Great Stuff — Are Lutherans Like Catholics? Yes, and No. Read this interview.

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Concordia Publishing House recently published the translation of an excellent book that documents how much of traditional church practice was retained during the Lutheran Reformation. Lutherans, unlike Calvinists, did not set out to tear down and destroy historic church practices. Calvinist churches in Geneva and elsewhere are infamous for literally ripping down church art and destroying visual symbolism, among other things. Learn more about Faith and Act and purchase a copy.

Painting of a Lutheran Divine Service in the Netherlands in the 16th Century

Here is an interview with the translation of Faith and Act, Kevin Walker, talking about the book and the issues it raises.

An Interview with Kevin Walker, translator of Ernst Walter Zeeden, Faith and Act

Did the Reformation completely reject medieval Catholicism? How did Lutheran teaching express itself in the life of the congregation? In 1959, Ernst Walter Zeeden coined the phrase Konfessionsbildung (confession-building) to describe the process of change at the time of the Reformation. His research revealed that Catholic faith and practice was not rejected immediately nor completely by the reformers. Instead, as translator Kevin Walker states in his translator’s preface: “The Reformation did not happen overnight—neither with the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, nor with the presentation of the Augsburg Confession.” In the classic study Faith and Act, Zeeden explores how faith influenced the act of worship and the liturgical and devotional practice of the Reformation church.

The following interview with Kevin Walker introduces Zeeden, his book Faith and Act, and provides some additional insight into the work of a translator.

CPH: Who was Ernst Walter Zeeden?
Walker: Dr. Zeeden (1916–2011), who converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism (though his wife and children did not), was a renowned historian with a distinguished career at Eberhard-Karls-Universität in Tübingen. He not only authored numerous books and articles, but also lectured and served as thesis adviser for seventy doctoral students. Along with Josef Engel and Heiko Oberman, he helped found and lead the university’s first liberal arts Collaborative Research Center, “Late Middle Ages and Reformation” (SFB 8). His investigations into how confessions arose and impacted culture in Germany during the “Age of Religious Wars” opened a new field of research and paved the way for further studies of confessional formation and confessionalization.

CPH: Why is Faith and Act an important book for those interested in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras?
Walker: Within the history of historical research for these eras, this book was groundbreaking in its approach to presenting information from primary sources concerning the faith and structure of the early Lutheran Church and how these looked in practice, both in church and in society. The author provides evidence for understanding the Reformation as a process in which certain Catholic traditions remained, sometimes quite contrary to what we may expect.

CPH: What does Faith and Act have to say to those who are involved in current discussions concerning liturgy? Church organization? The Office of the Ministry? Separation of church and state?
Walker: In general, simply being acquainted with the past is valuable for understanding who we are and where we’ve come from. In particular, Faith and Act intimates reasons for the development of set liturgical forms and why some practices were retained or abandoned, sometimes precisely because of government mandate or interaction with people of a different confession. It speaks of the greater and lesser ban (or excommunication) within the civil and ecclesiastical realms. It shows the Lutheran Church untouched by congregationalism and having a hierarchical structure in which even a secular prince sometimes had a place. Other cases of church not being separate from state are indicated. Also included are ramifications of poorly educated clergy and clergy forced to work on the side. All of this can inform how we deal with conditions that exist now or may arise.

CPH: As you worked on this translation, what new insights did you gain? What did you take away from the project personally?
Walker: My childhood impression of the Reformation happening overnight has long since been shattered, but working on this book reinforced my understanding of the Reformation as a long and complex process involving not merely the protest against doctrinal errors and abuses in the Roman Catholic Church, but also the intricate relations between church and state, clergy and laity, tradition and society, confessed faith and lived faith. My interaction with Dr. Zeeden’s text and sources as well as additional research and corresponding with his colleague Dr. Schindling instilled in me a great appreciation for the work and legacy of Dr. Zeeden.

