On Incarnational Theology and High Church Pietism

By Rolf Preus


Author’s Note: This paper was written sometime in 1999 and shared with a number of people, including certain members of the faculty of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne.  A portion of it was later incorporated into a lecture titled, “The Enduring Relevance of the Doctrine of Justification,” delivered on April 20, 2001 at the annual Chicago Free Conference sponsored by the Luther Academy and the Association of Confessional Lutherans.  



Lutherans have always believed that the article of Christian doctrine on the justification of the sinner by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith alone is the chief topic of the Christian faith.  This is why confessional Lutherans have always been critical of pietism.  As a pastor in one of the most pietistic areas of Lutheranism in America, I can attest to the sad fact that this movement is alive and well.  Lutheran Pietists have been criticized by Confessional Lutherans for a number of reasons.  The chief criticism is that they simply do not teach that justification is the central article of the faith.  The Pietist is more interested in what God does in him than in what God had done for him or gives to him in the means of grace.  This is why Reformed theology will always find fertile soil among the Pietists. Neither the Pietists nor the Reformed have a clear understanding of the means of grace.  In northern Minnesota and North Dakota, when “conservative” Lutherans in the ELCA find themselves unable in good conscience to remain within the ELCA, they rarely venture into a confessional Lutheran congregation.  It is more likely that they will find a home in a local “free” church of a mildly Reformed or Arminian theology.


Now it may be an aversion to the liturgy that attracts them into non-liturgical churches.  But this is not the primary reason conservative Pietists generally do not come into confessional Lutheranism, even when it is available to them.  They don’t like what we preach.  Confessional Lutheran preaching is simply too Christological for them.  They want to learn more about themselves.  They aren’t quite so interested in knowing what God teaches us about Jesus.  They think that our confessional Lutheran doctrinal emphasis is, well, boring.


The Reformed stress doctrine, too.  But their doctrine is primarily law.  Inasmuch as law talks about our doing – that is, us – the law appeals to those who would rather hear about themselves than about Jesus.  For most people, an emphasis on doctrinal purity translates into an emphasis on the law.  But not for the confessional Lutheran.  For Lutherans, the doctrinal emphasis has always been the “for us” character of the gospel, which flows into the “to us” nature of the means of grace.  Doctrine is not primarily law.  It is gospel.  When God teaches us, he gives us Jesus.  And the Lutheran understands this teaching in terms of the means of grace.  Being taught, he is given by God the very righteousness that he needs.  Lutheran theology recognizes that Christ will never really be understood as being “for us” unless he is given “to us” in the very clearly identifiable means of salvation: the gospel and the sacraments of Jesus.  And, of course, when the “for us” character of the atonement flows into the “to us” nature of the means of grace, Christ remains Immanuel: God with us. 


This is why we rejoice to see a renewed emphasis on incarnational and sacramental theology among confessional Lutherans.  If the doctrine of justification is the chief article of the Christian religion, we must continually reaffirm sound Lutheran Christology and sacramental theology.  A discussion of the divine attributes of Christ being communicated to his human nature may appear to be somewhat arcane, but this biblical teaching is vital as a foundation for the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.  This is not mere quibbling with historic Calvinism.  This is fundamental.  Stated simply, there is no God but the God revealed in the flesh of Jesus. Since the Calvinists insist on locating God apart from Christ’s flesh, we must emphasize the significance of the communication of attributes in the justification of the sinner.  To do this in words that our people can understand is both a challenge and a joy.


