Christian TraditionsLutheran (LCMS)Theology & Spirituality

On Lutheranism as “Reformational Catholicism”

On Lutheranism as Leithart’s “Reformational Catholicism”

As a theologically conservative Lutheran who acknowledges the debt my faith owes to generations past, my celebration of the Reformation is bittersweet. What began as a pushback against corruptive authoritarianism and the exploitation of the weak eventually became an insurmountable, blood-soaked divide within Western Christianity. In this venue and others, I have argued in defense of the rigor and merit of Catholic thought, and in so doing critiqued the problem of conducting theological reasoning exclusively from Westminster or Augsburg onward (or, in the case of many American Protestants, from the Great Awakening onward). As someone who continues to embrace a Lutheran Christian identity, however, I aim to briefly outline how and why I am Lutheran while simultaneously cherishing much of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Ex ante, I strongly believe in deference to apostolic authority and Church tradition regarding the core (dogmatic) elements of the faith exposited at the early councils. However, I also contend it is a duty of man to apply the tools of natural reasoning–within the ambit of the historic creeds–to understand the significance of Scripture and tradition on a day-to-day basis.

Consider a pond into which a rock has been cast–that rock being the world-shifting entry of Jesus Christ into human history. As one moves farther and farther from the central site of impact, the ripples become indistinct, and it may be difficult to differentiate between the ripples caused by extrinsic forces (e.g. the wind) and those ripples which proceed outwardly from the initial landscape-shifting impact. Similarly, as one moves away from the realm of metaphysically propositional faith-claims (“God is Triune”) and toward narrower applications/implications (“the arms trade is a violation of Christian principles,” “the works of past saints accumulate in a heavenly treasury of merit”), both the temporal and epistemological limitations of the human perspective become clear. One necessarily operates from inference, to some degree, in making moral determinations within the framework of both natural and revealed Christian truths: as circumstances and controversies continue to diverge from those outlined explicitly in Scripture and the teachings of the early Church fathers, inference from first principles becomes critical (and, I submit, increasingly difficult).

There are certain spaces where moral reasoning within the Christian intellectual tradition may prove inconclusive or where multiple arguments appear plausible (for instance, the argument from “natural law” that the marital act be an act directed towards procreation, which I have challenged elsewhere). To overcome this objection, one may assert that the magisterial authority of the institutional Church trumps the conclusions one has independently reached about what the natural law requires. However, in that event it cannot be argued (as does the Church’s catechetical doctrine) that such non-dogmatic claims are self-evident, natural truths. In short, I posit that some second-order claims (i.e. “the natural law requires X attitude”) are non-obvious. This non-obviousness provides inferential support for the idea that legitimate disagreements may exist in good faith within the Christian community, within a framework where certain core truths (the historic creeds) are shared. Thus, one may individually read the Scriptures while considering the work of the Church—namely, the Church’s work in developing both foundational dogmas and the doctrines that proceed from them—but need not acknowledge an enduring charism of infallibility (i.e. the Pope’s ability to make binding pronouncements on matters of faith and morals).

It has been discussed at great length elsewhere that Martin Luther did not see himself as the founder of a Protestant identity, but as a reformer of what already existed. This, I contend, is the proper attitude for a Lutheran to hold: a “reformationally catholic” perspective, one that recognizes a great chain of Christian wisdom and tradition from the apostolic period onward, but which affirms that not all outgrowths of that chain are of the same authoritative status. Indeed, the incorporation of natural reasoning in challenging second-order institutional pronouncements (e.g. John Tetzel’s declarations) was characteristic of Luther’s writings.

I lack the theological training or philosophical acumen to articulate a clear, all-purpose brightline between “historic and authoritative Church doctrine” and “areas where legitimate moral disagreement may exist” – and indeed, debates over this brightline will likely endure until the end of time. That said, I wholeheartedly embrace my Catholic, Nestorian, and Orthodox brothers and sisters as fellow members of the Body of Christ, with whom I share a common apostolic and Nicene foundation. Thus in my view, to take distinct pride in one’s Protestant identity is to err. As Peter Leithart has argued persuasively, “Protestantism is a negative theology; a Protestant is a not-Catholic.” Whether in Wittenberg, Rome, or the patriarchates of the East, Christ Jesus crucified is proclaimed; that is something Christians of all stripes can celebrate.


Image courtesy of TJ Flex2.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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