CPH: What was the most difficult thing about translating this particular book?
Walker: When I began, translating sixteenth-century German was still fairly new to me, and I didn’t have Sehling and other sources at my disposal, which sometimes made it difficult to translate excerpts from church orders, especially when written in Low German. Clarification came later when I was able to read the excerpts in their original context. In general, when dealing with Early New High German, I came to rely heavily on the Grimm brothers’ Deutsches Wörterbuch.

CPH: You have worked on translations for the extension of the American edition of Luther’s Works. How did the work on Zeeden’s book inform your work on Luther and vice versa?
My translating of Luther began after my initial translation of Zeeden’s book, so that work and becoming more familiar with the church orders was very beneficial for translating Luther, not merely from a linguistic standpoint but also in terms of content. When I revised my initial translation of Zeeden, I had already gained several years of experience translating Luther, so that in turn helped enhance the accuracy of the final translation.

CPH: What projects are in your immediate future? If you could translate or write anything, what would it be and why?
Walker: Currently I am in the midst of translating the biography of Martin Luther by Johannes Mathesius, which is a series of seventeen sermons preached from 1562–64. One thing I would really like to translate into English is the Apology or Defense of the Book of Concord, first written in German in 1582 and translated into Latin soon thereafter. As a response to criticisms of the Book of Concord, this largely unknown work deserves more attention from those who adhere to the Book of Concord. It is set in perspective in section 291 of Bente’s Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions, which also include excerpts in sections 253–256.

CPH: Can you tell us anything about your plans to translate Lutheran theological literature into Russian?
Walker: My main goal here is to translate German writings of Luther into Russian. For the next year or two I intend to take some classes devoted to translation from German to Russian. Although I continue learning Russian, I have made a small beginning at translating Luther into Russian. The greatest obstacles are simply finding time for this and a suitable editor with time to work through my translations with me. The few works of Luther already in Russian—plus the time demand for translating from the original and researching—means that there is more work than could be done well in a lifetime, so I will have to be selective. Unfortunately this is only a free-time endeavor without the support of large team of experts and a publishing house. Meanwhile, the Lutheran Heritage Foundation is filling the need for Luther’s Works in Russian by translating from the American Edition.

Learn more about Faith and Act.

What others are saying:
Ernst Walter Zeeden was one of the most important Reformation historians of the twentieth century. Years before scholars began to weigh up the vitality of late-medieval religion or trace the broad outlines of the confessionalization process, Zeeden was shedding light on a religious culture that transcended the traditional late-medieval and early modern divide while thinking of new ways to comprehend the period as a whole, an approach that eventually led to his influential idea of the “formation of confessions.” Faith and Act was one of his earliest and most important works in this vein, a mix of exacting research and historiographical vision that may justly be viewed as one of the foundation texts of modern Reformation history.—C. Scott Dixon, PhD, Queen’s University, Belfast.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Great Stuff — Are Lutherans Like Catholics? Yes, and No. Read this interview. — 13 Comments

  1. Mrs. Hume, that is a very fine way of putting it. Thank.

    Very pithy.

    For some time, I’ve said, “What’s truly Roman in doctrine, is not catholic, and what is genuinely catholic, is not necessarily Roman.”

  2. The discussion of the survival of “traditional church practice” within the Lutheran Church after the Reformation begs the question of “traditional as defined by who and compared to what?” Prior to the Council of Trent, the “Western” (Roman Catholic) Church did not have completely uniform “church practices,” as the monk Martin Luther found out on his way to/from Rome when he tried to say Mass in a Milanese church and was told that he couldn’t because it followed the “Ambrosian Rite” which was distinct from the “Roman Rite” which Luther observed. After the Reformation was introduced into certain areas of northern Europe, certain practices, such as the elevation of the consecrated species, and certain vestments, such as “full Eucharistic vestments,” were retained for a time in certain areas, but either gradually died out or were abolished. As is well known, while in certain parts of Germany Lutheran pastors eventually vested in the black and white “Chorrock mit Baeffchen,” in Denmark and Norway, the “Baeffchen” were “Elizabethan” ruffs, while in Sweden “full Eucharistic vestments” survived, including the bishop’s use of the cope, mitre, and crozier, as in the Anglican Church. When the various Lutheran nationalities came to the New World, they brought those differing traditions with them, although gradually the influence of an early “liturgical movement” and the practice of the Episcopal Church eventually led to the adoption of the “cassock, surplice, and stole” combination, which later was replaced by the “preaching alb.” The late A.C. Piepkorn’s essay on the survival of pre-Reformation vestments in the Lutheran Church points out some interesting anomalies, such as the early loss of the stole among Lutheran vestments, as appears to be the case in the first illustration (above.)

