Catholic, Protestant, and Lutheran

Banquet Address for Chicago Free Conference

Friday, April 16, 2004

Pr. Rolf Preus



I have always insisted that Lutherans are not Protestants.  This is what I was taught.  We Lutherans were the true Catholics.  In fact, we were more catholic than the pope.  This was when being catholic meant teaching what has always and everywhere been taught in the church.  Being catholic didn’t require us to ape papists or even Episcopalians.  But times have changed.   Nowadays being catholic imposes all sorts of requirements that our father’s generation did not have to meet.  You must learn a new language and a new way of reading the Bible.  You must teach that John 6 refers to the Sacrament of the Altar but you must not call it the Sacrament of the Altar.  You call it the Eucharist.  But you don’t say that John 6 refers to the Eucharist.  You say that it is Eucharistic.  You don’t know what that means?  That’s okay.  You’re not supposed to know what that means.  We’re talking about being catholic, you understand.  It’s the Lutherans who are always asking, “What does this mean?”  Furthermore, you must never refer to Christ’s body in the Eucharist because the word “body” does not sound sufficiently incarnational.  Call it His flesh.  You must use the words fleshly, sacramental, and incarnational to modify whatever nouns you use and about the only noun you’ll need to use is “presence” because when you’ve got presence you’ve got just about everything a sacramental kind of a guy or gal would want.


You pastors have new rules to learn.  So you don’t lose the fleshly, incarnational, and sacramental presence without which you’ll surely lose your true catholicity, you must preach on the sacraments every Sunday and Wednesday, finding sacramental allusions in portions of Scripture where you never suspected they could be found.  You must approve of infant Communion without actually communing infants.  The fact that this is Eastern rather than Roman is all the better.  Roman is Italian.  Eastern is exotic and exotic catholic is better than papist catholic.  Take my word for it. 


You must reinstitute private confession and absolution as the norm.  It is not enough that you teach this as something that is available while admitting to yourself that few will avail themselves of it.  No, you must convince yourself that all of your parishioners are just dying to tell you their secret sins of which they are the most ashamed. 


Frankly, it’s getting to be a real pain to be catholic these days.  Once upon a time confessional Lutherans were content with the pure doctrine because they figured God could do what needed to be done with His own truth.  Speak His truth and let God worry about what will happen.  Nowadays it’s not enough to be confessional.  We must learn to regard the church fathers as normative for us.  I don’t mind reading them, but face it.  St. John Chrysostom was severely pietistic, as are most poor celibate males who think that celibacy is better than marriage and poverty is better than wealth.  Yeah, right.  Athanasius is great and Augustine is fun to read and I subscribe to the Ancient Christian Commentary series.  But you know what Origen did to himself, don’t you?  Luther got married instead.  Personally, I think Luther set a better example.


And speaking of fathers, how about showing a bit more respect for our immediate fathers?  I don’t mind a little bit of liturgical renewal and I can tolerate those who promote it but they really ought to try to keep their snootiness within reasonable bounds.  You know what I mean.  We hear these days about how our fathers didn’t quite get it but we mustn’t hold it against them.  They did as well as one could have expected them to do in upholding our Lutheran heritage, hampered as they were by the anti-sacramental, anti-incarnational, that is, anti-fleshly, individualistic, quasi-Reformed influence of late bronze Missourianism.  But we know better.  We know that the confessional movement that arose in the seventies could only progress so far.  The theology of that generation had to give way to a more catholic brand of theology that would bring back into appropriate prominence a fuller liturgical life and a deeper sacramental consciousness.  Oh, spare me!


Let me share an incarnational experience.  It was a couple of years ago as I was driving west on US Highway 2 across northern Minnesota toward home.  I was driving through a pine forest.  The sun was about to set.  As I was enjoying a CD with both Willie and Waylon singing genuine American music I heard these words:


There ain’t nothing quite as sad as watching your heroes die.

One by one watch them fall, soon there’ll be no heroes at all.


