutheran Convert: From Charleston to Wittenburg
One of the phenomena I witnessed while in seminary were students who started out in a certain stream of thought and made a change. I guess this is part of the process in studying theology and praxis. I would be afraid if people became even more devout in their stances rather than change as they considered. In fact, I have seen the tendency to become hardened as we have our parochial huddles around particular persuasions. We suffer from the us/them mire spoken of by Buber. This is particularly acute in Christian circles. The circle I am concerned about is the Protestant circle. It seems some haven’t gotten the memo from Wittenburg’s Door that protesting ought to happen when the Gospel is at stake. It seems like we still like to divide over non-Gospel issues–or we too often make implications of the Gospel the Gospel itself.
There was one student I learned quite a bit from with regards to critiquing what was around me. We worked together, had a couple classes together, and have continued our friendship many miles apart. John Fraiser serves as pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in LaGrange, Kentucky. In fact, I am still learning from John (I just listened to his sermon for Trinity Sunday today. Good stuff. Go listen). Below is an interview John agreed to. I wanted to ask him about his move to Lutheranism as well as his candid thoughts about Evangelicalism and some ways forward in dialogue and worship.
What are the principal reasons you became a Lutheran?
It’s tough to give a short answer to this question. It involves a lot of issues that would need more attention than I can give here. So understand from the outset that what I say here is painfully brief and incomplete.
At the time, an important factor for me was witnessing the chaos in and among the tribes of Evangelicalism. I say ‘tribes’ because I came to see that there isn’t really anything doctrinal that defines Evangelicalism. And I had really search for it. Anything that Evangelicalism commonly teaches is something that can be found outside of Evangelicalism. I’ve had many conversations with Evangelicals asking what doctrinal distinctive is common among Evangelicals and I’ve never gotten the same answer. Usually I don’t get an answer to the question. Perhaps the best I’ve heard is that Evangelicalism is distinctively anti-sacramental. This may well be right.
But what seems to define Evangelicalism best is tribalism. Who’s your guy? Who do you follow? If you’re a pastor, who’s the successful mega-guy you pattern your ministry after? Big identifying marks of tribalism are numerical growth organized around particular people, lots of conferences with big-name speakers, lots of media to purchase and consume, and lots of blogging about specific people. Evangelicalism has these marks like no other group in the Christian church.
Something doctrinal needed to define the group to which I belonged. Evangelicalism is never going to get that. It’s too late for it to get a confession. For a confession to work, it can’t be post facto. It has to be formed on the ground floor, and then guide the group going forward. Evangelicalism never had that. I’m not an expert on early Evangelicalism, but I wonder if Evangelicalism was intended to be a movement within other Christian groups and never a group itself.
I’ve often been asked why I didn’t take the more common exit from Evangelicalism — Presbyterianism. While Presbyterianism has the benefit of having a confession that doctrinally defines them, much of it’s confession is unidentifiable in the history of the church. Presbyterians covenantal structure which governs so much of their thought is a very late interpretation. You can’t find it in the history of the church prior to the Reformed. Calvin’s view of the Supper — completely novel. You can’t find it ever taught in the thousands upon thousands of pages of discussion on the Supper. Did the whole church get all of this wrong for 1,500 years?
Lutherans, on the other hand, were concerned to restore what had been lost from the church. When you read the Augsburg Confession, for example, you find that the Lutherans were not trying to establish new doctrine but to uphold catholic doctrine that the Roman church had abandoned.
“Only those things have been recounted whereof we thought that it was necessary to speak, in order that it might be understood that in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic. For it is manifest that we have taken most diligent care that no new and ungodly doctrine should creep into our churches” (Augsburg Confession, Conclusion 5).
So history of interpretation became very important to me. If no one has ever said what you’ve been saying until you start saying it, that’s a problem. And the more central that new doctrine is, the bigger problem it becomes.
Perhaps the biggest factor for me was that I came to see that something was missing in the way that Evangelicals and Protestants teach that the ancient work of Christ comes to us today — so far removed as we are in time and space. There’s this 19th century hymn that Reformed Evangelicals love to sing, “Before the throne of God Above”. The second verse has this line: “When Satan tempts me to despair/ And tells me of the guilt within,/ Upward I look and see Him there/ Who made an end of all my sin.” And I remember singing that at one point and thinking, “Upward I look and see him where? Jesus isn’t on the cross. There’s nowhere to look.” Luther similarly talked about oppression to despair but he had a very different answer, “Thus we must regard Baptism and make it profitable to ourselves, that when our sins and conscience oppress us, we strengthen ourselves and take comfort and say: Nevertheless I am baptized; but if I am baptized, it is promised me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body” (Large Catechism, Holy Baptism 44).
The work of Christ has to be mediated today and it became clearer to me that Scripture taught that baptism and the Lord’s supper was the place where the vehicles by which God brings the ancient work of Christ to us today. This is how the church for over a thousand years understood baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both the Roman church and the Protestant church abandoned this — with the Protestant church falling further from this teaching than even the Roman church.
In the end, I felt that the church closest to what Scripture taught and whose doctrine wasn’t a modern invention was the Lutheran church. After being a Lutheran for about seven years, I’m more convinced of this now than I was seven years ago.