The false Christology of the Reformed does great harm to their teaching of the gospel.  They refuse to locate God only where God has chosen to be located.  Thus, their doctrine of justification, which in most aspects of it is quite sound, will necessarily be set aside, off in a corner somewhere where it cannot really flow into the preaching and piety of the church. If God can be found apart from Christ’s flesh, folks will look for him apart from Christ’s flesh.  This is human nature.  The Lutheran knows that the doctrine of grace and justification through faith alone is grounded in and flows from and is in fact a necessary concomitant of biblical Christology.  Calvinism must ground its doctrine of grace elsewhere than in what is accomplished for us in the divine flesh of Christ alone.  This is because it can conceive of Christ’s divinity apart from his flesh.  Such an anti-incarnational conception requires Calvinism to safeguard the doctrine of grace by means of their doctrine of God’s “decrees”.  It doesn’t work.  God’s sovereignty is a rotten foundation for his grace.  A sovereign God cannot bear my sicknesses and carry my sorrows.  Only an incarnate God can do that.  The sovereign God is a mean bully that nobody really likes at all.  Because he’s sovereign we’re stuck with him.  It’s not as if we can get away from him.  If we could, he wouldn’t be sovereign after all, would he?  But we surely don’t much want to “flee for refuge” to such a God.  And, of course, few people do.  This is why Calvinism – despite its clear and often beautiful expressions of Christ’s atonement and the doctrine of salvation by grace alone (consider, for example, Spurgeon’s sermons) – also breeds legalistic and sectarian opposition.  Arminianism, which rejects the “divine decrees” of Calvin’s God, is seen as a “kinder and gentler” version of the Protestant faith.  As hostile as it is to historic Calvinism, however, it couldn’t have arisen without it.  And it has never been able to overcome Calvin’s fundamental error on Christology.  Calvin’s rationalistic denial of the so-called genus maiestaticum (the divine attributes being communicated to Christ’s human nature) has had incalculably serious consequences for Protestantism.  We Lutherans need to be made aware of these consequences.


The incarnation is where to locate grace because grace is always centered in Jesus and in his suffering for us.  Since the Reformed will put the man Jesus elsewhere than the eternal Logos, the mystery of the incarnation cannot flow into the saving mysteries of the here and now, namely, the sacraments of Christ’s church.  For the Reformed, the incarnation has no immediate practical importance, except perhaps as a dogma which is logically necessary to the atonement and which must be believed if one is to be a Christian.  When it comes right down to it, Reformed theology has Jesus absent from his church.


Their bad Christology has dire consequences for Reformed sacramental theology.  If the gospel and sacraments may be present when and where the Holy Spirit himself is absent, then one ought to expect this to be the case.  Thus, the means of grace are lost.  At least, they cannot be trusted.  This has as much to do with their bad Christology as with their limited atonement.


It is not hard to see how Calvinist Christology and sacramental theology have influenced American Lutheranism, even among conservative confessionalists who really ought to know better.  Well, we get lazy.  We fall into a “repeat after me theology” (I must credit Jay Webber with this phrase) which cannot deal with current theological threats to the truth because it is geared only to fight the last theological war (or maybe the one before that).   Can conservative, confessional Lutherans in America honestly address and confront Reformed intrusions into our theology, worship, and piety?  It’s not an easy task.  David Scaer said at the last Annual Free Conference in Chicago (sponsored by the Association of Confessional Lutherans and the Luther Academy) “that LCMS Lutherans are incapable of self-critique.”  I doubt that self-critique is any easier within the ELS or the WELS.


To what extent must we Lutherans do precisely what Scaer notes we appear to be incapable of doing?  I say “we” because we’re all in this together, whether Missouri, ELS, or WELS.  We share a common history. Can we revisit various formulations and truisms that seem to center mostly in such areas as church, ministry, sacramental theology, and liturgy to see if what we are “repeating” is no longer addressing the problems we face?  Can we criticize our own theology within the framework of the Lutheran Confessions while showing the due respect and, one hopes, understanding of those men who addressed different issues a generation or two ago?


