Confessional Lutheranism as Ideology and the Salvation of Unbaptized Infants
How Confessional are “Confessional Lutherans”?
Why has Lutheran theology made so little headway in American church life these last 200-odd years? I used to think that Calvinism and its American mutations–and Papism–being at root theologies of glory and the law, were hardier plants than Lutheranism. They made more sense to fallen reason, I figured, being theologies of glory and of the law instead of theologies of the cross–that is, emphasizing that the righteousness of God is found in the offense of the cross, in the weakness and foolishness of God.
I think there is probably some truth to my earlier thinking. But then I had to come to terms with the fact that the Lutheran Churches in various African countries and other parts of the world don’t seem to have the same problem as Lutherans in American. People know the difference in Madagascar between “Lutheran” and “Catholic” or “Baptist.” How did that happen?
I submit that part of the problem is that Lutheranism in America–that is, Lutheranism among those who want most to be faithful to the Lutheran confession–often takes on the character of an ideology. Then, as with all ideologies, it becomes noxious to many people. Ideologies are usually presented by their adherents as the answer to all questions. A person with an ideology wants to convert you because if you would only think the right things the nation/church/world etc. would be better.
Anyway, Lutheranism is, I propose, too often an ideology. The difficulty is that American Lutherans, by and large, are estranged from the real Lutherans. Very few read German and/or Latin, so Confessional Lutheranism as an ideology is boiled down to a handful of “loci” or “distinctives.” And then these distinctives are turned into catchwords that we repeat amongst ourselves. And then a handful of smart guys interpret the slogans and apply them to church politics or to the faults of the evangelicals. Herein lies the problem–Lutheran theology ends up not as it actually is but as the theology of denunciation or the theology of “distinctives.” Because it has to be distinctive, we actually end up critiquing things that need to be taught correctly. Lutheranism becomes limited to the slogans.
The problem is that the slogans, which are perhaps useful for exposing American evangelical theology’s inroads into Lutheran churches, can easily be used to denounce the Lutheran fathers.
Another problem is that pure doctrine is not an ideology; it’s not the answer to every question, it is not the worldview which, if grasped, leads to a crossless world. Suffering is not diminished by pure doctrine but increased. And, it is not an ideology in that it gives power to the elite. Pure doctrine is not the hidden knowledge of the few which serves to exalt them. It is the good news preached to the poor. It makes those who believe it more lowly, servants and slaves of all men.
Thus we have a problem when Lutheranism becomes the ideology that our congregations must be faithful to; the ideology that we must die for nobly in church conventions. It is true that Lutheran theology has enough to offer in terms of aesthetics, spirituality, and intellectual stimulation for all of us who were taught that under no circumstances could we ever do anything for the sake of duty and tradition that we personally at the present time, weren’t interested in. However, that’s not what it’s all about. There is a reason why people who did not have college educations and who did not read the Book of Concord were saved in Lutheran Churches. It’s because the Gospel is Jesus’ voice to His bride. It is His comfort to those who mostly are not elite and are not impressed with intellectual exercises. That is why there are holy older women at my congregation who, despite the fact that the catechism was not always taught as it should have been, know how to pray much better than I do.
Confessional Slogans and Groupthink v. 16th c. Lutheran Confessors
Example. A Lutheran married couple loses a child in the 6th month of pregnancy. The couple has prayed that God would take the child to Himself in heaven, but it could not be baptized since it died before it was born. What comfort can we give to the parents?
If you ask most Lutheran pastors–I mean those who subscribe to the Lutheran confessions–they would say something like, “We have a merciful God.” In a discussion about this issue with some very well read pastors, there was the suggestion that parents who delayed baptism endangered the salvation of their children; that it was heretical to suggest that an infant could be saved apart from Baptism–or at least, that we could have certainty about it.
So…I think our lack of familiarity with the Lutheran fathers contributes to a reductive, polemical American Lutheranism. It has done us no favors with our own people and has hurt us in speaking to American Christendom, because by making Lutheran theology into an ideology we too often end up with a theology that has answers to every question but does not comfort sinners (not as it might), or causes us to take positions that are repellent.
Does Jesus commend us to an unknown, ostensibly merciful God? Or does He reveal His Father? Does He tell us facts about the Father, or does He bring us (and our little ones) into the Father’s Kingdom? Jesus does not come with ideology. He comes with blessing and salvation (or judgment). He comes and heals, or pulls Peter out of the sea; He forgives sins, He dies on the cross. But He never comes with some new topics to discuss about God.
