From Catholic confession to Protestant institution

Like my master the king, I am a faithful son of the holy Catholic church. Only just now we are not in communion with the Pope.

– Thomas Cromwell in Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, p.101.

I’m currently reading Eric W. Gritsch’s book A History of Lutheranism, and in one chapter he describes how Lutheran “confessional identity” developed between the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 (which established an uneasy modus vivendi between Lutheran and Roman Catholic states within the Holy Roman Empire) and 1580 (when the Lutheran confessions of faith took their final form in the Book of Concord).

Gritsch emphasises that, throughout this period, the Lutherans were seeking to retain their self-identification as reformers within Catholicism, rather than a new church or denomination. Hence the Lutheran emphasis on retaining, so far as possible, the inherited traditions of the church, such as the liturgy of the Mass, private confession and (in Sweden at least) the historic episcopate – albeit with the removal of “abuses” in each case. “Lutherans agreed with the ancient wisdom that abuse should not eliminate proper use,” Gritsch writes, summarising the position as follows:

Lutherans wanted to be reformed Catholics who lived in harmony with Scripture and tradition as faithful witnesses of Christ in the world. Although the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 prescribed a territorial settlement of religious issues (“whoever rules the region determines its religion”), Lutherans tried to make the best of it by remaining committed to Christian unity, even though it seemed to become an increasingly elusive goal. For the Book of Concord understood Lutheranism as a reform movement within the church catholic, indeed within sixteenth-century Catholicism. At stake was the retrieval of the ancient Christian convictions for all of Christendom, and Lutheranism became the inevitable historical constellation for such a retrieval, even though it became an organized church when medieval Christendom refused reform.

The Lutheran confessions – especially the Augsburg confession – are expressed as a voice within the Catholic Church. To put it another way, Lutheranism as a confession is, at heart, a Catholic movement. However, given Rome’s rejection of the Lutheran confessors’ agenda for reform, and the polarising effects of the century of division and war following the Reformation, it was perhaps inevitable that we would end up where we are now: where to be in the church that holds to the Lutheran confessions is to be in a Protestant denomination.

Which explains the tension that I can often find myself in (and my periodic susceptibility to bouts of “Roman fever”): because to be a Lutheran now, particularly in a country where Lutheranism’s presence within the wider “church catholic” is so miniscule, is to be in a situation which our own confessors would not have chosen, and which is fundamentally unnatural within the terms of our own confessions.


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