The way I see it, there are two kinds of Lutherans:
- Evangelical Catholics (Confessional, Quia Lutherans)
- Variata Lutherans (Pietist, Quanteus Lutherans)
What is a Lutheran?
Lutherans (Evangelical Catholics) believe in Sola Fida, Sola Gratia and Sola Scriptora: Faith Alone through Grace Alone as revealed to us in Scripture Alone.
Book of Concord
Lutherans subscribe to the Book of Concord, which clearly states our Orthodox doctrine and Biblical teachings on any theological topic of which you may think. However, exactly how a Lutheran subscribes to the Book of Concord is very important, and this is where the "division" begins to appear. A Quia subscriber says we subscribe to the Book of Concord because it is wholly faithful to Scripture. A Quanteus subscriber says we subscribe to the Book of Concord only insofaras it is faithful to Scripture.
We also have to understand the difference between the Unaltered Augsburg Confession (UAC) and the Variata.
At the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, Lutheran princes presented the Augsburg Confession as our cornerstone declaration of faith. That document, as presented at the Diet of Augsburg, is the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.
The primary author of the Augsburg Confession, Philipp Melanchthon, decided to make changes to this document in 1540 and 1542 in an attempt to reconcile the Lutheran Church with the Geneva Church (John Calvin) by entirely changing the Orthodox "real presence" teaching of Holy Communion to the heretical "remembrance" teaching of John Calvin. This is known as the Variata.
While I don't know if this is a strict rule of thumb, I do not know any Quia subscribers who subscribe to the Variata, nor do I know any Quanteus subscribers who subscribe to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.
This "creeping Calvinism" in the Variata is only the beginning, however, of the "liberalizing" of some who claim the name Lutheran. In the late 17th century, the Pietism movement began with Philipp Jakob Spener. It was not only influential in Lutheranism, but also inspired the Methodist denomination (John Wesley) and the Brethren movement within Anabaptism (Alexander Mack). Eventually, Pietism even influenced the Holiness Movement and Pentecostal churches. This movement further confused and "protestantized" portions of the Lutheran church.
In the Pia desideria, written by Spener, six proposals as to how best to restore the life of the church were made (from Wikipedia):
- the earnest and thorough study of the Bible in private meetings, ecclesiolae in ecclesia ("little churches within the church");
- the Christian priesthood being universal, the laity should share in the spiritual government of the Church;
- a knowledge of Christianity must be attended by the practice of it as its indispensable sign and supplement;
- instead of merely didactic, and often bitter, attacks on the heterodox and unbelievers, a sympathetic and kindly treatment of them;
- a reorganization of the theological training of the universities, giving more prominence to the devotional life; and
- a different style of preaching, namely, in the place of pleasing rhetoric, the implanting of Christianity in the inner or new man, the soul of which is faith, and its effects the fruits of life.
Strangely, this sounds much like today's non-denominational Christianity, and more importantly, the mega-churches that have invaded and degraded the catholic Christianity in America. Pietism also placed a significant emphasis on "simple" Christianity--reducing it to the lowest common denominator in an attempt to re-unify the Church (which, as we can see today, has not worked).
Who are American Lutherans?
In America, we have three predominant denominations of "Lutherans" (there are others, but smaller in membership):
- Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA, or as I prefer, E?CA--I'll explain below)
- Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS, of which I am a member)
- Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS, often considered the most "conservative", but not the most "confessional")
What's the difference?
The ELCA is by far the most liberal of the three American "Lutheran" denominations. They practice the ordination of women and homosexuals (if they are in a committed relationship--not necessarily even married). They practice open communion (allowing anyone to commune, regardless of their belief on Holy Communion). They claim on their official website to subscribe to the UAC, but I have never met an ELCA member or Pastor who does not subscribe to the Variata. They are Quanteus subscribers to the Book of Concord. They value social justice and heavily promote it on their official website. The ELCA was formed after liberal members of the LCMS walked out of Seminary during the SeminEx (Seminary in Exile) starting in 1974. These were seminarians, Pastors and Professors who wanted to "Calvinize" and liberalize the pure teaching of the Gospel. I call them "E?CA" because they aren't Lutheran, but I'm not exactly sure what they are. I don't even like them using the word "Evangelical", for that matter.
The LCMS is the most confessional of the three American "Lutheran" denominations. They are Quia subscribers to the Book of Concord, and hold fast to the UAC. While there is some creeping liberalism in this Synod, the current leadership (President Pr. Matthew Harrison) and a number of solidly confessional Pastors are helping to stamp out that trend and ensure that Evangelical Catholicism is synonymous with the LCMS in America. There are remnants of thought from those who left in the 1970s to form the ELCA who want to transform the LCMS into another liberal synod, which, since they already have that option available in the ELCA, is absolutely silly to me. Thanks to good leadership and a more confessional massing of Pastors than we've had in awhile, I am very hopeful that trend entirely goes away.
While WELS is certainly more conservative than the ELCA, they aren't quite the same as the LCMS. From what I can tell, they are also Quia subscribers to the Book of Concord, and subscribe to the UAC. The three main areas of difference between WELS and LCMS are over fellowship, the role of women in the church and the Doctrine of the Ministry. Largely, though, they are a conservative and fairly confessional Synod (but much smaller in membership than the ELCA or LCMS).
What does this mean?
A meet and right Lutheran question, clearly I am of the opinion that the ELCA (E?CA) should not be considered Lutheran. They do not hold to proper Lutheran or Evangelical teaching, nor do they seem to value basic Christian tenets in their faith. I would even dare to say they are clearly a Pietist remnant, once that is dangerous to the name Lutheran in specific and to catholic Christianity in general.
On the other hand, both the LCMS and WELS (while slightly different) are much more conservative, confessional and in the vein of proper, Orthodox, Evangelical Catholic Lutheranism.
The "cover photo" from my Facebook Page, taken from another solidly confessional Lutheran.
When I speak of Lutherans, I mean a Quia-subscribing, UAC-confessing, Evangelical Catholic, thoroughly catechized, confessional, orthodox, Christ-centered, cross-focused, catholic and apostolic, Word and Sacrament, Law and Gospel, traditional and liturgical Lutheran church.
Others who claim the name Lutheran, but are not even some of the above, are nothing more than Pietists, and I do not consider them to be Lutheran, no matter how frequently they use that name. They are a blight on the name Lutheran and they do not represent our Evangelical Catholic faith.