We must be careful not to accuse a Lutheran of “Romanizing” tendencies if he simply seeks to purify Lutheran theology and practice of Reformed dross.  As a Norwegian Lutheran who rejoices in returning to his “roots” as a pastor among the remnant of confessional Norwegian Lutherans in America, I must admit that the Reformed influence on the ELS, at least in the area of liturgical theology, is obvious.  It is also of long standing among Norwegian Lutherans.  My maternal grandfather, born nearly 120 years ago, refused to display a crucifix given to him by my parents because he was taught that it was a “Roman” symbol.  Of course, I heard this notion among the German Lutherans in Missouri as well.  Many conservative Lutherans sincerely believe that Reformed prejudices and practices and symbolic understandings are Lutheran.


On the other hand, it would be naïve of us to assume that the Roman influence will not remain as the chief threat to the pure gospel in our day as in days gone by.  The pope is still the Antichrist, after all.  Rome is far more clever (and captures the very clever among us – just consider the Lutherans who return to Rome) than the Reformed will ever hope to be.  She has a more beautiful cultural framework in which to disguise the wickedness of her doctrine.  She does not err (as far as I know) in matters of Christology.  She is quite “incarnational” and very “sacramental” in a warm and inviting way that is so much more attractive than the stern, black, bare, and severe liturgical ghetto of Calvinism.  Surely, Rome is aesthetically superior to anything coming from the Reformed churches.  She is so beautiful!


Let us acknowledge that we in the ELS, WELS, and Missouri have taken over certain Reformed notions (as if they were Lutheran) especially in the area of liturgical practices and prejudices.  After all, it’s true.  We might as well admit it.  Still, we also need to address any evidence that there is an incipient Romanism within the liturgical movement among confessional Lutherans in America today.  I’m not talking about making the sign of the cross or wearing historic vestments.  And I’m certainly not talking about laudable (if often futile) efforts to encourage private confession and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper more frequently.  I’m not even talking about an “ontic” view of the pastoral office or such notions as his being an iconic representation of Christ.  No, I’m talking about something much more basic than any of these things.


I am talking about a High Church Pietism that differs only aesthetically from the old fashioned anti-liturgical pietism we confessional Lutherans have opposed throughout our history in America.  Here are some questions we need to address to those promoting liturgical renewal among our conservative Lutheran churches in America.  When we speak of the incarnation of our Lord and his sacramental presence among us, are we speaking the language of the justification of the sinner by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness?  Is the presence of Christ his presence in the bestowal of his righteousness to poor, unworthy sinners?  And is this the focus of the church’s proclamation?  When we speak, for example, of Christ’s “fleshly presence” among us, are we actually talking about Luther’s doctrine of Christian righteousness?  Are we witnessing a corrective of various Reformed intrusions and a reestablishment of the Lutheran doctrine of atonement firmly in the incarnation of Jesus and the distribution of the fruits of the atonement firmly in Christ’s ministry of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments?  This is what I have wanted to believe.


But may I – and I’m not the only one asking – raise some questions in public, questions that ought to receive a public airing among those who want to be confessional Lutherans?  There appears to be a different emphasis among some who speak much about incarnational, sacramental theology than the historic Lutheran emphasis on that righteousness which avails before God.  There appears to be a theological movement, for lack of a better term let’s call it High Church Pietism, which, while rightly emphasizing the incarnational and sacramental features of Lutheran theology, is displacing the centrality of the article on justification.  High Church Pietism speaks of Christ’s saving presence in ways that are unfamiliar and not a little disconcerting to Lutheran traditionalists.  So, we traditionalists have some questions we would like to raise.


This theological movement I am calling High Church Pietism finds its clearest expression at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne.  It has arisen in the wake of the recent church-political battle that was waged so fiercely over the future of that institution, a battle with which I am intimately acquainted.  I know that a clear and unbiased analysis of theological movements is particularly difficult when the intensity of the church-political battles have left wounds not yet healed.  The expression, “politics makes strange bedfellows” is particularly apt in describing church politics.  I personally witnessed the church-political battle over the future of Concordia Theological Seminary during the first half of the 1990’s take its toll on my father, Dr. Robert Preus, leading to his untimely death in 1995.  The nature of that intrasynodical conflict made political allies out of those who, today, are beginning to experience not a little discomfort with one another’s theological emphases.  We all agreed that the most notorious enemy of confessional Lutheranism from within Missouri was the Church Growth Movement.  The alternative to this anti-Lutheran, fundamentally Arminian theological movement is . . . what?  That is the question before us today.  When we were all battling the same enemy, we were willing to overlook certain differences that are becoming too obvious to ignore.  May we address them?


