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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Luther & tradition

Sometimes when Lutherans of the 21st century look back at what their forebears were doing in the 16th century, they get the mistaken impression that Martin Luther and his immediate colleagues and supporters had little good to say about traditions in the church.  

Because of later developments in church history, where some people were all too eager to reject all traditions and imagined they could somehow take a time machine back to the first century, we sometimes imagine that early Lutherans also thought all traditions were bad — especially if they weren’t in the Bible.

But, in fact, Luther’s version of the Reformation opposed such thinking and acting at every turn. Lutherans didn’t have trouble with traditions in the church, unless people worshiped them and thought they could be saved by following them.

In his most famous writing, The Freedom of a Christian, Luther likened traditions to blueprints. Woe to the builder who worshiped the plans instead of building the building, and equal woe to the builder who tried to build without any plans at all. Traditions help give order to our Christian life and, although no tradition is perfect, they often prevent far worse practices. 

Trust grace, not change

In 1522 some leaders in Wittenberg decided to change century-old traditions regarding the distribution of the Lord’s Supper without properly instructing the people. Hearing this, Luther rushed back from Wartburg Castle, where he was being held in protective custody, and, risking life and limb, got back in his pulpit in Wittenberg.

He preached eight days in a row and admitted that the changes (receiving the bread and wine in the hand and not the mouth) weren’t wrong but that weak people, who didn’t understand why these revisions were occurring, would be hurt because they would trust the changes rather than God’s grace.

As a result, at every turn the Lutheran Reformation never threw out traditions simply because they were traditions. Luther preserved the basic shape of the Western liturgy, keeping the “Kyrie,” the “Glory to God,” the creed, “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the “Lamb of God” and only changing the way they were to be sung in German.

Lutherans not only kept but also strongly defended the church practice of baptizing infants — attested to directly at least since the third century. After a brief hiatus, by the 1530s they brought back confirmation, started performing ordinations and produced hymnbooks that contained ancient, medieval and contemporary hymns and tunes alike. 

They kept much of the basic structure of church order, with bishops, pastors, preachers and deacons. Unlike other Christian groups developing at the time, Lutherans kept organs, stained-glass windows and altars from the Middle Ages, although they sometimes eliminated depictions of prayer to saints or Mary.


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