A brief introduction to Augsburg Evangelicalism

Luther's roseCan you be Lutheran without being Lutheran?

In a country whose Lutheran churches are few, small and struggling, that is far from an academic question (though not, mercifully, one which currently faces me personally).

A few years ago, Chris Atwood coined the term “Augsburg Evangelical” to describe the essence of Lutheran faith and practice. He summarised it in the following five principles:

  • Justification by faith alone.
  • Baptismal regeneration.
  • The real and substantial presence of Christ’s body and blood in the elements of the Lord’s Supper.
  • A relative indifference to polity as defining the being of the church.
  • Scripture as the only binding norm of faith and practice.

There is nothing about any of these that should necessarily be restricted to “the Lutheran church”, and indeed most other churches share at least some of these principles. And yet, as Chris went on to observe, we still find in practice that:

every congregation which affirms [all] these five also affirms the whole kit and kaboodle of the Lutheran tradition, from the Book of Concord to Law and Gospel sermons to Waltherian congregationalism to Reformation Sundays to Concordia Press to beer.

Other ways of presenting these “five points of Augsburg Evangelicalism” have been suggested, as set out in this post in 2010. For example, ROSES (as an echo of Calvinism’s TULIP):

  • Regeneration through Grace in Baptism (sola gratia): God initiates faith.
  • Only through faith (sola fide): only faith justifies Man.
  • Scriptural authority (sola scriptura): teaches Gospel and Law.
  • Economic church polities towards needs: polities are chosen according to practical needs.
  • Substantial real presence of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion: nurtures a believer and deepens the union between Man and God.

Or the following, more lighthearted effort (which, as someone pointed out at the time, manages to capture all six characteristics of the Evangelical Lutheran Church…):

  • Faith alone justifies
  • Unique presence in the supper
  • Baptismal regeneration
  • Authority of scripture
  • Rejection of polity norms

That said, however you define (or mnemonicise) it, this still feels a rather static – and, in some respects, rather negative – definition. In another post, I attempted to define the central dynamic (“engine-room”) of Lutheranism, based on Articles IV, V and VI of the Augsburg Confession:

IV. Concerning Justification

Furthermore, it is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. […]

V. Concerning the Office of Preaching

To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe. […]

VI. Concerning the New Obedience

It is also taught that such faith should yield good fruit and good works and that a person must do such good works as God has commanded for God’s sake but not place trust in them as if thereby to earn grace before God. […]

Each of these is critical, but it is Article V that is the linchpin. Justification is not by faith in an abstract gospel, but in the gospel as proclaimed to us in the word and sacraments (see also Romans 10:14-15); and that same faith, given to us by the Holy Spirit through the word and sacraments, produces good works as its fruit.

Again, there is nothing that would seem necessarily “Lutheran” about all that, and yet that specific dynamic – and in particular the way in which the role of preaching and the sacraments is understood – is one I’ve rarely found articulated so clearly outside a Lutheran context. Which is a shame, because I remain convinced it’s an understanding that would be beneficial to Christians from all traditions, without their also having to sign up for potluck lunches, sitting down to sing hymns, etc.

So, the reason for this post is simply to draw together those previous strands from my blogging, and to start 2015 making another small attempt to commend to Christians from other traditions these insights of “Augsburg Evangelicalism”, in the hope that it may be of use to some – even if Augsburg Evangelicalism and Lutheranism are likely to remain inextricably bound together for the foreseeable future.

Further reading

Selected blog posts on this topic from the past few years:

The best books to read on all this (though they are presentations of “Lutheranism” rather than “Augsburg Evangelicalism” as such):

Edit: or you could just spare yourself all of the above, and read, mark, learn and inwardly digest this tweet from Pr Alex Klages. Wisdom! Let us attend!

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5 thoughts on “A brief introduction to Augsburg Evangelicalism”

  1. No. Why embalm the mummy a second time? Mnemonic devices like summaries and acronyms are helpful for students. For real churches, not so much.

    There is a difference between a tradition and a position, between situating one’s own thought in relation to one’s favorite theological predecessors (and their adversaries), and confessing a situated faith under the Word to one’s contemporaries. Persons do the former, churches the latter. Persons have systems, churches the gospel. Persons are catechumens, churches are pilgrims. Persons remember history and tradition; the Church is the redemption of time.

    If a church’s doctors are influenced by the AC, then by all means let them say what it enables them to say to the needs of the present. Let there be no embarrassment about the fact that the AC has been the lens by which the truth was discovered. Nor should there be any hesitation to advocate firmly for those discoveries to other churches, not as a matter of Lutheran identity, but because those discoveries are actually the gospel, and churches have a duty to it.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. ROSES and FUBAR were a fun digression, but TULIP has done enough harm to Calvinism without Lutheranism inflicting the same wound on itself. Hence my preference for a more dynamic understanding based on the concrete ministry of the church rather than trying to cram an abstract system into your head (I’ve spent too much of my life trying to do that).

      That still leaves us with the main burden of this post, which is twofold. First, why is it that’ll those facets of the gospel are only explicitly confessed in so clear and explicit a way in churches which identify as “Lutheran” (especially since none of them, on its own, is exclusive to Lutheranism)? Second, what use can the Lutheran tradition be for people for whom joining a Lutheran congregation is unavailable as an option? It’s precisely my conviction that these are (aspects of) the gospel, of relevance to all churches and all Christians, that motivates me here.

      In any event, my own experience leads me to conclude that a pattern of personal devotion (for want of a better phrase) – in other words, praying and reading the Bible “Lutheranly”, Monday to Saturday – is of more importance than getting your personal theology sorted out, and as I’ve posted before, that’s the area for which I’ve struggled to find the right resources within “Actually Existing Lutheranism” (eg as regards the Daily Office).

      1. All of which makes your blog favorite reading!

        As for why, ceteris paribus, Lutherans more consistently express certain themes in which all Protestants believe, the explanation lies not only in Lutheran health but in non-Lutheran susceptibility to illness. However right the theologians of the Augsburg Confession may have been about many things, their formula conferred some practical advantage in resisting and overcoming debilitating infection. That may turn out to have less to do with the particular ways in which influential Lutherans have axiomatized theology than with some happy coincidences of human nature and Lutheran habit. For example, it may be that most Reformed theology, however pleasurable in the contemplation of individuals hooked on it, propagates a spirituality that makes Reformed churches more vulnerable to ecclesiological dysfunction. If so, we should be able to see and isolate this advantage in the spirituality of actual Lutherans, as well as in those Reformed who are in interesting ways running counter to type (in eg German Reformed, Church of Scotland). As a first guess, it seems that the unconscious disembodiment of the gospel preempts consistent expression of some Protestant themes, and that Lutherans somehow preempt the preemption.

      2. Yes: I think “disembodiment of the gospel” is at the heart of the problem. That’s the real point in my “engine-room” post: that Article V is what keeps the gospel from becoming an abstract concept.

        (And thank you for your kind feedback. 🙂 )

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