7 Core Themes of Lutheran Theology
— in no particular order
ELCA Lutherans are guided by the plain meaning of scripture.
This is not the same thing as a “literal” or “fundamentalist” approach. Instead, we begin by asking what scripture plainly meant to those who first heard it long ago. At the very least, this requires a study of history, social-political contexts, literary styles, and ancient languages. Once we have a good idea what scripture meant, we are in the best position to consider what it means for us today. The approach taken to understand scripture leads to very different conclusions about what it means, particularly for women, the GLBT community, and many other social issues. The bible is “the sole source and norm of faith and life” for all Lutherans. ELCA Lutherans are committed to a centuries-old pattern of biblical scholarship that combines faithfulness, critical thinking and the most up to date information available.
We celebrate two sacraments: Baptism and Communion. These, along with proclamation of the word in preaching, song, and prayer, are at the center of Lutheran life and worship. Together word and sacraments are called “the means of grace.” Weliterally and mysteriously encounter the living God in and through word and sacraments.
Of course Lutherans recognize other less certain ways God encounters us too, such as in nature, dreams, through loved ones, or even strangers. But through word and sacraments we are confident God is active in our lives, often in ways that go beyond understanding.
Lutherans believe we draw closer to God (i.e. become justified) by grace through faith in Christ and not by our good works.
For Lutherans, this is the heart of the gospel. Grace, not karma, defines our relationship with God. Karma is the idea that what you put out comes back to you; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; you reap what you sow. Because grace is God’s free gift it upends this way of life. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts the consequences of our actions. Grace means our future need not be determined by our past. This is why the gospel is called “good news.” God has looked past our faults to respond to our needs.
Martin Luther drew from Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians by insisting that faith is key. Faith is neither primarily intellectual (that is, having the right knowledge about God) nor emotional (that is how firmly or how sincerely one believes). Instead, Luther emphasized faith is relational. It is a form of trust. We are justified through faith because faith alone trusts God’s promise of forgiveness for Christ’s sake.
Lutherans believe God sets high standards for interpersonal and social responsibility, and even higher expectations for mercy and thanksgiving.
Theologians call these law and gospel. They’re two sides of the same coin. Law is God’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Gospel is the free gift of love that is always, already, freely and abundantly extended to us through faith. The law provides inspiration for the construction of morals and public order. But the law can only accuse us. We all fall short. We need grace to save us.
As Lutherans strive to live a Christian life, we remember that grace always comes first, followed by the law. Good works are the result of grace, not the means of securing it. Yet no matter how much we learn and know this, we admit to struggling. We continually place the cart of the law before the horse of grace. We place pride in our good deeds before the gift of God’s grace. This makes Lutherans continually humble before God, relying solely upon grace through faith and repentance to set us right again.
Lutherans believe they are simultaneously both saints and sinners.
Lutherans cling to a “both/and” understanding of Christian identity that redefines a saint as a forgiven sinner. Our dual identity as saints and sinners reminds us that our righteousness depends on God’s grace, never on our own religious behavior. We recognize that sin remains a powerful force in the world and in ourselves. This gives Lutherans a realistic ability to confront cruelty and evil, confident that God will have the last word.
As Luther once wrote to Melanchthon, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”
Lutheran theology embraces paradox. “Both/and” thinking characterizes the Lutheran approach in talking about Christ as both servant and king; shepherd and lamb; host and food; hidden and revealed; the beginning and the end.
Lutherans believe Christians become priests through baptism into Christ, called to service using gifts unique to their particular area of work and vocation.
The term “vocation” literally means “calling.” Until Luther’s time it was used primarily to refer to those with a special religious calling to be a priest, monk or nun. Luther expanded the idea to include all Christians.
Luther affirmed that all human work is a calling from God if done in faith and for the service of neighbor. According to Luther, God doesn’t need our good works, but people do. Christian faith, then, expresses itself in how we live out our professions, in how we attend to family relationships, and as we fulfill our responsibilities as citizens. These are all important and worthy arenas for service to our neighbor.
Lutherans take a cross-centered approach to theology. By contrast, a “theology of glory” is focused on obtaining power and majesty either for the church or our self. In the incarnation God put aside divine power and perfection to become human, to suffer and to die. We worship the God who chooses to come down from heaven and chose not to come down from the cross. For Lutherans, the theology of the cross is a constant critique of human expectations. While the cross is a scandal to the ways of the world, Christians confess God’s saving power works precisely through such weakness (1 Corinthians 1:23-25, 2 Corinthians 12:9).
There are many other themes of Lutheran identity we could name. For example:
- Lutherans are catholic –accountable to the full history of Christian tradition and the hurts, hopes and needs of all people universally.
- Lutherans are ecumenical. The ELCA is in full-communion with six other Christian denominations, including the Presbyterian Church, USA; the Reformed Church in America; the United Church of Christ; the Episcopal Church; the Moravian Church; and the United Methodist Church.
- Lutherans are engaged in the world through social service agencies, colleges, schools and advocacy for justice worldwide.
Lutherans affirm we are equally created, equally sinful and equally redeemed members of the body of Christ, set free by God’s grace to live our baptismal calling. In word and sacrament, our identity does not end with our individual, particular selves, but in Christ extends beyond ourselves to include faithful people of all places and times. This fact inspires Immanuel’s mission to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. –Pastor Monte