I have been watching the High Church Pietism develop over the past ten years or so.   It calls itself confessional.  It opposes the Church Growth Movement.  It claims to be rediscovering a more pure Lutheranism unchained from the proof text orthodoxy of Bronze Age Missouri, a Lutheranism filled with rich, sacramental, liturgical life and an incarnational perspective that the church sorely needs.


Who can argue with the careful and pastoral efforts of committed Lutherans to bring to our Lutheran congregations a greater appreciation for the historic confessional and liturgical heritage of classical Lutheranism?  Who will defend Reformed or Arminian intrusions into Lutheran theology or liturgy?  But matters are not quite so simple.  Why does a Lutheran oppose the Church Growth Movement?  Why does a Lutheran defend the historic liturgy of the church?  Surely it is not simply because the Church Growth Movement uses aesthetically inferior forms of music.  It is rather because they locate within themselves that blessed reality on which they rest their souls and put their hope.  Now I cannot stand their forms and music.  I would frankly rather listen to Janice Joplin and the Rolling Stones than the “praise songs” so popular today.  But what is most offensive about “contemporary” worship is that the “for us” character of the gospel is covered up, set aside, ignored, if not outright denied.  Where is the atonement?  Where is the righteousness that avails before God?  Where is the forgiveness of sins?  What role does Jesus play in their theology?  Answering these questions – more fundamental than issues over liturgical (or anti-liturgical) “style” – will show us that the Church Growthers simply have a different spirit than do confessional Lutherans.


What is the spirit of the liturgical, sacramental movement at Concordia Theological Seminary these days?  The publication, For the Life of the World, which CTS president, Dr. Dean Wenthe, denies was named after a book of the same title by the noted Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, can serve as an accurate reflection of CTS theology.  Let us subject this publication to the same critique we would apply to Church Growthism and any other form of pietism.


Consider, as an example of High Church Pietism an article by Dr. Art Just entitled “The Incarnational Life,” which was published in the July, 1998 issue of For the Life of the World. Here is an article devoted in large measure to an explication of the significance of our Lord’s incarnation.  It does not use any of the soteriological terms associated with classical Lutheran theology: justification/righteousness (“. . . and make right what had gone wrong” is as close as it comes), forgiveness, atonement, reconciliation, propitiation, are all ignored.  In place of these terms which teach the “for us” realities of God being propitiated, our sins being forgiven, and our status as saints under the grace of God, we read of a gospel far more similar to traditional Roman Catholicism, both in terms and content. 


Here is how the author explains the meaning and purpose of Christ’s incarnation.  “Jesus entered into this messy world of our making in order to be faithful even unto death and restore our flesh to God’s image and make us whole.”  Again, “His suffering and resurrected flesh restores our impure and unclean flesh to wholeness and wellness.”  Note the imagery.  There is no hint of anything forensic or of an imputed righteousness.  But perhaps this is mere quibbling?  After all, the imagery used is quite biblical.  But it is not merely the use of such language that teaches a sanative or transformational soteriological model.  It is the absence of any other kind of language.  And it is the introduction of a subtle change in historic Lutheran formulations.  Where are we to find Jesus?  The author tells us that Jesus “continues to be present in His church after the ascension according to His divine and human natures in the preaching of the Gospel and the sacramental life of the church.”  The author does not say that Christ continues to be present in “the administration of the sacraments,” but rather that he continues to be present in “the sacramental life of the church.”  Why has “the sacramental life of the church” replaced “the administration of the sacraments”?  Do these phrases mean the same thing?  The historic formulation, “the administration of the sacraments” locates the salvific presence of Christ outside of us.  It is apparent that this is precisely what the article does not intend.


