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Does Germany Still Care About Luther?

At the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, Luther's homeland has turned its back on him

Matthias Lohmann and Ryan Hoselton, writing on The Gospel Coalition’s website, lament the fact that Germany, the 1517 birthplace of the Reformation, has turned its back on Protestant Christianity (and Christianity in general). Sure, Germany is holding lots of celebrations of the Reformation this year, but its collective heart isn’t in it, say the writers. Excerpt:

[F]ew in Europe see the relevance of the Protestant Reformers’ theological and spiritual vision for today. Many dismiss their doctrinal and ecclesial agenda as a mask for furthering the political and economic interests of power-hungry royalty (or, unintentionally, of zealous peasants). Others blame the Reformation for leading Europe into divisive wars and struggles with disastrous and abiding social consequences. Most Europeans view the Reformers’ beliefs as intolerant, passé, and petty.

With few exceptions, Europe’s churches more or less agree. To advance ecumenical relationships with Catholics, the EKD will officially commemorate the anniversary as a Christusfest (festival of Christ) rather than celebrate it with the label “Reformation.” There’s little cause for celebration anyway, as most churches have long abandoned—or, at least, significantly revised—the Reformation’s core doctrines: sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. While the Roman Catholic church still officially rejects Scripture alone, European Protestant church leaders and university theology faculty now place the authority of human reason, the claims of higher criticism, and individual conscience over Scripture. Grace alone is of little consequence in an age when ministers minimize sin and maximize humanity’s inherent goodness and free will. It appears Erasmus won the debate with Luther over the bondage of the will after all. Faith alone and Christ alone have been replaced by the supposedly humbler positions of “We don’t know” and “Many paths lead to God.” And soli Deo gloria is the forgotten sola, known in Germany today only through the SDG inscribed under Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions.

Even the bulk of Europe’s evangelicals and free churches (i.e., those without ties to the state) see little use for the theology of the Reformation. The Reformers’ quest for biblical and spiritual depth has been substituted for deep anti-intellectualism and shallow experientialism. Ministers have largely traded the Reformers’ emphasis on the Christ-centered preaching of the Word for theater performances and moralistic guidelines, and the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has warped into therapeutic individualism.

“Christusfest”?! Good grief. This is the Reformation we’re talking about, and they’re just watering it all down (in the same way Pope Francis is doing, by the way). This is the kind of ecumenism I do not like: an ecumenism of promoting the lowest common denominator. I have never seen my friendship with Christians from other churches as dependent on either of us giving up our doctrinal truths. In fact, I feel that I am on more solid ground talking to Christians who are true-believing Protestants or true-believing Catholics than with those who don’t seem to take the things that divide us seriously.

Of course there are plenty of Christians in every church who lack charity, and refuse to see the brotherhood in Christ that unites us all, despite our very real and important divisions. I regret that, and want to work against it. That said, even as someone who is naturally more sympathetic theologically to Roman Catholicism than to Reformed Christianity, I can’t help feeling that something important has been lost with “Christusfest”.

Newsweek wrote a piece last year about how Luther’s faith is dying out in Luther’s land. I found this passage arresting:

Here is the paradox: Under East Germany’s Communist dictatorship, where churchgoing was frowned upon, congregations were larger. Indeed, the Protestant church and its pastors and members were arguably the most important factor leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“In [East Germany], the church was a home for those who didn’t support the regime, and everything the church did had public significance,” said Christine Lieberknecht, Thuringia’s prime minister, a Christian Democrat who served as a pastor under the Communists.

As a teenager in the late 1980s, Jana Fenn attended a Christian youth group in Jena, East Germany because, she explained, “You could say things there that you couldn’t say in school, and you learned things there that you didn’t learn in school.”

But one day, Fenn said, her teacher wanted a chat: “She asked, ‘What do you do on Friday evenings?’ I said I went to the Christian youth group. Then she asked who else was there and what we did.” Even though attending the youth group meant Fenn and her friends were exposing themselves to official repercussions, they didn’t let their teachers intimidate them.

But today Fenn no longer belongs to the church. “I go to a service every now and then, but the church doesn’t have a role in my life,” she said. “It doesn’t really stand for anything anymore. I could just as well join Greenpeace.”

Added Pollack: “Catholics criticize their church more vocally than Protestants theirs, but they also feel a very strong connection. Protestants don’t feel such a strong connection. The Protestant church is seen more as an institution that runs daycare centers and provides social services.”

Tolerance and acceptance – who could criticize such benign values? That’s exactly the Lutherans’ problem. “People don’t know what exactly the church represents,” said Pollack. “It’s having a hard time differentiating itself from other organizations within civil society, from trade unions or political parties.”

(For the record, the Catholic Church in Germany is not in much better shape.)

