In a parallel universe: Lutheranism without the schism?

Luther’s Small Catechism: “evangelical churchliness” as opposed to “revolutionary radicality”?

David Yeago, in his essay The Catholic Luther, argues the breach between Luther and Rome was not inevitable: that it was the particular circumstances of how the debate between Luther and Rome was conducted between 1517 and 1519 that led Rome to identify Luther as a heretic and Luther to conclude that the Pope was the Antichrist. As Yeago puts it, the schism arose from:

contingent human choices in a confused historical context defined less by clear and principled theological argument (though that of course was present) than by a peculiar and distinctively sixteenth-century combination of overheated and ever-escalating polemics, cold-blooded Realpolitik, and fervid apocalyptic dreaming.

It’s instructive to compare this with how the church dealt with Franciscanism. St Francis was, of course, a very different figure from Luther, but the Franciscans were in many ways a challenging, even scandalous, group in the eyes of many “respectable” Catholic Christians of the time, and it is not inconceivable that more of Francis’ followers could have followed the Fraticelli into schism had the church authorities handled things less adeptly. As Chesterton puts it in his biography of St Francis:

Saint Francis was so great and original a man that he had something in him of what makes the founder of a religion. Many of his followers were more or less ready, in their hearts, to treat him as the founder of a religion. […] That was the point the Pope had to settle; whether Christendom should absorb Francis or Francis Christendom. And he decided rightly, apart from the duties of his place; for the Church could include all that was good in the Franciscans and the Franciscans could not include all that was good in the Church.

And then there’s the fascinating 1984 interview with the-then Cardinal Ratzinger (PDF), in which Ratzinger distinguishes between the “Catholic” Luther of “his catechism, his songs and his liturgical directives”, whose work can be interpreted “with evangelical churchliness in mind”, and the Luther of “a theological and polemical opus of revolutionary radicality”. Again, this seems to confirm Yeago’s hunch that, at least in theory, a different outcome was possible, in which the “evangelical churchliness” remained but the “revolutionary radicality” (and in particular the identification of the Pope with the Antichrist) was omitted.

So if Yeago is right, and Luther’s theological insights could (in different circumstances and with different personalities involved on all sides) have been absorbed into Christendom without resulting in a schism, what would the result have been? In many ways this is an impossible task: the split between Lutheranism and Rome occurred so early that anti-papalism is inherent to almost every Lutheran confession and to Lutheran self-identity. The schism also led the Roman Catholic Church (at Trent) to define its doctrines in ways that increased (or made clearer) the incompatibility of Roman Catholic doctrine with the teachings of Luther and his followers.

However, we can perhaps speculate on a parallel universe in which “Lutheranism” became a movement of devotional and catechetical renewal within the Catholic church, especially among the laity and secular clergy, say. Phillip Cary’s essay The Lutheran Codicil: From Augustine’s Grace to Luther’s Gospel gives a good idea of what the fundamental principle of this “Lutheranism” would have been: the gospel as an “efficiacious sacramental promise”; the Word as itself a sacrament, according to a very medieval notion of sacramental efficacy. I find it hard to believe that this insight of Luther’s (which Cary identifies as the true “Reformation breakthrough”) was itself impossible to reconcile with Catholic orthodoxy.

What would the features of this movement have been, flowing from this sacramental understanding of the Word? A book like Gene Veith’s The Spirituality of the Cross, which presents a largely positive and unpolemical account of Lutheranism, is a good place to go for ideas on this. But some of the key positive principles in Lutheranism that could surely have found a place within a united Catholic church are:

  • An emphasis on seeking God’s promise in his Word and laying hold of it by faith, with a consequent preference for the word and sacraments over “sacramentals” (though without necessarily rejecting or condemning these).
  • Improvements in lay catechesis and in the education of pastors, centred on the Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the sacraments.
  • Greater congregational involvement in the liturgy, certainly through the singing of vernacular hymns, with perhaps some pressure towards the introduction of vernacular liturgy.
  • More frequent communing by the laity, perhaps even weekly, and with some pressure towards allowing communion in both kinds.
  • A fresh respect for, and joy in, the ordinary callings of life as themselves “vocations” in which the laity are used by God to serve their neighbour.

In other words, something looking, in many respects, rather similar to the more sober and conservative outcomes of the Second Vatican Council.

Again, I emphasise: all this can, tragically, be little more than speculation. But it is interesting to move from this to Bo Giertz’s suggestion (in Christ’s Church) that:

if the gulf between Rome and Wittenberg was a few yards, then the distance between the authentic evangelical faith and the neo-Protestant culture religion equals the distance between sun and moon.

Lutheranism’s long self-identification of itself as standing with other Protestant traditions against Rome has perhaps obscured that. Maybe a thought experiment like that attempted in this post can help us see the truth of what Giertz was saying.


8 thoughts on “In a parallel universe: Lutheranism without the schism?”