As Christ’s people, we stand in the midst of a broken world as the presence of Christ to that world because as the baptized, we bear witness to [sic] our words and lives to the Christ who dwells in us.  Our incarnational lives testify that Christ’s presence in the world transforms the culture and makes it new.  Christ is present in the world through us, and He is present for the life of the world.


Note what is here asserted.  Christ’s people are Christ’s presence to the world.  Why?  Because they bear witness to the Christ who lives in them.  The “incarnational” life is Jesus living in Christians and thus transforming the culture.  Christ’s presence “for the life of the world” is thus not to be identified as Christ’s presence in the wholly external, objective, means of salvation, but as Christ’s presence within his holy people.  The “incarnational” and “sacramental” language is pressed into service of a theology scarcely distinguishable from Pietism.  Historically, the “Lutheran” Pietists have sought an intensely personal and individual discovery of the Jesus within, while Rome has had a more corporate and, of course, liturgical understanding of the Church as the “sacramental presence” of Christ in the world.  In both cases, however, the reality of Jesus is the reality of his indwelling, and that is to be the focal point of Christian piety.  The Christ “for us” who is to be found only in the external means of grace has given way to the Christ “in us” who by that indwelling renews and changes the world through us. 


“We bear witness to our words and lives to the Christ who dwells in us.”  Well, yes we do testify to the Christ who lives in us, but we do not point to him in us as our Christian testimony.  We point to him on Calvary.  We point to him on the Altar.  We point to him who is outside of us, and in this way we point to Christ unsullied by our weaknesses and failures.  At issue is not whether the Christ to whom we bear witness lives in us.  At issue is to what we point when we point to Jesus.  I don’t need Jesus in your heart.  I don’t need him in some kind of “sacramental life” of the church that is mixed up with the inchoate renewal of God’s image in you or me.  I need him where he comes to me wholly from the outside with the proclamation of forgiveness that is grounded in his atonement and bestowed with utter certainly by means of his words spoken to me in the here and now.  Don’t let’s confuse things anymore than they’re already confused!


Christ, by living in us, is doing nothing to justify or to sanctify our neighbor.  This is what the old fashioned Pietists never understood.  The presence of Christ in the Pietist benefits no one but the Pietist.  The fundamental error of Pietism is that it won’t acknowledge this simple fact.  While Lutheran theology truly confesses that Christ lives in every Christian and, of course, in the church catholic, Lutheran theology does not bear witness to anything that dwells in us.  It always points outside of us.  Thus, we speak of the “administration of the sacraments” because we cannot see or know or identify our life in Christ in any other way than to look to the external Word and Sacrament that come to us from the outside.  One administers only that which is entrusted to him to administer.  Now, instead of the “administration of the sacraments” as the location of the God-man, we have Christ’s presence in “the sacramental life of the church.”  The presence of Christ within us and through us as his sacramental presence which “transforms the culture and makes it new” is a far cry from the teaching of the Lutheran Confessions.  This teaching was not derived from the Lutheran Confessions.  What we see here is a kind of corporate pietism “we bear witness . . . to the Christ who dwells in us” as opposed to the personal or individualistic pietism that bears witness to the Christ who dwells in me.  The Lutheran does not invite anyone to look in us or in me, but solely to Jesus for us.  Lutheran sacramental theology is precisely that the Jesus who was given for us in his first advent is given to us in the here and now (see 1 John 5:6,8).


