Is Evangelicalism Experiencing a Lutheran Moment?

luther

Back in 1992, Mark Noll published a piece at First Things titled “The Lutheran Difference.”  In that piece he made the following observations:

  • Despite the popularity of Garrison Keillor, Lutherans have always appeared to be “on the fringe of American life”
  • Lutherans are “remarkably unremarkable.”  They are “pretty ordinary” or “ho-hum.”  Unlike evangelicals, for example, they do not have “spectacular stories of conversion.”
  • The history of Lutherans in America is very interesting.  It needs more attention.
  • Lutherans have much to offer Americans if they contribute to the culture “as Lutherans.” Lutherans can offer “resources” to Americans, especially other Protestants,” that “would be an incalculable benefit.”
  • Lutherans have always insisted history is important for the faith, while other American Protestants, especially evangelicals, have “proclaimed that the past is pollution.”  It was Lutheran Jaroslav Pelikan who wrote “tradition is the living faith of the dead” and “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”  Noll writes: “American liberals, who want to fix things by themselves and right away, both need to learn from Lutherans that God’s concern extends over decades and centuries as well as over days, weeks, and months.”
  • Lutherans have much to offer in thinking about Christian political involvement.  Noll writes: “The dominant pattern of political involvement in America has always been one of direct, aggressive action modeled on Reformed theories of life in the world.”  He adds: “there have been only occasional examples of what could be called ‘Lutheran irony.’ In religious terms, this irony is the sense that precisely when Christians mount their most valiant public efforts for God, they run the greatest risk of substituting their righteousness for the righteousness of Christ, and thereby subverting justification by faith.”

I have been thinking about this piece (and Lutherans) a lot lately.  Evangelicalism may be experiencing (or perhaps should be experiencing) a “Lutheran moment” right now, at least in terms of political engagement.

Let’s remember that Luther believed the purpose of the secular government is to restrain evil, protect citizens, and promote justice. In other words, Lutheranism rejects the idea, made popular by Thomas Aquinas, that government plays a positive role in society by promoting the common good.  God redeems and justifies us in the kingdom of redemption, but government is part of the kingdom of creation.  In other words, government is necessary, but it cannot be redeemed.  Government cannot help in promoting the Kingdom of God.  Most Lutherans call this “2 Kingdom Theology.”

So why might we be having a Lutheran moment right now?  Let me suggest two reasons.

  1.  Many evangelicals who support Donald Trump have justified their vote based on something akin to Lutheranism. (Although they never reference it this way).  They argue that we should not expect government to do anything beyond protecting us and giving us liberty.  Government, for example, is not required to conform to the Sermon on the Mount or other teachings of Jesus.  This is the approach to government I hear most often from court evangelical Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas.  And while I think Jeffress misrepresents Lutheranism in several ways, his view of church-state relations seems closer to Luther (and Augustine?) than it does to Calvin or Aquinas.  As long as Trump is protecting us (building a wall, keeping Muslims out of the country, giving us religious liberty, etc.) then he deserves our vote despite his character.  (Of course even this theory does not explain everything, because many evangelical Trumpers voted for Trump because they believed he was a Christian.  I unpack some of this in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. (Pre-order here).
  2.  Lutherans always remind us that there is a difference between the kingdom of redemption–the place where we are saved–and the kingdom of creation–the place where government resides.  Evangelicals always need to be reminded of this so they don’t confuse the two kingdoms.  Court evangelicals like Jeffress say that the character or policies of the president do not matter as long as he is protecting us. But they don’t usually behave this way.  Their behavior suggests that they REALLY believe that government should be active–very active.  It should be active in promoting their Christian agenda.

5 thoughts on “Is Evangelicalism Experiencing a Lutheran Moment?

  1. I’m a former evangelical who’s been drifting around the fringes of Lutheranism for six or seven years now. I feel like the first point describing the rationalization of the court evangelicals’ compartmentalization, is kind of at odds with the fairly clear goal of dramatically increased political power these evangelicals have also expressed. I have a difficult time fitting this into the Two Kingdoms framework, which (in my understanding at least) promotes separation of political power from religious power as such. Jordan Cooper at the Just & Sinner blog and podcast, has the videos from a conference a couple of years ago dedicated to Two Kingdoms, which I found very helpful.

    All that said, I’m really looking forward to your new book! The title is fantastic!

  2. John–I understand your point, but for me the central Lutheran reference after Charlottesville this summer, is that the German Lutherans in 1932 thought the communists more dangerous than the Nazis. They voted to Make Germany Great Again, put Germany First, etc. I grew up ethnically Jewish in a non-religious home. I became a Christian recovering from shrapnel wounds from a missile explosion while serving in the US Air Force in 1973. After Charlottesville, I am thinking about the man in Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz” who earned the Iron Cross for Gallantry in the German Army in World War I and was gassed in Auschwitz in WWII. Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham would bless anything Trump does. How long before they bless Apartheid or something worse?

  3. I think 16 & 17c Lutherans would be horrified by Trump’s aversion to textual documents and dismissive attitude towards education. So much of the Lutheran project focused upon literacy and the expansion of educational access (supported by the state in Wuerttemberg and elsewhere) that I imagine Luther, Melanchton, et al repulsed by Trump’s degradation of our language and our educational institutions.

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