We end up being against wrong teaching, but after we’ve finished tearing down the faulty piety taught by evangelicals, we have little to give Christians in its place. The forgiveness of sins divorced from living piety, or downplaying prayer in reaction to the errors of evangelicals, leaves Lutherans with the doctrine of justification as an ideology grasped by the flesh.
From reading the works of Lutherans that haven’t been translated for a few months, it has become apparent that Lutheran Orthodoxy is broader and richer than the slogans to which it is sometimes reduced.
What follows is a first draft of a translation of part of a book called “Concerning Unborn Children and Children Who Cannot be Baptized”, written by Martin Luther’s pastor Johannes Bugenhagen and published in Wittenberg in 1551. I first found out about Bugenhagen’s writing about unbaptized infants from reading at random in Krauth’s Conservative Reformation. The same line of thought can be found in one of Luther’s sermons in the Church Postil in the Sundays after Epiphany on the centurion (who brought his servant to Christ in prayer.) Johann Gerhard repeats these thoughts later on. I hope that at some point I can either get this into a paper so it can be made more widely known to pastors who have to minister to people who have lost their children before they could be baptized, or just get the references to Logia so that they can publish excerpts in the section of the journal where they put short readings.
My translation is rough, but I’m pretty certain that I haven’t made any errors in transmitting Bugenhagen’s teaching on the matter here. The last few sentences contain some very interesting statements, but I am very tentative on my translation there, so I’ve marked those sentences so that I can run them by someone who’s better in German than I am. So I wouldn’t quote this translation yet.
However, may God make it useful anyway, even in the form it’s in!
Johann Bugenhagen “Concerning Unborn Children and Children who cannot be Baptized”
“Concerning Unborn Children and Children Who Cannot Be Baptized”
p. 62 f.
But we say that children are conceived and born in sin and cannot be saved without Christ, to Whom we carry them in baptism. Here we have a gracious judgment, secure and certain: “Let the little children come to me…etc.” This we won’t allow to be taken away from us; it does not mean a secret counsel of God or a dark illusion, but instead God’s gracious promise that the kingdom of heaven belongs to our children. Thus they are brought to Christ, because without Christ there is no salvation. For that reason the children of Turks [Muslims] and Jews are not saved—because they are not brought to Christ.
Yes, I say still more on the same promise of Christ, that the parents, or others who are present, may and should take the little child in prayer even while it is still in the womb, and with thanksgiving for Christ’s command, offer or bring it [to Him] together with this or a similar prayer.
“Beloved heavenly Father, thank You that You have blessed us with the fruit of the womb. Beloved Lord Jesus Christ, let this little child be Yours, as You have said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, because such is the Kingdom of God.’ On this Your promise we bring this child with our prayer. When it is born and comes into our hands, we will also gladly bring it to You to carry it to you in Baptism, etc.”
The prayer, of course, may well be said using other words. That doesn’t matter at all, as long as the prayer proceeds only from the promise of Christ concerning the little children. Thus we should certainly believe that Christ accepts the child, and should not commend it to the secret judgment of God.
We have, then, two strong promises from Christ which we cannot deny, but in which we can firmly trust. One is that He has called us to pray and has graciously promised to hear us. And to this He has sworn: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name, so it will be.” John 16. The other is the promise concerning the children: “Such is the kingdom of heaven. Let them come to Me.” Here we Christians should understand that whether we carry the little children to Christ in Baptism or with our prayers, we carry them to Christ in person, here and now, and He is also present and takes them up and accepts them here and now. Because Christ is in His Word and promises, in His Sacrament, and in our prayers which have been commanded us.* Yes, truly, in us ourselves—effectually, presently, and substantially.** Oh, what an unspeakable grace of God!
*It appears to me that this is what is being said—“and in our prayers which have been commanded to us—“ but for this I really need to consult with some people to make sure I’m not wrong.
** I’m not completely clear what these last 3 adverbs say exactly. But the point of the entire section seems to be—Christ is present in Word and Sacrament. But He is also present in our bodies; He dwells in Christians, fills them, He prays in them and does good works in them. So when I bring my child to Christ in prayer, He is not far off so that I am unable to bring my child to Him, but He is present also in the bodies of the saints.
- Paul’s rebuke of Peter as argument for open communion (geneveith.com)
- Integrity and Outreach (lifetogetherinmns.wordpress.com)
- Enemy Identification (immanuelandimmanuelblog.typepad.com)
- Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Or were you too busy having a beer with Caiaphas and making snotty jokes about Galilean piety? (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
- Martin Luther’s Ambassador: An Unclean Frog Spirit (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
- How the church has been feminized (happolatismiscellany.wordpress.com)