    Of course, these are all matters of adiaphora, aren’t they? Nothing about which to judge other Christians in the Church or establish human laws, howsoever appeals may be made to “tradition.” Personally, I like a variety in vestments, and regret the fact that the Lutheran Church did not distinguish the “choir offices” of Matins and Vespers from “Divine Service” as in the Anglican tradition by having the officiant wear a tippet instead of a stole; it looks so nice for the officiant to be able to put his seminary’s seal on either side of the tippet where Crosses and other symbols appear on stoles! Also, the Anglican tradition of wearing one’s academic hood with one’s vestments in the “choir offices.”

  3. Thanks for turning me on to this.

    I’m sure it will be a worthy companion to “The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580” on my book shelf.

    Oh how I long for a Lutheran Oxford Movement, Perhaps it would be called the Augsburg Movement.

  4. Erich #4: There have been various “liturgical” and “confessional” movements in the Lutheran Church for many years. Aren’t some who post in this forum part of such a movement right now?

  5. Erich #7: That’s too bad, if liturgical and doctrinal interests lead you away from Scripture to “the traditions of men,” as they did Newman and other “Tractarians,” and as they do for those who “swim the Tiber or the Bosporus” today, looking for something “of man” that only God’s Word can truly give them. Any time someone turns from Scripture as their final authority to human writings/tradition as a final authority or as an “equal authority” with Scripture, the Truth of God’s Word is going to be lost or obscured. For me personally, that is what has happened with the “Loehists” in the LCMS. But before you end up in Eastern Orthodoxy like the late Dr. Pelikan–who began his “pilgrimage” away from Scripture by being an LCMS “liberal” on the authority of Scripture and therefore “open” to “the traditions of men” as his authority–why not look into ELDoNA or other church bodies separate from the LCMS, who publicly confess teachings about the Office of the Ministry contrary to those held by the LCMS? I appreciate the openess and honesty of their public doctrine, as contrasted with those who wish to change the public doctrine of the LCMS without being open and honest about from where they learned their different doctrine of the Ministry and how they want to change the public doctrine of the LCMS “one congregation at a time” rather than through entering into a public “state of confession” over against the synod for what they believe to be a false doctrine of the Ministry and therefore be willing to leave the LCMS if their admonition is not heeded, and through attempts to terminate the Certified Lay Ministry program completely rather than bring it into compliance with AC XIV by turning it into a “called and ordained” diaconal program. It is often complained about that there is a lack of “transparency” in the LCMS about “what is going on,” and with regard to the doctrine of the Ministry in the LCMS such “transparency” is definitely needed.

  6. @Warren Malach #8

    My last statement may have been a bit overly dramatic. I’ve not swum the Bosporous, and don’t really see that as an option, and the Tiber is certainly not an option, but I do wade in the Thames. I am an Evangelical Catholic, a Lutheran. I used to attend an ELCA Lutheran church. I was confirmed a Missouri Synod Lutheran. I have family ties that go back to the Wisconsin Synod, but that I currently worship in a high Anglo-Catholic Church.

    The LCMS church in which I was confirmed was fairly traditional in its liturgical practice, but when I moved to New York and next door to an ELCA church I couldn’t see passing the door of one Synod’s church to go to another. At the ELCA church I was exposed to a higher church liturgical practice. It was strange seeing people cross themselves; incense was not something that I was used to; but I grew to love our catholic traditions.

