The church reform initiated by Martin Luther in 1517 at Wittenberg, Germany, developed into a movement, became established under political rulers chiefly in Central and Northern Europe, survived in Eastern Europe and elsewhere until granted civic toleration, and spread by massive emigration especially to North America but also to Australia, South Africa and Latin America. It also grew by missionary activity in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In the early 1900s Lutherans numbered about 80 million baptized persons. But at the start of the 21st century, the ravages of two world wars and the omission of the large number estimated within the membership of Germany’s united churches has reduced the Lutheran total worldwide to an estimated 64 million.

Lutherans always considered themselves as part of the church* catholic and evangelical, bound to the scriptures, and confessing the faith* set forth in the three ecumenical creeds.* Although Lutherans vary among themselves in ways of worship – wherein the Lord’s supper is central – and although they differ among themselves in forms of church organization – whether as national churches as in Scandinavia, or as Free churches as in most other parts of the world – Lutherans are doctrinally and legally identified by the same confession of faith which their political protectors had presented to the imperial diet at Augsburg in 1530. To whatever degree professed, the Augsburg confession (Confessio Augustana) and Luther’s small catechism of 1529 (“the Bible of the laity”) have been the chief symbols of mutual recognition among Lutherans for more than 470 years.

Yet this basic concord has been no guarantee against disunity, whether born of doctrinal debates or ethnic, linguistic, cultural or other factors. Twin developments during the 20th century, however, have fostered Lutheran unity in new ways. One has been the creation of a global confessional fellowship, first through the Lutheran World Convention (LWC, founded in 1923) and then, since 1947, through the Lutheran World Federation* (LWF) – based in Geneva and now involving 133 member churches with approximately 60 million members in 73 countries. The other development has been Lutheran participation in the ecumenical movement, both in the World Council of Churches and in a broad range of bilateral dialogues (see dialogue, bilateral ), especially with the Roman Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council.*

Lutheran teaching presupposes not only “that one holy church will remain forever” but also that “it is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments” (Augustana 7) – baptism* and the eucharist.* Guideposts to such agreements have been four: faith alone (justification*), grace* alone (forgiveness), scripture alone (authority), and Christ alone (Saviour). Tradition and traditions* which are not contrary to scripture have their place in the historical church. The life of the Christian – as forgiven sinner – embodies precepts of the law and promises of the gospel. The interplay of church and society (or state) generally follows Luther’s teaching on the two realms – the realm on God’s right, the church; and the realm on God’s left, the state – both of which are accountable to God (see church and state ).

Despite Luther’s objection, the organized church of his heirs was called Lutheran and not, as he had preferred, “evangelical”. By terms of the peace of Augsburg of 1555 Lutherans were tolerated alongside Roman Catholics on a territorial basis: the religion of the ruler determined the religion of his subjects, cuius regio eius religio . Outside Germany, in Denmark (including Norway) and Sweden (including Finland) the change to Lutheranism did not alter the churches’ majority status. However, in parts of Eastern Europe, as in Poland, initial gains shrank and a Lutheran minority survived by toleration. Germany’s many territories presented a patchwork of Lutheran and Roman Catholic lands. The entry of Calvinism and the appeal of the Reformed faith to ruling families and territorial princes only complicated the confessional situation (see Reformed/Presbyterian churches ). Although the principle was that the religion of the ruler determined the religion of his subjects, when the Hohenzollern turned Reformed in 1613 the vast majority of his subjects remained Lutheran. When in 1697 the king of Saxony became a Roman Catholic in order to qualify for the Polish crown, his people continued Lutheran. When Franconia became part of Catholic Bavaria in 1803, the Franconians nevertheless remained Lutheran.

While Scandinavia and Finland remained homogeneously Lutheran, Germany’s religious map of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed territorial churches became more complicated with the addition in 1817 of united churches. In that year the administrative – but not confessional – consolidation of a large Lutheran majority and a small Reformed minority led to the formation of the Evangelical Church of the Old Prussian Union. A common liturgy* and other hallmarks reflected a mainly Lutheran tradition. Other United churches, as in Hesse or the Palatinate, were unions of consensus* which minimized confessional derivation. In Germany as a whole Lutherans and United were about equal in number. Yet, to safeguard their identity, the confessionally intact churches (Hanover, Saxony, Bavaria, et al.) in 1868 formed the General Evangelical Lutheran Conference (GELC) which aimed to stem an advance of the Prussian Union.

In North America the GELC counterpart, the General Evangelical Lutheran Council (1868), gathered the confessionally moderate synods of German and Swedish origin. With the older general synod (1820), the Council made confessional Lutheranism increasingly viable in the English-speaking world. What began in 1868 as a loose international linkage of confessional kin intensified, particularly in the wake of the 20th century’s world wars. Continental Europe, the Nordic countries and North America provided the leaders who formed the LWC and its far stronger successor, the LWF.

The North American Lutheran scene, meanwhile, had come to reflect not only European diversity but also one created by successive stages of Americanization. On the confessional right stood the Missouri synod (now the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) and its satellites. On the relative left stood the general synod which was deliberately open towards other Protestants – before the World’s Evangelical Alliance* (1846) and through the early years of the Federal Council of Churches (1908). As to European connections, the Missouri Lutherans treated Evangelicals of the Prussian Union, the United, as their traditional enemy; but the general synod regarded that same body as a friend – thus being charged with unionism by the Missourians. General synod representatives became active in the Faith and Order* and Life and Work* movements soon after the Edinburgh world missionary conference in 1910. Other Lutherans followed.

