English-speaking Lutheranism: lost in translation?

Luther's Bible and the Book of Common PrayerSo, why has “Augsburg Evangelicalism” (see previous post) failed to make much headway in the English-speaking world?

There are many reasons for this. Partly it’s because Lutherans have tended to be diffident about evangelism. Partly it’s because there isn’t that much of a “gap in the market” for a church tradition that is more sacramental than “low-church” Anglicanism, and more evangelical (in the sense of making justification by faith the centre of its teachings and practice) than Anglo- or Roman Catholicism.

To some extent there is a “chicken and egg” problem, which we can deduce from the following observation made by Gene Veith in the introduction to his book The Spirituality of the Cross. While “any Christian could draw on the spiritual insights of the Lutheran tradition that will be described here,” Dr Veith observes that:

The full dose of Lutheran spirituality can only, of course, be found within the day-to-day life of a Lutheran church […] Spirituality, after all, must be lived, not merely intellectualized, and its locus is the mysteries taking place in an ordinary local church.

In other words, no theology or spirituality can be abstracted from the church community in which it is incarnated – which makes it hard for such a theology or spirituality to take root in places where there are few congregations confessing it and living it out.

Wilhelm Stählin, in his book The Mystery of God (see previous post), suggests a deeper reason. He is discussing how the church of Christ is found “in, with and under” human society, so that the Christian faith cannot be abstracted from the human societies within which it is incarnated:

The Church lives within the nations, and the divine mysteries which by it are distributed in the world are united in the Church with the living forces of nationality. He who undertakes to preserve the Church’s purity by the method of only forming a church out of the essence of the Church, without any reference to the laws and ordinances of the nation’s life into which the Church seeks to sink its roots, is likely to fall into a dangerous self-delusion and ignore the way of God. For He wants to embed His mystery in the nation and in history.

While Stählin’s references to “the living forces of nationality” make me a little uncomfortable, I think he is still correct that it is a mistake to seek the pure “essence of church” abstracted from the church’s concrete existence within human society.

Stählin goes on to identify language as the main way in which the church and its social context are bound together:

If the feeling for the depths of language itself had not been concealed from us through the dominance of a purely conceptual way of thinking, then we should have noticed much more clearly how much Christian thought is linked on to the root factors of national culture by the use of the mother-tongue.

Stählin describes this as “self-evident to us of the Evangelical Church” (i.e. the Lutheran church in Germany), given the role of the Reformation in shaping German national identity. However, it is true for other traditions and languages as well:

Christian knowledge expresses itself in different languages, and in every language takes something from the native wisdom that is deposited in every living tongue. Luther’s translation of the Bible is to us all (i.e. in Germany) the classical instance of such a consubstantiatio.

Another classic example of how a Christian tradition is rooted in “the native wisdom” deposited in its “mother tongue” is, of course, Anglicanism, whose very essence was for centuries shaped and expressed in the language of the Authorised Version and the Book of Common Prayer. The most significant example of all, perhaps, is the role played by Latin in the (western) Catholic Church. It remains to be seen what the long term effects will be for these churches of their move away from these traditional languages in recent decades.

Of course, Lutheranism has never been solely a German-language tradition, as my Scandinavian (and Baltic) Lutheran friends will be quick to remind me. But Scandinavian Lutheranism is almost as long-established as the German variety, so that it has long spoken the native tongues of those countries. In any case (and perhaps significantly in this context), Scandinavian Lutheranism can be a very different beast from the German variety, both culturally and theologically.

For Lutheranism in the English-speaking world, the problem becomes that it is always a tradition in translation, losing something of its essence and vitality along the way, never quite finding a fully comfortable way of expressing itself in English. Thus Lutheranism – and, as a consequence, “Augsburg Evangelicalism” – remains something of an “introduced species”, rather than a native plant.


7 thoughts on “English-speaking Lutheranism: lost in translation?”

  1. I suggest that the chief answer to the question in your opening sentence is: “accident of history”. The ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ principle established both by agreement (Holy Roman Empire) and de facto (England & Wales, Scotland, Sweden-Finland, Denmark-Norway) meant that denominations got established within fixed political boundaries. The Thirty Years’ War changed the map but cemented the principle. Most of the non-Anglican English-speaking denominations—Methodism, Baptists, Pentecostalism—can be traced back to English Dissent.

    The other major factor is ‘what happens in the USA’. Lutheranism was, and still is, a significant presence in the USA. However, until English became the language of all Americans (after WWI), certain religious groups retained a strong ethnic flavour. Another accident of history, the predominance of the English in colonial and early-independence America, meant that the English-speaking churches became culturally predominant even when not numerically so (e.g. the disproportionate influence of Anglicans over Lutherans in the US, despite being numerically much fewer). There were plenty of Germans and Scandinavians, but they came later. And then there’s the greater cultural influence of the coasts and the South over the German Midwest.

    In other words, I’m not sure that these linguistic groupings are so much linguistic as they are historical. Lutheranism speaks English perfectly fluently, but not so much in Britain. Likewise, Lutheranism has learned to speak increasingly fluent Zulu, Swahili, Amharic, Luanda, Egegusii, and countless other languages of the Global South, where these historic ties are less strong, colonialism notwithstanding.

    1. Thanks for this. I agree that “accident of history” and the lingering after-effects of cuius regio, eius religio are the main factors.

      I’m not totally convinced that Lutheranism is totally fluent in English even in the US. See, for example, the Lutheran Service Book’s mixture of German chorales (in various states of bowdlerisation), Protestant hymnody of the Moody & Sankey variety, and modern English-language Lutheran hymns and songs, some of which are very good. But the joins are still very visible.

