The False Antithesis: "Not Lutheran but Christian"
I veritably believe that no single factor has wrought so much damage in Christian theology, in the field of moral behavior, and in practical church life, as the false antithesis. The use of the antithesis in argument, in the exposition of an idea, in teaching and in sermons, can be very valuable. As striking antithesis cannot easily be forgotten. In recalling it one remembers also the whole argument or context in which it was spoken or in which it appeared. The value of any antithesis, however, is completely dependent upon the question whether it is really an antithesis. Too many popular antitheses are antithetical only in form. Too many antithetical statements that one hears and sees in print are too much like the sentence: That plate is not round, but white. Nothing but confusion, wrong thinking, and damage of various kinds can arise when the antithesis is forced or strained or false, when, in short, there is no antithesis, and when it is no longer a case of: Not this, but that, but of: Both this and that. Of such a kind is the antithesis that concerns us in this short essay. I have heard frequently from fellow pastors, especially from those engaged in home or inner missions, that their job, as they see it is not to make Lutherans of the unchurched or "outsiders" whom they contact, but to make Christians of them. Now, I believe that this sentence is almost wholly wrong, so wrong, in fact, that it amazes me that it could have gained the popularity it has actually achieved. The situation is an excellent example of the power of the antithetical statement, its power for evil as well as for good.
The most obvious criticism of the statement before us is that there is no antithesis between the two phrases. A person can surely be a Christian and a Lutheran at the same time. (I suppose all Christian communions would grant this, but the sentence is actually made from the standpoint of the Lutheran faith itself.) This is almost too obvious, and it is perhaps a trifle pedantic to push the sentence to its strictly logical limit. Those who employ it mean rather: We are concerned first and foremost in making Christians of people, not in making Lutherans of them; not Lutherans first of all, but Christians.
But is it really possible for a pastor, or any other church worker for that matter, to set up as his goal that he is going to make Christians of people? However laudable in intent, this goal or aim in fact goes beyond the power and ability of man. One might possibly defend it with the Lord's injunction matheteusate panta ta ethne, "make disciples of all nations." We will not quarrel with this text, but it its well to be aware that the goal there set is one which we can never be sure of having reached. In that section of the De Servo Arbitrio where the famous sentence occurs: abscondita est Ecclesia, latent sancti, Luther says that he will grant that the saints mentioned by Erasmus are such, but only by the law or standard of love, not by that of faith. "I do not deny that they are saints," he says, "but it cannot be proved that they are, if any one were to deny it." This uncertainty as to the result of our preaching of the Gospel and of our ministerial labors underlines for us again that our whole life and works as Christians, and as Christian ministers particularly, is a life of faith, only faith, nothing but faith. The words of John the Baptist mark out for all ministers of the Word the humility which should characterize their attitude as well as the limits of their competency: "I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." Ministers of the Word can administer the means of grace, and they must learn to do this well and not poorly, but they cannot bring about the salvation of the sinner; that the Lord has kept for Himself. But the sentence with which we are concerned does suggest that to make Christians is as much within the capabilities of men as the making of Lutherans, and that we can know then we have done the one as we can when we can have done the other. But this is simply not true. Lutheranism we can teach and test by appropriate questions and examination procedures, but whether a person is truly a Christian or not, really one with the Lord by faith, this we can never know or test in this life.
The sentence implies further: we know that we must do to make Lutherans, and we know what we must do to make Christians, and the second is our real task, not the former. So there is an importance about the one aim not matched by anything so important in the other. There is a plus about making Christians as compared with making Lutherans. This thought leads us to the very heart of both Christianity and Lutheranism and the relation between them. A number of questions must be put the pastor who would defend the statement being examined here. What is there in Lutheranism that is not Christian, falls short of being Christian or goes beyond it? Something there must be, and the defender must know what it is, else he could not make the statement at all. And the question that follows is a very serious one: What is the pastor doing to eliminate the non-Christian element in Lutheranism? Or more seriously still: Why is he content to remain passively in what is partly at least a non-Christian situation without doing anything to right matters? If the pastor is capable in his ministry of eliminating the non-Christian, but Lutheran, elements, then, if he is at all earnest and sincere in his devotion to the Christian faith, he should be actively engaged in eliminating this element in the whole church to which he belongs, not merely in his personal ministry. He should not willingly, without protest, continue in a fellowship which is as such devoted to some Lutheran, but non-Christian activities. The more seriously any Lutheran pastor means the antithesis under attack, the more serious an attack it is on the church to which he belongs, and the more seriously the question arises whether he should continue to be a Lutheran minister at all.
A further modification of the antithesis seems to be indicated at this point of the argument, for hardly any of the pastors who use the phrase in point actually see in it a criticism of the Lutheran faith to which they are committed. Their point is rather something like this: only true faith joins to Christ and makes any person a Christian, not an accurate reciting or explanation of the Lutheran catechism. This is very true, but the concern cannot be met by the Lutheran-Christian antithetical sentence. And why not? Two further answers may be given besides those already contained implicitly in the observations made so far. First, it is doubtful whether any Lutheran pastor, brought up as a Lutheran from childhood, as most of us are, and trained in a Lutheran seminary, is likely to give any but a Lutheran witness, his presentation of the Gospel will fall almost inevitably into Lutheran grooves, follow the Lutheran pattern. Secondly, no convinced Lutheran would want to give anything but a Lutheran witness, for Lutheran witness is to him Christian witness. Lutheran witness, if it is really such, is Christian witness; Christian witness, if it is really such, will also be Lutheran witness. The whole point of the Lutheran Confessions is that they are the true response of faith to the Gospel and the Word of God. With this faith and confession we hope to stand in the judgment of the Last Day. There are of course various ways in which a Lutheran witness may be given and many ways in which it may be phrased, but we Lutherans know of no truly Christian witness which would not at the same time be truly a Lutheran witness.
A final bright beam of light is thrown on the whole problem which we are investigating by the scriptural teaching of the church and the means of grace. Faith is produced only by the Gospel in Word and Sacraments, the "pure" Word and the "unadulterated" Sacraments. Where false and erroneous and inadequate witness to the Gospel is found alongside the Word and the Sacraments, there the falseness and error and inadequacy are not productive of faith, but a hindrance to it. It is only the truth that is present in any witness given that can be a vehicle of the Holy Spirit. God's grace can save in spite of the error present at any time, but is not powerful and operative in the error as such. No Lutheran doubts that God can beget children through the crusade being conducted these days in various parts of Australia by Billy Graham and his team. But these conversions will not come by means of the false aspects of the witness given -- the neglect of or even contempt of baptism, the emphasis on immediate human decision -- but only through the witness that is undoubtedly given to the grace of God in Christ Jesus and his redemption. If Lutheran witness is Christian witness, then by the promise of God the seed thus sown will not be lost, the word spoken will not return void, but will accomplish what God wills. The Lutheran pastor can have and should have the conviction that his Lutheran and Christian witness has the blessing of God, for it is God's Word and not his own that he is proclaiming. His witness will not lead astray, he will not by a false and inadequate witness put a hindrance or stumbling block in the way of sinners
We may re-formulate the idea and the sentence with which we began. The Lutheran pastor should say: "I make Lutherans of the non-churched, the 'outsiders,' hoping that they will become Christian." Or: "I want the unbelievers to become Christians, and that is why I make Lutherans of them." And why not: "Christian, therefore, Lutheran"?
----- H.P. Hamann.
LUTHERAN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
PUBLISHED BY THE LUTHERAN CHURCH OF AUSTRALIA