  1. Hi John,

    Would the Franciscans have really been all that different from the “mother church” in terms of their beliefs? It seems to me that the Roman Catholic Church can handle “reformations” that have to do with social action or religious fervency but not than ones that have to do with doctrine – unless they take place within the context of a council such as Vatican II. I agree that there are a lot of continuities between Lutheranism and Catholicism, but there are major doctrinal discontinuities (or pastoral discontinuities as Stephen Paulson might argue).

    1. Hi Jon. I suppose the question is whether the doctrinal discontinuities would have become so stark had it been possible to avoid the schism. (The alternative, of course, being that Yeago’s thesis is incorrect, and that the schism was in fact unavoidable due to Rome’s inability to accept the doctrinal implications of Luther’s breakthrough.)

      But I’m not sure it’s the case that the RCC has been unable to handle doctrinal reformations. The assimilation of Aristotelian theology in the 13th century is one example of its achieving this (though arguably with consequences that ultimately included the Reformation itself). And Vatican II was officially only a “pastoral” council that introduced no new doctrines…

      1. I don’t know enough to say if the schism was unavoidable or not, but I do think that the Lutheran “message” regarding the Gospel and the bound will was (and is) very, very radical. I think that it’s something that many Christians continue to find difficult to accept. It would have been wonderful if Lutheranism could have continued under the umbrella of the RCC as an “order” or “movement”. I guess I find the Lutheran way of thinking about the Gospel to be on a very different page than most other parts of the Church.

  2. Chesterton’s statements on Francis seem like a bit of Whig history to me. I was educated in part by a remnant of radical Franciscans.. They are not without their problems. But I don’t buy that Christian and Western history, as bad as it actually was, would have been even worse if the early Franciscans had freer rein. Francis’s message is very positive – unrealistically so at times. At that point there may well have been enough time left to pull out of the papist tail-spin via something like that. Luther was a good man but his message was, necessarily, in large part negatively defined because there was so much to be negative about at that point.

    Which has to do with why the hegemonic German-American voices of “Lutheranism” seem suspicious of positivity, creativity, and imagination, even when proclaiming an orthodox, gracious Gospel. The Roman example showed the dangers of spiritual flights of fancy, and the virtue of sticking to the facts even on the most joyful subjects. Then, the Calvinists have the Decalogue on their side WRT graven images and arguably some other Scriptures to boot for their related liturgical concerns. But then they end up throwing out sacramental theology altogether; besides, it’s not the tradition we’re hostile to, it’s the corruption. You’re not going to arrogantly set yourself against tradition but – thanks to both actual Calvinist theology and market competition from Reformed churches in the context of American denominational choice – you recognize that it may not be either spiritually or organizationally wise to take up for traditional ornament when people are building whole territories’ worth of churches from absolute scratch on the Central Plains.

    None of this means that the congregation/denomination/nation with the smells and bells is more or less “Lutheran” than the one without. The range of local solutions and historically contingent outcomes only strengthens the claim to catholicity (although the habit of mutual excommunication does not).

    1. you recognize that it may not be either spiritually or organizationally wise to take up for traditional ornament when people are building whole territories’ worth of churches from absolute scratch on the Central Plains.

      I was once told – though I’ve never been able to corroborate this – that the group of Lutherans (including CFW Walther) who came across with Bishop Stephan in the 1840s came on two or three ships, and the one with the vestments and other “smells and bells” paraphernalia sank. Now, as I type this, it occurs to me that the person who told me may have been yanking my chain, but I still offer it up as an example of historical contingency retrospectively turned into theological and liturgical principle… 😉

      1. There were actually five ships in the Great Awesome Saxon Migration. One of the first three, the Amalia, was lost at sea. The Amalia was rather small, I know ( I think 1100 people total left the Vaterland for Zion on the Mississippi, and fewer than 100 perished with the Amalia). I don’t know if they lost any liturgical finery with the Amalia, but I have heard the story you referenced as a joke many times to illustrate the rather low church leanings of the LCMS through much of our history. I know wearing of vestments and whatnot was a big deal for Walther and many of the early LCMS folk because the Great Migration was of course motivated by the Prussian Union and retention of some of the sacramental ceremonies was part of the point.

        Somebody with more time on his hands should probably do a history of LCMS liturgical practice, but more and more quotes of Luther and some of the other fathers of our synod are coming out regarding high liturgy as people look for them. Judging from the churches we were building in the 1840s and on, we were pretty darn high church. LCMS church built in the early history of the synod are hard to tell from papist churches. I think it was a combination of many factors that led to the gradual lowering of liturgical practice, but the sinking of the boat of chasubles wasn’t one of them.

  3. Also, re: the actual point of this post, of course, the whole point of the Augsburg Confession is to demonstrate the orthodoxy and catholicity of the Evangelicals’ doctrine and practice. *Theologically* it was quite possible for Wittenberg theology to co-exist peacefully within the Roman communion, pre-Trent. I don’t believe it was every politically possible due to the unholy alliance between state and church at the time, which, of course, was one of the reasons for the reformation to begin with. Or with which to begin. W/e.

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