As I was contemplating Willie Nelson’s words, the faces of three men appeared in my mind’s eye.  They were Robert Preus, J. Barkley Brown, and Harold Bulls.  These men were my heroes.  We lost these men during the nineties.  They represented a Lutheranism to which I will always resonate.  These men were more catholic than the pope and they didn’t have to cross themselves, wear backward collars, or push through every catholic kind of liturgical renewal to prove it. 


Barkley Brown wore a Geneva Gown for his whole ministry and he couldn’t have cared less if liturgical know-it-alls thought he was Reformed for doing so.  He knew he was a confessional Lutheran and he knew that being a confessional Lutheran had nothing to do with what you wear and everything to do with what you believe, teach, and confess. 


Harold Bulls cared more about theology than the food he ate.  This is true.  Some time in November of 1988 during a tour of Greece and Turkey sponsored by the seminary in Ft. Wayne my wife and I enjoyed dinner with Dr. and Mrs. Bulls in Istanbul.  Well, we were enjoying dinner when Dr. Bulls decided to explain the true meaning of Philippians 3:8 by telling everyone within earshot how he had once said in a sermon that we should look at our daily stool to see what our righteousness is worth.  His wife, Marge, said, “Oh, Harry,” and he interrupted her by saying, “It’s true!” to which she responded, “We’re eating dinner!”  Now there was a true Lutheran in whom there was no guile. 


Robert Preus was another.  He talked theology.  That’s what he did.  He’d call me on the phone and we’d talk for forty-five minutes and hang up.  My wife would ask me how Dad was doing.  I guess it never crossed my mind to ask.  We had more important things to talk about.


None of these heroes of mine would pass the test of catholic correctness today.  They learned their theology long before all of this incarnational, sacramental, fleshly, and liturgical business was in style.  What passes today as seriously catholic would have elicited a sneer from Barkley Brown and a blank look from Harold Bulls.  Robert Preus would have smiled and rolled his eyes.


But it’s understandable that catholic is becoming so Catholic these days.  It’s a reaction against the radical Protestantism that has invaded the Lutheran Church through Church Growthism.  The historic liturgy of the church is discarded in favor of “praise services” that use bad music to promote worse theology.  Lutheran chorales centered in Christ’s atonement and God’s gracious justification of sinners give way to upbeat songs that celebrate the piety of Pietists.  Strong religious feelings are valued more highly than strong theology.  Pastors become worship facilitators.  They try to attach the means of grace to a method of spiritual care that doesn’t really call for the means of grace because those who designed it deny the efficacy of and our need for the means of grace.  Theology is cheapened, reverence is compromised, true spiritual care is neglected, all in the name of the freedom of Christians to promote aesthetically inferior worship forms because nobody has found a Bible passage that tells them they can’t do it!


Then the Catholic Lutherans conclude that the Protestant Lutherans are right!  Since they can’t find the requisite Bible passages to convince the Protestant Lutherans to stop trashing our precious liturgical heritage, the Catholic Lutherans conclude that mere biblical assertions just won’t do.  They start questioning the Scripture alone principle.  It wouldn’t cross the minds of these Catholic Lutherans that the Protestant Lutheran Philistines are not methodically destroying the Divine Service because of a devotion to the Scripture alone principle!  They aren’t doing so to assert their Christian freedom, either.  They are doing what they are doing for theological reasons.  They are not in danger of losing their Lutheran theology by adopting the worship forms of the Evangelical Prayer crowd.  They are adopting the worship forms of the Evangelical Prayer crowd because they’ve already adopted their theology.


Theology rules!  Liturgy follows.  Doctrine is King.  Liturgy is servant.  The means of grace are the means by which God governs His kingdom of grace here on earth.  The means of grace are not in the first instance an office, rituals, or liturgical forms, but doctrinal assertions that come to us from the mouth of the incarnate God and Redeemer of sinners.  It is Christ who preaches and this is why He instituted an office of preaching whose incumbents are real men who really preach.  It is Christ’s righteousness reckoned to sinners that justifies them and this is why He instituted the baptism in which we put on Him and His righteousness.  It is Christ who absolves His church by the virtue of His vicarious satisfaction and it is Christ who feeds His church with the same body and blood by which He made full satisfaction for all our sins.  Of what value is a baptism that does not come from Him who came by water?  Of what value is a Supper that does not come from Him who came by blood?  Of what value is a sermon that does not come from Him whose words are spirit and truth which, if a man hold on to in faith, he will never see death?