For years the liturgical renewal movement has presented itself as the second installment on the confessional renewal movement.  But does this movement serve the cause of confessional Lutheran theology by setting as its focus the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to the sinner?  If a renewed emphasis on incarnational and sacramental theology does this, then we can all applaud.  If, however, a renewed emphasis on incarnational and sacramental theology leads us to a more sanative, transformational, indwelling of Christ emphasis with a corresponding setting aside of the centrality of justification, then this new High Church Pietism must be opposed just as strongly as the old fashioned individualistic, anticlerical, anti-liturgical pietism.


May we talk candidly about what it is that makes us Lutheran?  Here are some questions that I would like to ask.


  • Is justification through faith alone still the central article of Christian doctrine?


When our Lutheran fathers identified justification as the article of Christian doctrine on which the Church stands or falls, were they simply describing an issue that permeated the discussions of their own day?  Or, were they speaking for every generation of Christians?  Has the doctrine of creation become for us the central issue in light of increased pagan and Gnostic influences?  For confessional Lutherans, justification is to remain that overarching theological principle by which to judge and test whatever new theological movements and fads come along, as well as a means by which to engage in serious self-criticism of whatever “repeat-after-me” theology has become entrenched among us.  We must ensure that our incarnational and sacramental theology is properly focused.


  • Is the doctrine of justification grounded in the means of grace or are the means of

grace grounded in justification, that is, in the atonement?


A casual reading of materials published and presented among the High Church Pietists will find a clear tendency to locate forgiveness of sins more and more in the doing and speaking of the minister and less and less in the doing and dying of Jesus.  The character of the Lutheran doctrine of justification is such that one may faithfully teach it and preach it without even mentioning the ministry at all or referring in any way to the means of grace.  The gospel is Jesus talk.  If it isn’t about the Jesus “for us” it isn’t the gospel.  Sacramental preaching simply joins the then and there location of salvation to the here and now distribution of the same.  In baptism, where one is joined to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, this is quite obvious.  In the Lord’s Supper it is even more obvious.  Why would Jesus give us his body and blood to eat and to drink if not because he wants us to trust in this body and blood for our salvation?  With the renewed emphasis on private confession and absolution it is particularly crucial to teach the atonement as the foundational reality of what is taking place.  The penitent is talking to Jesus, not merely to a minister, and he is talking to the same Jesus who displayed to his first ministers the wounds that pointed them to his vicarious satisfaction.  This would then be the foundation for every absolution ever spoken.  And the speaking of it cannot faithfully occur merely as a speaking “in the stead and by the command” of Jesus if that speaking is not as well a clear proclamation of that atoning work from which absolution springs.  Our 19th Century Confessional Lutheran fathers in America were right to emphasize objective justification as the foundation for the doctrine and practice of the means of grace.


This is what is needed today.  We must subordinate means of grace and office of the ministry theology to atonement and justification theology.  Consider the article that I have chosen as a foil for this little essay. Could a Reformed theologian endorse it?  Clearly not.  Could a Roman Catholic theologian endorse it?  Of course he could.  In light of the acceptance by the vast majority of nominal Lutherans throughout the world of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, it is essential that we articulate the gospel in such a way that no Roman Catholic theologian could accept it.   


  • Does High Church Pietism impose form over substance in the name of confessional faithfulness, thus tending toward a new kind of legalism?


The publication, For the Life of the World, is a well done popular presentation of the theological movement I am designating High Church Pietism.  Any movement that is still in its infancy will be difficult to assess.  Nevertheless, a casual perusal of this particular publication as well as conversations with students and professors from CTS over the past decade or so will yield certain conclusions. The corporate, catholic, and liturgical elements of Christian theology and piety are forced into a framework of “liturgical correctness” that is then touted as the true expression of confessional Lutheran theology.  Those who will not acquiesce to the new imposition of this correctness are excluded from the club formed by the self-appointed elite who lay claim to the mantle of confessional Lutheranism.  This claim to confessional integrity frequently focuses upon the introduction of liturgical practices that have fallen into disuse.  If one opposes the liturgically correct imposition of various practices, he is excluded from the club.  It does not matter if the one opposing the practice does so for eminently theological reasons.