    Then the liturgy started to be changed, not just the music, but the text. The text to the Creeds was even changed. The worship practice was moving farther and farther away from being an expression of the catholic faith that I love. I do think that there is something to be said for “Lex orandi lex credendi.” Our liturgy, our traditions are an expression of our belief in the authority of Scripture, and our confessions of faith. I certainly do not put my faith in traditions, but as Luther said to George Buchholzer on December 4, 1539:

    “With respect to what troubles you – whether a cope or alb is to be worn in the procession during Rogation week and on Saint Mark’s Day, and whether a procession around the churchyard is to be held with a pure responsory on Sundays and with the Salve festa dies on Easter without, however, carrying the Sacrament about – this is my advice: If your lord, the margrave and elector, etc. [Joachim II, Elector of Brandenburg], permits the gospel of Jesus Christ to be preached with purity and power and without human additions and the two sacraments of Baptism an the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to be administered and offered according to their institution, if he is willing to abolish the invocation of saints (as if they were mediators, intercessors, and deliverers) and the carrying about of the Sacrament in procession, and if he is willing to discontinue daily Masses, vigils, and Masses for the dead and the consecration of water, salt, and herbs and allow only pure responsories and hymns, Latin and German, in procession, go along in God’s name and carry a silver or gold cross and wear a cope or alb of velvet, silk, or linen…

    …I am fully satisfied, for none of these things (as long as no abuse is connected with them) adds anything to the gospel or detracts from it. Only do not let such things be regarded as necessary for salvation and thus bind the consciences of men.”

    As I stated above, I’d like the Lutheran church, all synods, re-investigate their liturgical traditions. I hope for an Augsburg Movement.

  7. Erich: I am not clear on one thing: is all of this liturgical interest of yours essential to your Christian faith, or an interest in adiaphora about which freedom must be maintained on the basis of Scripture and consciences not bound? I also have an interest in liturgical practice and its history, but I recognize that it is *not* directly related to my personal faith in Christ established and maintained by the Gospel, but only about man-made forms of worship. I do not say these things to dismiss the value of sound liturgical practice, but in order to separate what is “essential” in the Christain Faith from what isn’t. Sadly, Church history is full of examples of how such man-made things as liturgical practice became for some Christians more important that othodox Christian doctrine and practice drawn directly from Scripture. I earnestly hope that you are not “majoring in minors” and allowing aesthetic and antiquarian interests to become more important than they should be in your life as a Christian.

    With reference to an “Augsburg Movement,” I believe that we already have it, and that, like the “Oxford Movement,” it is replete with false doctrine and practice.

  8. @Warren Malach #10


    I suspect that we’re on the same page, but getting hung up on semantic arguments. I’m actually not sure what you mean by essential to my faith. To quote a hymn: God’s word is our great heritage. (This happened to be the first song on my i-tunes this morning.) It is on this (God’s Word) that I draw, and on the Grace of God that I rely. I value the Creeds, Confessions and Catechism (I guess the last one is a confession too.) as found in the Book of Concord. I pray daily from the poorly titled Treasury of Daily Prayer.

    My Faith finds its expression in our catholic traditions. Those traditions would be, as stated above, traditions that permit “the gospel of Jesus Christ to be preached with purity and power and without human additions and the two sacraments of Baptism and the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to be administered and offered according to their institution.”

    (As I read that quotation I read Luther to be writing against human additions to the gospel.)

    I’m no sentimentalist, but the other parts of liturgical tradition touch me. Do they bring about salvation, or justification? No. Do they provide a connection to the catholic church? Well, as the foreword to the Treasury of Daily Prayer states: The prayers we pray, [I’d include the liturgy] we pray with one another– with those pilgrims who have gone before us and with those with whom we travel in this life to the next. And ahead of us all goes Jesus– the”founder and perfecter of our faith” and our Great High Priest who continues to intercede on our behalf (Hebrews 12:2; Romans 8:34). And His Spirit intercedes for us when we are not able to pray (Romans 8:26).

