Confessional Lutheranism during the middle to late 19th century, when the “New Measures” of Charles Finney were wreaking havoc within American Lutheranism, was threatened with extinction. At that time, American Lutheranism was undergoing an identity crisis and looked to Revivalism for the change believed necessary for their survival in the golden age of American expansion. One Lutheran not interested in following the pop-church fad of the day was Charles Porterfield Krauth, author of the incredibly brilliant tome, “The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology” (CPH, 2007). The American Lutherans of Krauth’s day wanted to look and sound like American Revivalistic Evangelicals and were doing their dead level best to remove any and all traces of their Lutheran heritage from both doctrine and practice. Sound familiar? Krauth wrote in answer to this “movement” and what he had to say at that time is applicable today to Lutheranism in America.
Krauth makes many excellent points in his book, but the enduring theme of his writing can be succinctly summed up with a question: “Do we want reform, i.e. a return to our “grandfather’s church?”” If so, then it is incumbent upon us to dust off our Lutheran symbols and study our confession of faith. We need to know what we, as Lutherans, believe, teach, and confess, in order to discern error. Here are several comments Krauth makes to this effect:
“It is vastly more important, then, to know what the Reformation retained than what it overthrew; for the overthrow of error, though often an indispensable prerequisite to the establishment of truth, is not truth itself; it may clear the foundation, simply to substitute one error for another, perhaps a greater for a less. Profoundly important, indeed, is the history of that which the Reformation accomplished against the errors of Romanism, yet it is as nothing to the history of that which it accomplished for itself. The overthrow of Romanism was not its primary object; in a certain sense it was not its object at all. Its object was to establish truth, no matter what might rise or fall in the effort…. The mightiest weapon which the Reformation employed against Rome was, not Rome’s errors, but Rome’s truths.
By a careful study of the symbolical books of our Church, commencing with the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, a more thorough understanding of the history, difficulties, true genius, and triumphs of the Reformation will be attained, than by reading everything that can be got, or that has ever been written about that memorable movement.
But are those Confessions, after all, of any value to the American Lutheran preacher? it may be asked. We cannot conceal our sorrow, that that term, “American,” should be made so emphatic, dear and hallowed though it be to our heart. Why should we break or weaken the golden chain which unites us to the high and holy associations of hour history as a Church, by thrusting into a false position a word which makes national appeal? Is there a conflict between the two, when carried to their very farthest limits? Must Lutheranism be shorn of its glory to adapt it to our times or our land? No!” (ibid. pp. 202, 203, 204,208)
Notice Krauth’s emphasis upon the idea that the Reformation was about establishing the truth and not so much about overturning error. Doctrinal errors are corrected when the pure doctrine of the Holy Scriptures is confessed. We don’t only point out doctrinal errors and errors in practice, but we must also confess the truth at the same time, and the emphasis is upon the confession of truth.
Do we really want reform? Then we will return to, and tightly embrace, our Lutheran symbols. It is not enough to talk with each other, but we must also listen; that is, we must give ear to the teachings of our Lutheran fathers while not expecting to reinvent the wheel, but expecting that they will teach us how to repair the wheel and put it back on the cart.
Lutherans are well known for their emphasis on education and teaching. Continuing catechesis from the Book of Concord should be of great value to the Lutheran preacher, since it is, as Krauth rightly points out, the “golden chain which unites us” throughout time.