How to spot the difference between a "Confessional" Lutheran and an "Evangelical Catholic" Lutheran

Fr Fenton has a very interesting post over on his Conversi ad Dominum page. I believe his suggestions for Lutheran engagement in dialogue with Orthodox are equally relevant to Lutheran engagement with Catholics in dialogue. For that matter, they are relevant for engagement of anyone in dialogue. Bottom line? If A and B want to dialogue, it is not helpful to start with an “A vs. B” approach to begin with.

But I was intrigued by his mention of the Augustana Ministerium, and his comment that most members

would identify themselves as either “confessional Lutherans” or “evangelical catholics”–or both.

I am intrigued. How does a “confessional” Lutheran differ from an “evangelical catholic” one? And more over, what does it mean to be one but not the other, or (alternatively) both at the same time?

I never reflected on it much when I was a Lutheran. There was a time when I fully owned the “confessional” tag–but became a little uncomfortable with that label after a while and adopted “evangelical catholic”. Here’s how I understand the two terms.

1) A “Confessional” Lutheran is a Lutheran whose entire theology is constructed through the lense and seive of the Lutheran Confessions. Of course, the Scriptures alone are the only infallible source of all doctrine (the “norma non normata“, that is the “un-normed norm” or the “norm which is not measured against any other norm”), because the Confessions say so. But the 16th Century writings gathered together in the 1580 Book of Concord (otherwise known as “The Confessions”) are the ultimate benchmark for interpreting any interpretation of scripture or ecclesiastical tradition (although they remain the “norma normata“, that is the “normed norm” or the “norm for all teaching measured against no other norm except the Scriptures”).

Stick with me if you have followed me this far. The other thing about Confessional Lutherans is that they are quite convinced (with good reason) that there is no other honest way of being Lutheran. To be Lutheran is to be a Confessional Lutheran. If you do not teach according to the Confessions, you are by definition not a real Lutheran. In the end (and I don’t want to be unfair here) this can lead to the strange situation where being “confessional” is all about being authentically Lutheran, rather than about seeking that which is universally true.

2) An “evangelical catholic” Lutheran on the other hand is one who is convinced that the Reformation was right in its fundamental proclamation of the gospel (as summarised by the four “solas”: Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone and scripture alone). However, they also hold in high regard the teachings of the Church Fathers and the traditions of the pre-Reformation Church–sometimes also the traditions of the present day Catholic Church. Evangelical Catholics believe that the reformation was a “tragic necessity” to return the Church to the truth of the Gospel, but believe that only those doctrines and practices in the Catholic tradition which contradict the Lutheran doctrine of justification (“the article upon which the Church stands or falls”) are to be rejected–the rest can be accepted or reinterpreted as necessary. Evangelical Catholics see themselves as a bridge and a via media between two camps (Roman Catholic and Reformed Evangelical): authentically evangelical and authentically catholic.

Now often there is overlap between these two camps. In fact, rarely will you find an Evangelical Catholic Lutheran who does not have a high regard for the Lutheran Confessions. However, over time, the Evangelical Catholic gradually finds himself attempting to do a bit of a “John Henry Newman”/”Tract 90” job on the Lutheran confessions. He finds himself reinterpreting the “norma normata” not only against the Scriptures, but also against the Catholic Tradition. In other words, he begins to slip from the sure and certain ground of confessional Lutheranism (which in its modesty only ever claimed to be certain about what it was to be authentically Lutheran) and begins to ask what it is to be authentically catholic. [For some reason, the question rarely frames itself in terms of what it is to be authentically evangelical.]

He then finds (as Past Elder pointed out recently in the comments) that it is very difficult to be authentically small-c catholic without actually being big-C Catholic. And once he reaches this point he is on the slippery slope downhill to full blown Roman Catholicism. It is well known that few who describe themselves as “Confessional” Lutherans have entered into full communion with the Bishop of Rome. Guided solely by the Lutheran Confessions (interpreted with the backup help of scripture) they know Rome’s errors too well to fall for its tricks.

On the other hand, just about every Lutheran convert to the Catholic faith was at some time a self-professed “Evangelical Catholic”. As with the Anglo-Catholics, Evangelical Catholics will only ever be secure in the Lutheran Church so long as they remain convinced Confessional Lutherans at the same time. This itself remains difficult, however, because they have already conceded another norm as well as the norm of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, namely the Catholic Tradition. And it does not take long for him to realise that his order of authority has shifted from Scripture-Confessions-Tradition to Scripture-Tradition-Confessions. And when this happens he finally realises that the disjunction between the witness of the Tradition and the witness of the Confessions to the apostolic faith is simply too great to be sustained.

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