The United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA) – a merger in 1918 of the general council, general synod, and the united synod, south – continued the Faith and Order connection. With an eye towards other Lutherans, the ULCA preferred the ecclesial concerns of Faith and Order over the more social concerns of the Life and Work movement as led by Lutheran Archbishop Nathan Söderblom of Uppsala. In Germany Lutheran and United churches, however, favoured the latter; they trusted Swedish more than Anglo-Saxon leadership in matters ecumenical. Paradoxically, the Nazi authorities, who resented Life and Work’s decision of 1934 to side with the Confessing Church,* forbade German participation at both the 1937 meetings of Life and Work at Oxford and Faith and Order at Edinburgh. In that way, Swedish theologians became the leading Lutheran ecumenical voices – Gustaf Aulén, Anders Nygren, Yngve Brilioth. At Utrecht in 1938, ULCA president Frederick Knubel proposed to the WCC planning committee, “the Committee of Fourteen”, that the new WCC provide for proportional “confessional representation” of churches collectively in the WCC’s assembly and central committee, a proposal in part acted upon favourably at the first assembly in Amsterdam (1948).

In the wake of the second world war, such confessional representation achieved a dual purpose: it helped to foster Lutheran unity internationally, and it opened the way for most Lutheran churches to join the WCC and together to become ecumenically active. The new ULCA president, Franklin Clark Fry, vice-chair of the WCC central committee, under the bishop of Chichester, G.K.A. Bell (1948-54), subsequently served as its influential chair for two terms (1954-68). Simultaneously, Fry’s leading role in the LWF – its president after Anders Nygren, bishop of Lund, and Hanns Lilje, bishop of Hanover – epitomized the creative interlinking of confessional and ecumenical realities in the movement for Christian unity.*

In more recent years Lutherans have extended the movement for Christian unity by concrete actions resulting from intensive bilateral dialogues. Ecumenical agreements – in Europe, the Leuenberg agreement between Lutheran and Reformed; in North America, agreements for “full communion” between Lutherans and Episcopalians/Anglicans, Lutherans and Reformed, Lutherans and the Moravian church; and the joint declaration on the doctrine of justification between the churches of the LWF and the Roman Catholic Church – are solid indications of the Lutheran commitment to the quest for the visible unity of the church.

In Asia, Africa and Latin America, as earlier in Australia, Lutheran church bodies had been slowly forming since the 1920s. Some, as in Brazil, South Africa and Australia, were mainly gatherings of European immigrants, much as had occurred in the USA and Canada. Other church bodies were the result of mission efforts from Europe and North America and directed towards peoples of other religions. For Lutherans, the kind of ecclesial autonomy that first had developed in the British colonies of North America much later applied in India, Japan, China, South Africa and elsewhere.

After 1947, LWF policy was to consolidate diverse enterprises and to achieve one Lutheran church in a given country, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania remaining the best such example. To be sure, the confessional-ecumenical motif has found various expressions among third-world Lutherans, and instructively so: the pressures to be ecumenical are strong, the need to share from the riches of a confessional heritage is demanding, and the fact of usually being a Christian minority amid peoples of other religions has a message for Lutherans in Europe and America. The reality of the ecumenical quest is vividly shown in the growing communion between Lutherans and Anglicans throughout Africa.

Of the perhaps 5 million immigrants who had arrived in North America as Lutherans from the Old World, an estimated 25% remained in Lutheran churches. Many, upwardly mobile, were gathered into other communions, or were lost to the church altogether. The experience of being regarded as fair game for mission from the side of English-speaking Protestants put most Lutheran church bodies on the defensive. Instances of Lutherans and non-Lutherans in occasional pulpit and altar fellowship were denounced by many conservative Lutherans as “unionism” – mainly on theological grounds, but with also sociological implications.

Doctrinal agreement, on the basis of the historic confessions (Augustana, etc.), was the prerequisite to fellowship. For some, like the “Missourians”, it remains so. Throughout their history, Lutheran churches have given prominence to theology, have regarded agreement in doctrine as basic, have emphasized Christology, and have fostered Christian education – also in missionary outreach. The self-understanding of the LWF, formalized in 1990, as “a communion of churches” has given new depth both to Lutheran unity and global ecumenical strength.

The gradual indigenization of the Lutheran church in the English-speaking world is a major development in ecclesial history. This as well as other aspects of the Lutheran legacy have contributed historical depth to the timeliness of ecumenical dialogue in recent years. An early sign in this direction was the formation of the Lutheran Foundation for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg in 1963; this institution, perhaps more than any other, has fostered the ecumenical goal of “reconciled diversity”. Increasingly, Lutherans are being drawn towards an “evangelical catholicity” which sees Lutheranism as a movement which is called to offer a concrete proposal concerning the gospel to the church catholic. In the ecumenical movement Lutherans, as others committed to Christian unity, act upon the faith “that one holy church will remain forever”.




n E.T. Bachmann & M.B. Bachmann, Lutheran Churches in the World , Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1989 n Between Vision and Reality: Lutheran Churches in Transition , Geneva, LWF, 2001 n G. Gassmann & S. Hendrix, Fortress Introduction to the Lutheran Confessions , Minneapolis, Fortress, 1996 n E.W. Gritsch, Introduction to Lutheranism , Minneapolis, Fortress, 1994 n E.W. Gritsch & R.W. Jenson, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings , Philadelphia, Fortress, 1976 n B. Lohse, Luthers Theologie in ihrer historischen Entwicklung und in ihrem systematischen Zusammenhang (ET Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development , Minneapolis, Fortress, 1999) n J.H. Schjørring, N.A. Hjelm & P. Kumari eds, From Federation to Communion: The History of the Lutheran World Federation , Minneapolis, Fortress, 1997.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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