    Luther made changes, “corrections” to the mass, but had no desire to abolish it. Even the German mass was intended not to replace the Latin mass, but to educate and draw the uneducated to the Latin mass. It was a way to catechize. Here in Luther’s words:

    “…A Christian has need of baptism, the word and the sacrament not as a Christian (for, as such, he has them already), but as a sinner. But, above all, the Order is for the simple and for the young folk who must daily be exercised in the Scripture and God’s Word, to the end that they may become conversant with Scripture and expert in its use, ready and skillful in giving an answer for their faith, and able in time to teach others and aid in the advancement of the kingdom of Christ. For the sake of such, we must read, sing, preach, write, and compose; and if it could in any wise help or promote their interests, I would have all the bells pealing, and all the organs playing, and everything making a noise that could.”- Martin Luther, The German Mass and Order of Divine Service, 1526.

    All I need for worship is a community, “Baptism and the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to be administered and offered according to their institution,” and to pray as Jesus taught us. I can worship with liturgical song, or praise band, with Bach coral or banjo, but I find my faith expressed most clearly in the traditions of the western church. Like you “my personal faith in Christ [is] established and maintained by the Gospel” that faith is expressed in what I do, including how I pray.

  9. Erich: I still don’t understand the extent to which your liturgical interests are essential to your Christian faith, and not a matter of adiaphora. I would certainly avoid a “contemporary worship” service in preference for a “traditional liturgical” service, but that is a matter of personal preference about what is adiaphora, UNLESS it was proven that the “contemporary worship” service contained errors of Scriptural doctrine and practice.

    I am concerned about the extent to which “schwaermerisch” feelings can take the place of objectve Scriptural content in determining what is a “proper” form of worship.” I believe that those who prefer a “traditional liturgical” service can be just as guilty of being ruled by their “feelings” as those who prefer a “cotemporary worship” service.

    I am “conservative” by cultural as well as other standards, and I feel pretty much completely alienated from modern society. I dislike most modern films, television programs, and books. I will even avoid such modern “art forms” as much as possible. I am currently reading a 19th century German historical novel by Felix Dahn in English translation. I listen exclusively to “classical music,” and that only into the first half of the 20th century. I prefer the TLH over any other Lutheran hymnal, although I believe that the ELS’ ELH is the best of the modern hymnals. I dislike the form of the Nicene Creed in the WELS CHRISTIAN WORSHIP hymnal, and have returned to reciting it on Communion Sundays according to the form in the TLH. I prefer Lutheran “chorale” hymns (I appreciated your typo “coral”!) to any other for both their texts and their music. I like a “moderately high” liturgy with chanting of the Service on Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. I like the historic vestments, although I personally “draw the line’ at chasubles as an unnecessary revival.

    However, I have to “reign in” these preferences in ecclesiastical usage IF and WHEN they begin to destroy the distinction regarding what is adiaphora and what is not. When “liturgical renewal” advocates promote “every Sunday Communion” as a test of being a “confessional Lutheran” because of AC XXVIII, or teach a false doctrine of the Ministry which puts the laity in a “Babylonian Captivity” to the clergy, this goes beyond “adiaphora” into legalism, and must be opposed. The historical example of the “Oxford Movement” does not bode well for the current “Augsburg Movement.”

  10. Warren,

    Sorry for the late response. I had a lot of work to do in my studio. I’m a printmaker and have a couple of shows coming up that I needed to prepare for. I’m sure you would not like my work, as I am squarely of my generation, which is X. However, I’m rather catholic in my tastes which range from the contemporary to the ancient, although I must admit the late 18th and early 19th century have a special place in my heart.

    Perhaps it’s my being an artist that informs some of my liturgical interests. However, taste aside, my interest in liturgy is an expression of my faith rather than my faith growing out of the liturgy. I think that answers the question of “the extent to which [my] liturgical interests are essential to [my] Christian faith, and not a matter of adiaphora.” I seem to continually be returning to “Christian Liberty,” or as I think the latest publication calls it “Christian Freedom,” in which Luther explains how good works come out of our faith. For me that is the liturgy. It is a good work that comes out of my faith. Doing it well, doing it beautifully is an expression of my faith.

    As far as taste goes, of course there is much there that can be omitted (I think WELS doesn’t vest at all.) but the vestments are a visual clue as to what is happening, what the job of the moment is. It’s a catechistic moment.

    Sadly, again, I feel that we’ve taken up a lot of space here, but I look forward to corresponding on another post at another time.


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