People get that the churches stand for nothing — this is a price paid by churches for trying to hard to assimilate to modernity. It’s true for us too, and this is going to become ever more clear over the next few decades. A church that doesn’t represent much more than being nice and offering social services isn’t going to succeed, and in any case is not really a church.

Notice Lohmann’s and Hoselton’s complaint about Evangelicalism’s “deep anti-intellectualism and shallow experientialism.” This must be what Al Mohler was talking about in the much-discussed podcast interview he did with me some weeks back, when he asked me if I thought Evangelicals have what it takes to do the Benedict Option (= form a strong, resilient, countercultural Christian witness to post-Christian modernity). I told him genuinely that I didn’t not know. He responded that no, Evangelicalism does not have these resources, but if Evangelicals will return to the magisterial Reformers of the early Reformation, they will find everything they need.

I see that Dr. Mohler and other Protestant leaders are going to be speaking at a Reformation conference in Germany later this year, in which participants will be urging a return to Reformation roots. Let me ask you Evangelical, Lutheran, and Calvinist readers: What you think of Dr. Mohler’s claim? Does Evangelicalism have what it takes to do the Benedict Option? Why or why not?

And, what would it mean to return to Reformation roots, either in a Mainline context, or an Evangelical/free church context? I’m asking because I’d love to know. The broad success of The Benedict Option project depends on the answer.

UPDATE: Long, interesting comment from Pastor Brian:

Evangelicalism is tough to define anymore. For that reason I no longer refer to myself as an evangelical, but rather as an orthodox Protestant, or a confessionally Reformed Christian, even though I would fit neatly in the old definition of an evangelical. (For more on this, see Martyn Lloyd-Jones “What is an Evangelical?” and Ian H Murray’s ” The Old Evangelicalism.”)

But evangelicalism, as it is widely constituted today, does not have the chops to survive. It is shallow, experiential and emotional, fad-driven, and quite anti-intellectual. It consciously seeks to mimic the culture and is terrified of seeming “irrelevant,” never dreaming that its actual relevance is only to be found in not seeking cultural relevance as the sumum bonum. It will give away the store to be popular.

There is also a strong undercurrent of eschatological pessimism associated with Dispensational Premillenialism, coupled with a jingoistic Americanism that fundamentally sees America and Christendom as almost synonymous. The cultural decay we see all around us seems, therefore, to be totally unprecedented in human history. Therefore we’re in the End Times. Therefore, there’s no sense in worrying much about the future. The idea that history could go on for another two millennia (or that God could allow global warming to ravage the planet) or the center of world Christianity could shift to Africa or China in that time, and America cease to be “Christian” would almost be seen as heretical unbelief.

Meanwhile younger evangelicals are busy recapitulating the 20th century church’s fatal embrace of theological liberalism. As long as it’s packaged in an emotionally compelling way, their elders can be induced to swallow it as well, as “The Shack” easily demonstrates.

Within the more conservative strains of Reformed and Lutheran Protestantism there are other problematic dynamics. I have many Lutheran friends, but I’ll stick to generalizing about the Reformed. There is a spectrum in the PCA, for instance. The disciples of Tim Keller are almost as ready to give away the store in the name of reaching the culture as the mainstream evangelicals are, and there is a small but significant number of these Young Turks who are busy trying to combine AngloCatholicism and hipster feminism into a small enough package to smuggle into the PCA. On the other extreme are the Confessionalist Conservatives (with whom I mostly identify, tho less and less) many of whom seem to be suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Carl Trueman’s denomination is chock full of these. The focus here is on doctrine in an increasingly nuanced form, but it’s not particularly connected to real life most of the time. They tend to build small, unattractive churches full of Christians with advanced degrees in physics or engineering. They love doctrinal controversy, not because they love controversy, but because they love debating ideas. But regular people have no desire to follow the subtle arguments and hate the atmosphere of conflict coupled with a lack of any recognizably pleasing social interaction, so they run away pretty quickly. At my worst, I could easily fall into these pitfalls (indeed, I have) but the Lord is graciously restraining me and reshaping me, and by grace I am better than I was.

How would BenOp look among us? Well, I think it would look something like the Early Church combined with the best of the Puritan movement in England, and the Nadere Reformatie in the Netherlands, with a helping of Bunyan thrown in, all leavened with an 18th century missionary spirit. There would be an emphasis on doctrine and catechesis not for the fun of mastering knowledge, but in the assistance of piety. There would be emphasis on spiritual formation in community, as the early Methodists were noted for, along with the regular practice of the spiritual disciplines.

The most important thing, though, would be to create a warm, positive, life giving atmosphere that clearly said, “We’re very, very different in here, and that’s a very good thing.” Outsiders would be very warmly welcomed, but there should be a sense of leaving one world and entering another when they come among us. Our world should be as different…. as enchanted and charming and True, in its own way, as Narnia was from wartime England for the Pevensie children.



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