There are so many Christian denominations out there, what is “Lutheranism” and what does it mean to be “Lutheran”?
Despite what it may seem, Lutherans are not ones who follow Martin Luther. Though we recognize Martin Luther as a great teacher of the faith, he is only a man and a witness to someone greater than himself. That someone greater is Jesus Christ, our Lord. Jesus is the object of our faith and focus of Lutheranism. The term “Lutheranism” only comes into play to help distinguish our confession of the Christian faith from the other confessions, or denominations. Luther himself hated the designation, but for the sake of clarity the term stuck.
So when we say “Lutherans”, we are not talking about followers of Martin Luther, but ones who stand in agreement with Luther on his devotion to Christ and interpretation of His Word. This, then, forms our confession of faith. Each confession of faith, what we more commonly call “denominations” or “movements” or even “independent churches”, has something to say about Christ and His Word. This confession underpins their teaching and lays the foundation for their proclamation, whether it is publicly acknowledged or not. In other words, when someone asks you what you believe about Jesus you will share with them your confession of faith, and this is what we are called to do:
But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
So what is it that Lutherans have to say about Christ and His Word? The Lutheran confession of faith is contained in the Book of Concord. This book is a collection of documents which lay out the creeds and the basic teachings of the Lutheran Church. It is a summary of Scripture as it lays out the doctrines, or teachings, found within. Therefore, the Book of Concord is not looked at by Lutherans as authoritative in and of itself, but authoritative because it contains the truths of Scripture. For apart from Scripture, no confession of faith has any authority whatsoever to speak. Therefore, the Book of Concord is careful to only say what Scripture says: not any more, not any less. To do otherwise would go against Christ’s command and warning found in Revelation 22:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (v. 18-19)
Our confession begins with the three ecumenical creeds: Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian. This is to show that what we have to say concerning Christ and His Word is in line with the historical confession of the ancient Church. Then come the documents that lay out exactly what Lutherans “believe, teach, and confess”: The Augsburg Confession, The Apology to the Augsburg Confession, The Smalcald Articles, and The Power and Primacy of the Pope. Next are two instructional documents: The Small and Large Catechisms. Last is the Formula of Concord, meant to address controversies that arose early on in the Lutheran Church.
These documents compiled into the Book of Concord form the basis for the Lutheran confession of faith and all point to the person and work of Christ as the center of our faith, and His Word as the ultimate authority. As the ultimate authority, Lutherans take great care to handle God’s Word rightly. Our main framework for interpreting the Scripture is “context, context, context.” The Word of God is a comprehensive witness, and not simply a “collection of pearls from heaven”. Therefore, each and every verse is connected to the verses around it to form a whole thought, a whole paragraph, a whole letter/book, a whole testament, the whole Bible. Therefore, when interpreting a single verse, a Lutheran keeps in mind the whole witness of Scripture for Scripture never contradicts itself.
We also pay close attention to the genre: is it narrative, is it wisdom literature, is it prophetic, is it didactic, is it exhortation, and so on? It would be reckless to interpret the the Song of Solomon the same as the Gospel of Matthew, or the Book of Revelation the same as the Letter to the Romans. Poetic and prophetic books make use of symbolic language (such as the 144,000 in Revelation that becomes the great multitude that no one can number), while narratives use more concrete language. The genre of the verse also impacts how we interpret the verse. Ultimately, the goal and aim of Lutheranism and Lutherans in general, is faithfulness to Christ and His Word in all we say and do.
In fact, Lutherans will claim that anything that is faithful to the Word of God is “Lutheran”, even if the person who wrote/composed it is not Lutheran themself. Thus, we count many hymns as “Lutheran” even though a Methodist, etc. wrote it, or we count parts of the liturgy as “Lutheran” even though it came from Roman Catholicism, etc. If it is faithful to the witness of Christ and His Word, then it can rightly be called Lutheran and we will use it as such. This focus and devotion to placing Christ at the center of all we do is truly what it means to be a Lutheran.