For example, as noted above, the purpose of private confession is the personal application to the penitent of the gospel.  That gospel is, by definition, an applied atonement.  It is the Jesus whose scarred body is displayed to the disciples who now breathes on them with the command to forgive sins in his name.  Now in what is the penitent trusting when he trusts in the words spoken to him by the minister?  Is he not trusting in the blood of Jesus shed for him?  It is possible to trust in a “gospel” of words alone?  Of course not!  The words of the man appointed by God to speak are joined organically to the vicarious atonement.  I would argue that the very theological arguments that could be adduced to encourage the reintroduction of private confession and absolution are arguments that may well be directed against the unwelcome imposition of this practice.  If the essence of what takes place during confession and absolution is the imparting to the penitent of the fruits of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, must we not ensure that this is what our people understand it to be?  If they, due to their knee-jerk anti-Roman bias, assume that an emphasis on private confession/absolution somehow puts something between the atonement of Jesus and their personal faith, that assumption must be corrected.  If it isn’t, any talk of private confession/absolution will communicate something quite different than what Luther intended when he encouraged folks to go to confession because this is what Christians do. 


The problem we are facing here is that so much of the talk about restoring the historic liturgy and neglected practices of Lutheranism so that we will complete the return to real confessional Lutheran theology is a rather snobbish debate about form.  Simply because we may not divorce form from substance does not mean that we may not distinguish between them.  There is among the High Church Pietists an almost ideological preoccupation with enemies on the left (homegrown American variants of Methodism, carelessly and inaccurately labeled “Reformed”).  There is a corresponding breathlessly naïve infatuation with things “Orthodox” or “Catholic” as if we Lutherans must mimic the form of the latter in order to be genuinely confessional.  The very opposite is true.  One of the most compelling reasons for retaining the historic liturgy of the church is that this practice deals with people as they are.  Folks need to be and feel at home in church.  No pastor has the right to take away the people’s home, even if he doesn’t entirely like the way it looks. 


Early in the 20th Century, confessional Lutherans in America condemned such things as “externalism” and “sacramentalism”, associating them with Rome.  Now the proponents of liturgical renewal (including the High Church Pietists) reject “individualism” that is allegedly “sectarian”.  Lutheranism is neither Roman nor Reformed.  Good theology must do more than react against either or both. 


I can sympathize with any Lutheran minister who has been accused of Roman tendencies on account of his devotion to classical Lutheranism.  Apart from the sacraments, the incarnation becomes theoretical and apart from the incarnation, there is no atonement, no righteousness, nor forgiveness and no grace from God.  So we emphasize the incarnation and we emphasize the sacraments.  But we ought not to forget that Rome does as well.  Arthur Carl Piepkorn did indeed have certain Roman tendencies.  He also denied the inerrancy of the Bible.  Ah, but the issues have changed, we are told.  No, inerrancy is still an issue.  Romanism will always be a threat.


Some correction of encrusted theological “repeat after me” truisms is surely needed, and we should be grateful for what has been provided by the theological leadership of CTS.  It remains an excellent seminary to whom Lutherans all over the world continue to look for theological leadership.  Church Growthism has permanently altered the theological landscape, and one may not simply reassert cliches about the priesthood of all believers when dealing with issues facing the ministry today.  Nor can we simply assume that C.F.W. Walther’s theology on the ministry was tainted by the spirit of democracy or by political necessity.  What is needed is a thorough grounding of the Lutheran doctrine of the ministry of the gospel and the sacraments in the Person and work of Christ where it belongs.  And Christ’s presence must be identified NOT with any minister, but ONLY with that entrusted to the minister to administer: the sacred, saving, means of grace, that is, the pure proclamation of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments.  For there it is that the Savior will be found.  There alone is his incarnational, sacramental, salvific presence.


Rolf D. Preus


Back to Sermons Page              Back to Christ for Us Home Page