Sunday, January 6, 2013

Lutheran, Three Months Later

This is a follow up to my previous post, concerning my experiences attending a Lutheran church.

What can I say? I loved the church I attended while at college. I seem to have a liking for the "high church" style, which has elements reaching far back into the centuries. The intense symbolism, the ancient doctrines, just the general feel of it was something that was great for me. One Saturday night, after having not been to the church in a couple weeks, I actually looked forward to arriving there in the morning.

One of the hardest things for me insofar as embracing Lutheranism has been the doctrines. Keep in mind that I've spent the last four years in a type of church that has existed a scant century, although much of its doctrines have been around a lot longer. I've been approaching this from a rational perspective, because that's how my personality works. I want to understand things. Some of the hardest things for me to understand or accept thus far include things like this:

Absolution: one part of the things a Lutheran pastor says during a church service is, "As a called and ordained minister, I forgive you of your sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Wait, a human is forgiving me of my sins? That's not even Biblical! (Unless you are Catholic.) In any case, I've already had my sins forgiven at the cross! I did a little research on this and found that the pastor isn't actually attempting to forgive my sins in this statement. Rather he is acting as a mouthpiece for Christ. When he says this, what he is doing is reiterating that we have been forgiven. He is saying "Your sins are forgiven" on behalf of Jesus, which I think is acceptable for a pastor. This issue is resolved for me.

Baptism: this is the one that has given me the most pause, and it's only recently that I've come to terms with it. At first, there seems to be an irreconcilable contradiction in Lutheran theology. In works such as the Large Catechism and Book of Concord, Martin Luther writes that baptism is necessary for salvation. But hold on a second, wasn't the entire point of Luther's desire for reformation an attempt to change the "faith plus works" salvation preached by the Catholic Church? How could he then say that without baptism, a person can't be saved?

I spent a good few weeks trying to sort this out. I talked with several people about it, pastors and laymen alike, to try and get an understanding. At first it seemed like they were simply playing word games, hiding a works-based salvation behind semantics. At one point I felt like I was being BS'ed and wanted them to just spit it out plain and simple. Subsequently, however, I've come to a greater understanding of the Lutheran perspective of salvation and the role baptism plays in it.

According to the LCMS, the branch of Lutheranism I'm interested in, baptism is not absolutely required for salvation. Whether or not that means a person can knowingly forego it, I'm not sure. That said, they do believe that baptism is the way you receive salvation. Now, if you're skeptical like I was (and still am a little) you may say that they're preaching a "faith plus works" salvation, which runs counter to the thrust of the Reformation. Martin Luther once wrote something about us needing something to cling to for our faith, or something along the lines of that, but honestly unless I'm missing out on context that is an incoherent argument. Anyway, let us consider what the word "work" means in regards to salvation. It's something you do to gain salvation. Catholics, to the best of my knowledge, hold that things like baptism, the Eucharist, confession, penance, and so forth are things you do to get and maintain salvation. A work is an action done by man toward God, to get divine acceptance.

In Lutheran theology, baptism is not a work because in it we are not doing something to earn God's grace and forgiveness. It is the other way around. In the sacrament of baptism, the human is submitting to and receiving God's grace and mercy. It is an action done by God toward man, giving salvation and the other gifts with it. In a way, it's actually the opposite of a work. Now to some that may come off as a bizarre explanation. I myself am not completely sold on it either, but there is logic to it.

One of the results of me digging so hard on this topic is that I've come to have a greater appreciation for baptism. It has been, I think, unfairly downplayed in the last 400 or so years by those who would say it's merely symbolic. There are many verses that connect baptism with salvation. Two passages show Jesus telling his apostles that we are saved by faith and baptism, and in Acts, on the day of Pentecost the apostle Peter also says "Repent and be baptized" for salvation. With how heavily emphasized it is, more so than Communion or hearing the Word it seems, treating it so lightly is amiss. Thus to a believe who reads this, if you are not baptized and have the opportunity to do so, I ask - indeed implore - that you be baptized. There is no reason a follower of Christ would forego something commanded by Jesus himself and strongly emphasized by those who worked under his authority.