The preaching and sacraments of the church are not firstly preaching and sacraments of the church.  They are Christ’s gifts to the church.  There is no church apart from the word and sacraments of Christ.  The church has nothing and has nothing to give except what she has received.  We need never be in any doubt concerning what it is that the church has received because it is set forth clearly in the words Christ’s apostles wrote in the Bible.  God has nothing to say to us that He has not already said in the words of the Bible.  This is why the essence of the preacher’s task is to preach the apostolic word, that is the word of Christ.


Doctrine!  Not movement, rhythm, reenactment, drama, or symbolic depictions of what only those with a special gnosis know.  Jesus teaches.  He teaches through what He gives and He wants us to know what His gifts are.  What is this?  This is water comprehended in God’s command and connected with His word.  What is this?  This is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine for us Christians to eat and to drink instituted by Christ Himself.  Says who?  Says Jesus.  Jesus teaches us.  Everything is subordinated to that.  Jesus asserts.  “Amen, amen, I say to you.”  He doesn’t just sit there in companionable silence embracing you with some kind of a Catholic or Protestant presence.


Let us stop debating whether we are Catholic or Protestant.  If we were ornery Germans we could say we are neither.  If we were likable Norwegians we could say we are both.  Well, let’s say we are both.  Wouldn’t that be the nice thing to do?  We may be meeting here in the Rust Belt where niceness just gets you into trouble, but where I come from niceness is the material principle of the civil religion.  Nice does not exclude.  Nice includes.  Nice doesn’t choose sides.  Nice embraces both sides.  Nice never says either/or.  It always says both/and.  If we want to be ornery Germans we can behave like the drunken peasant who lurches over to either side of the bridge constantly at risk of falling off on the Catholic or Protestant side.  If we want to be nice Norwegians, we can sober up, get off of the bridge, and embrace what is good and right about both Catholic and Protestant.


So much of the Catholic/Protestant debate that takes place among us Lutherans is simply a matter of emphasizing one or the other side of the same coin.  Think of how much needless quarreling and extremist posturing could be avoided if we refused to project tensions or contradictions where they do not belong.  We associate some things as Catholic and other things as Protestant that are in perfect harmony.  Catholic includes a corporate churchly identity, binding dogma, concretely identifiable sacraments, historic liturgies, and continuity with the ancient church.  Protestant includes an emphasis on personal faith and confession, the certainty of faith, the hidden spiritual unity of all Christians, and the spiritual freedom of each individual Christian. 


Lutherans are uniquely situated to synthesize what is good in both Catholic and Protestant.  Catholics have means of grace while Protestants live in a state of grace.  Lutherans have means of grace that give God’s grace without any condition of human fulfillment so we can know for sure that we are living in a state of grace.  It isn’t a matter of either/or, but of both/and.  You do not lose the grace God gives you in the means of grace when you are not actually engaged in hearing the gospel sermon or being absolved or eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood.  Yet if we want to know that we are living in a state of grace we need to know for certain that our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake.  Where do we go to obtain the certainty of our salvation and the sure knowledge that we are saints whose home is heaven?  We go to church where God give us this forgiveness and so pledges to us that we are indeed in a state of grace.


Think of the endless debates about church and ministry.  Much of the debate is the either/or trying to overwhelm the both/and.  Did God institute an office into which He places men whose words we should hear as Christ’s own words?  Or did God give His gospel to every individual Christian?  Should we contend for the Catholic divinely instituted office or the Protestant priesthood of all believers?  Why not teach both?  In Article V of the Augsburg Confession we Lutherans confess that in order for us to obtain justifying faith God instituted the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments.  Protestant Lutherans say this is talking about the means of grace that belong to all Christians.  It is.  Catholic Lutherans say this is talking about the pastoral office.  It is.  Who administers the means of grace?  The pastor does.  Of what value is a pastor apart from the administration of the means of grace?  He is of no value at all and he’s not a pastor either.  He might as well go out and sell Thrivent.  Do the means of grace belong to all Christians?  Of course they do.  If a Christian can pray, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” he can certainly claim that the means by which his Shepherd feeds him belong to him.  How does the Good Shepherd feed His sheep?  Through the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments that He has entrusted to the pastors who never give to the sheep anything that does not already belong to them.