      You’re certainly right to draw attention to the Global South. In time, those are going to be the languages of world Lutheranism speaks, just as global Anglicanism will speak similar languages. Which is where the point that Stählin is making can be turned to more positive effect: that as Lutheranism becomes fluent in more languages, so it will benefit from “the native wisdom that is deposited in every living tongue”.

  2. more evangelical (in the sense of making justification by faith the centre of its teachings and practice) than Anglo- or Roman Catholicism.

    I can’t speak about Roman Catholicism, but as a cradle Anglo-Catholic I dissent from this characterization of Anglo-Catholicism. If “evangelical” means “making justification by faith the centre of teachings and practice” then the AC churches in which I was raised were as “evangelical” as any others. The difference is not that ACs put something other than justification at the centre, it’s that justification is seen as inextricably linked to the sacraments, and faith is seen as an objective relationship of utter dependence upon Jesus Christ, a relationship that is conferred and maintained by the objective means of grace. I would argue that this “sacramental” understanding of justification by faith is precisely Lutheran.

    If that is the case, then at least with respect to the Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism, Lutheranism may not have the presence it might have because its essential teachings are on offer elsewhere.

    One caveat, of course, is that my experience of Anglo-Catholicism is entirely in the Episcopal Church. The situation in the Church of England may have been entirely different.

    1. Hi Chris, good to hear from you.

      That’s probably a fair protest to register. I was trying to find some way of expressing how Lutheranism differs from Anglo-Catholicism in the English context. I’m struggling to find the right way to put it, but I do think there is a difference in the explicitness/clarity of how justification (and the distinction between law and gospel) is preached in the Lutheran church versus my experience of Anglo-Catholicism (which is, in itself, an extremely wide and diverse tradition).

      Certainly I think it is Anglo-Catholicism in its broader sense that is the closest to Lutheranism (especially when it comes to the sacraments), and that leaves (as I said) very little of a gap in the market for the Lutheran church.

  3. John, I wish you a blessed new year, and thank you for writing one of my five favorite blogs.

    In the US, Reformed thought-patterns– and the reactions against them– had a strong early influence on folk religion that persists today. Apart from all considerations of ethnicity, any second system is hard for the popular culture to absorb.

    Ethnicity does matter here, but subtly. We might have expected Lutheran immigrants from several nations to find their common ground in both the confessions and their American culture. However, since these two influences conflict, Lutherans have been fragmented by their varying responses to this tension. One can see analogous tensions playing out among the Orthodox today.

    Ecclesiology also matters. In theory, more than one sort of polity can serve the gospel as Lutherans understand it, and higher churchmanship can as easily be Reformed as Lutheran. In practice, however, the beliefs that distinguish Lutherans from the Reformed are not very concrete in low churchmanship, and indeed such low churchmanship lends itself to a Reformed or Reformed-ish interpretation that obscures the theology of the Word of the confessions. Where Lutheranism in America has been low and accommodating, it has been invisible and mealymouthed. Where Lutheranism has been visible and assertive, is has been rather more high and catholic (eg Jenson).

    The real mystery– can you explain it?– is that there is not a powerful bloc of unifying Lutheran centrists in global Anglicanism. Since TEC flatly opposes the fastidious Calvinism of many English evangelicals, the only Protestant option open to the vast majority of Anglicans here is Lutheran. Since, as Chris has already explained, Anglican software runs brilliantly on a Lutheran operating system, that is not a prospect to dread. Yet something in England induced the Oxford Movement to argue their case, not in terms of a richer Reformation (cf Nevin, Schaff), but in terms of a repristinated medievalism (eg Pusey, Newman). Because they did, Anglicans have been polarized in a way that continental Lutherans are not. It would be good to know why.

    1. “Anglican software runs brilliantly on a Lutheran operating system” – nicely put.

      I don’t know why “the Lutheran option” has never gained more of a foothold in the Church of England. Perhaps because Reformed Anglicans saw Luther as not going far enough (and being suspect on the real presence and baptismal regeneration, both of which were major issues for the C of E’s Protestant wing – see this early post of mine on J.C. Ryle’s essay on the Marian martyrs), while Catholic Anglicans saw him as being where the rot first set in (as well as having problems with Lutheranism’s rejection of bishops as being essential to the church – the Jerusalem bishopric may be relevant here). In any event, what are now the “evangelical” and “catholic” wings of the C of E are, between them, broad enough to leave little room, and less perceived need, for a Lutheran (ahem) via media. I do know one or two Anglicans though, including clergy, who would describe their sacramentology as “Lutheran”.

      The position in America is a little different. As I understand it, the Reformed Protestant wing of TEC largely split away in the 19thC. This perhaps left more room for a sacramental-evangelical (ie, Lutheran) tendency to develop.

  4. Since no single reply could efficiently reply to all that you say, John, I will venture a few briefer ones as I can.

    “I don’t know why “the Lutheran option” has never gained more of a foothold in the Church of England…”

    Many of the Church of England’s evangelicals maintain institutional solidarity with non-Anglicans who identify strongly as Reformed. As it happens, these English Reformed mostly identify, not with the high Stuart divines, but rather with another Reformed theology from the margins. Insofar as Anglican evangelicals are aligned with these marginalists rather than with the Church of England’s own Reformation centrists, the latter have no heirs,* and their church has no center. Both in the mother church and in much of the Anglican Communion, this vacuum contributes to a polarization among Anglicans that we do not see among Lutherans (eg Porvoo churches, the LWF). That polarization accounts for most of the dysfunction of the Anglican Communion.

    * Unable to see or reverse this polarization, the early Tractarians retrieved some old centrists (eg Lancelot Andrewes) as ‘Anglo-Catholics’ rather than as the Protestants that they in fact were.

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