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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Tradition

Radical freedom of gospel frees us to engage fascinating strands of church practice

Editor’s note: This series is intended to be a public conversation among teaching theologians of the ELCA on various themes of our faith and the challenging issues of our day. It invites readers to engage in dialogue by posting comments online at the end of each article at www.thelutheran.org.

The series is edited by Philip D.W. Krey, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, on behalf of the presidents of the eight ELCA seminaries.

One of the most beloved texts in the Lutheran canon is Martin Luther’s 1520 treatise “On the Freedom of a Christian,” in which he offers the paradox that the Christian is “the most free lord of all, and subject to none” but simultaneously “the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.”

With this paradox, Luther argues that the gospel frees us from servitude toward those who put us in the bondage that comes with trying to justify ourselves before God. However, this freedom from having to justify ourselves through our own works frees us to put our works at the service of our neighbor in need. This is a classic example of a truly fruitful paradox because the Lutheran insight that we do our “best” work from a position of freedom rather than obligation invites us deeply into involvement with the world in need. 

I would like to suggest that a similar paradoxical dynamic illustrates how Lutheran Christians interact with nearly 2,000 years of Christian “tradition.”

Lutheranism is often caricatured as having its roots in an act of “tossing off” tradition. Indeed, philosophers and popular culture alike often envision Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses as a rebellious act in which the modern Western notion of the individual as a free and autonomous agent was somehow born.

We know from reading Luther, as well as studying his historical context, that this picture of him as a maverick individualist vis-à-vis church tradition wasn’t true at the beginning of the Reformation, nor indeed at any point in his later life.

Leery of innovation

Luther, like most of the opponents with whom he had theological controversy, was in fact deeply suspicious of innovation in matters of faith. The 16th century was still a time in which “innovation” in Christian doctrine was virtually synonymous with heresy.

As is clear in such writings as “On the Councils and the Church” (1539), Luther understood his discovery of the gospel message that we are justified by grace through faith apart from works as being in harmony with original church teaching, teaching that had been corrupted by medieval Roman Catholic innovations such as intercessory prayer to saints, the doctrine of purgatory, the sale of indulgences and so on.

This pattern — the impulse in the present to retrieve a supposed purity of the early church against the narrative backdrop of some sort of decline — has in fact been common in the life of the church. For instance, the early social gospel advocate Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) argued that the early church had commitments to social justice that were subsequently lost in later centuries as the church became more powerful and concerned with its institutional influence.

Numerous movements within the church have advocated for “restoration” of what is imagined to be a simpler, more idyllic time in the church’s life, even as historians have made it pretty clear that there has never been a time in its existence when diversity and general messiness (doctrinal, ecclesial and so on) have not reigned.

This has sometimes led to situations in which Lutherans (as well as other church bodies that identify even more strongly with what theologian Paul Tillich called the “Protestant principle” of being willing to subject every aspect of our ecclesial inheritance to evaluation based on contemporary needs) have significantly downplayed the importance of church tradition in order to emphasize the radical importance of what Lutheranism has called the “solas”—“grace alone (sola),” “Scripture alone,” “faith alone.” The great 19th-century convert from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, John Henry Newman, could even say polemically that “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”

It is all too common, then, to fall into the trap of thinking that Lutherans must be anti-tradition.


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