Should we be Catholic and teach what has always and everywhere been taught in the church?  Or should we be Protestant and insist that all divine doctrine is drawn from the Holy Scriptures alone?  We should be both.  In fact, the Scripture alone principle is Catholic.  Luther didn’t make it up.


This is made crystal clear in Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”  My wife and I attended a matinee showing and when we got home my Christian News had arrived.  I glanced through it and found a review of  “The Passion” that criticized it for promoting the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass.  The reviewer was wrong.  The movie promoted the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.  Gibson masterfully joined together the institution of the Lord’s Supper with the raising up of Christ on the cross.  After offering the bread, which is His body, to the disciples the film shows Christ’s body being raised up on the cross.  There, as Jesus is shedding His blood, the film also shows Jesus offering the wine, which is His blood, to the disciples saying to them, “Shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  And there you have it.  The Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone promoted by a traditionalist Roman Catholic. 


It may well be that Mel Gibson intended to promote the doctrine of his church on the Sacrifice of the Mass.  That’s beside the point.  The point is that Gibson could not teach Roman Catholic doctrine through the medium he chose because he chose to bind himself to the words of the Bible.  True, when he showed how Jesus raised the loaf up in His hands Gibson may have wanted to intimate the Sacrifice of the Mass for the sins of the living and the dead.  But no mere symbolic gesture with a hidden meaning could withstand the clear words of the Holy Scriptures that Gibson’s integrity required him to put into the mouth of the Lord Jesus.  The words that Jesus spoke in the film were the words recorded in the Holy Scriptures.  When the Scriptures are permitted to speak, the Lutheran doctrine is spoken.


If we Lutherans wish to retain the true Lutheran doctrine of the means of grace, we must reaffirm the truth that all divine doctrine is written in the Holy Scriptures and that there is no other source of divine teaching than the words recorded in the Bible.  All of the faithful fathers who provide us with faithful guidance into the pure teaching of the Holy Scriptures drew their water from the same fountain.  God wrote the Bible.  The words of life that we call means of grace come to us from Jesus.  They are recorded for us in those inspired writings that because of their source in God must be for us the only source of divine teaching.  No other words are words of life but those words written down for us by those whom God chose to do so.  The Bible was no accident.  And the church did not give it to us.  Jesus did, through the apostles He chose and to whom He sent His Spirit.


If being Catholic means that we have an objective, identifiable, external foundation for our teaching and being Protestant means that we have a personal and heartfelt assurance of salvation confessional Lutherans have what Catholics and Protestants are looking for.  What is clearer or more concretely definable that the teaching of law, gospel, prayer, and the means of grace found in Luther’s Small Catechism?  An Orthodox priest in Ternopil’ Ukraine, on reading Luther’s Small Catechism in Ukrainian, recognized the truth stated more clearly than he had heard before.  We have all heard heartwarming stories of Christians who were languishing in the spiritual desert of modern so-called Evangelicalism and by God grace found the deep comfort of the pure gospel as only confessional Lutheranism teaches it.


Lutherans confess that the newly baptized infant possesses every spiritual treasure God has to give.  He is made an heir of heaven and will never be more spiritually enriched than he is when he leaves the font.  Lutherans also confess that God has instituted an office in and for His church the sole duty of which it is to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments so that we poor sinners may constantly be enriched by the fullness of His grace.  No theologian, no matter how brilliant he is or how deeply he delves into the mysteries of the Christian truth can plumb the depths thereof, and yet every baptized baby owns these holy mysteries by faith.  These mysteries are not frightening to hear or daunting to consider.  At the heart of it all is the holy, precious blood and innocent suffering and death of our Redeemer who, by preaching this truth into our hearts, makes us Christians and His holy Christian Church.


Rolf D. Preus


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