So, 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.