I also wish to add this. I believe in the concept of baptism of desire. This is where a person has faith and wishes to be baptized, but for some reason dies before they get the opportunity. Consider the thief on the cross that asked Jesus to remember him. Jesus essentially declared the man saved, even though we have no reason to think the thief was baptized.

Lastly, baptism is ineffectual if the person does not already have faith. I'm talking about people who are able to make decisions for themselves. That doesn't include infants.

Infant baptism: Surprisingly, this practice was performed in the early church. I say "surprisingly" because it's often maligned. There is some weak but credible Biblical support, although I can't say I fully agree with the action or its reasoning. Nonetheless I consider it a minor issue, nothing to part ways over.

Jesus's presence in Communion: I was first taught that Communion was a symbolic act re-enacting the Last Supper and encouraging us to examine ourselves to see what sin still lie in us. Per Lutheran doctrine, it's another act that empowers us spiritually. I can understand and accept that proposition. What's bothered me is the idea that in the bread and wine used for the service, it's believed that the actual body and blood of Christ, more specifically its essence, is present in the food and drink. Physically it is not there, but in essence it is. The Lutheran theology differs slightly from the Catholic theology concerning this.

Now this sounds like blatant cannibalism. Being told to eat the flesh and blood of someone. I did some studying on this and the lines of reasoning used to defend why this is not cannibalism is a little wacky, but I suppose it does hold. It is a little disturbing, however. What surprised me was when I discovered that even the early church thought the body and blood was present in the bread and wine of Eucharist. It's not some mystical concept contrived by the Catholic church centuries after the fact - as best as we can tell, this was believed basically from the start of Christianity.

One of the many carry-overs from Catholicism that the Lutheran church keeps is the concept of closed communion. In the three months that I have attended Lutheran churches, I haven't been able to be part of the Communion service, because I'm not a member. The Bible says only people who are Christian should take Communion. I guess that in the first couple centuries of Christianity, only the people who were part of the church were the ones who could take communion. As the church grew and more formal administration was developed, some sort of records were kept to see who was and wasn't part of the Christian church. Not being a committed member of a church probably meant you weren't Christian, thus taking Communion would, as the Bible says, drinks judgment upon yourself. This evolved and became such that only a person registered as a member could take Communion, and the method was carried over into Lutheranism.

I don't necessarily begrudge the fact that, as a non-Lutheran, I'm not entitled to join their Communion. It's not like I'd lose my salvation. It may come off as a bit stringent but I don't have a quarrel with it.

Jesus's descent into Hell: My understanding has long been that Jesus went from the cross right into heaven. But one of the lines in the Apostles' Creed, which has existed in some form since the time of the early church, states that Jesus spent some period of time in Hell. I'm a bit iffy about this. At one point I would have agreed with it, but now I'm not really sure. There is some Scriptural credibility for it. And since the early church seemed to have believed this, it's even more compelling. Now normally I would just consider this a minor issue and move on. However, this isn't just any old piece of doctrine. This is something that, apparently, had been believed from the earliest days of Christian faith. I'm undecided on it, personally.

If I were to go through Confirmation in the Lutheran church, one of the things I'd be asked is if I believed what the Apostles' Creed said, including the part about Jesus descending into Hell. I want to be sure that it's true before attempting such a thing. (Edit: Ephesians 4:8-10 seem to say Jesus did indeed descend into Sheol, also called Hades, which was translated somewhat incorrectly as Hell in the Creed. This along with the verse talking about Jesus preaching to the dead seems to indicate Jesus went into the part of Hades where the righteous were awaiting redemption, spoke of what had happened, and led them into Heaven.)

To finish things off, I'd just like to say that I'll probably never agree completely with Lutheran theology. Or the theology of any denomination, for that matter. There's little details and nuances which I see differently, for example the age of the Earth (I'm an Old Earth Creationist). Nonetheless I like the beliefs of the LCMS and feel that it's pretty close to what the first followers of Christ were taught. An absolute copy? Probably not, but one of the better things we got.

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