So What Actually Is a Lutheran?

by Edward F. Moldehnke
translated by Nathaniel Biebert

The following article was translated from the Evangelisch-Lutherisches Gemeinde-Blatt, the predecessor to the Northwestern Lutheran and Forward in Christ, Vol. 1, Nos. 8, 9, and 10 (Watertown, WI: April, May, June, 1866). The original article titled “Was ist denn eigentlich ein Lutheraner?” was anonymously authored. The editor-in-chief at the time was Dr. Edward F. Moldehnke, the first president and professor of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, at that time in Watertown. His two assisting editors were Pastor Johann Bading and Pastor Adolf Hoenecke. The latter would soon replace Moldehnke both as president of the Seminary and editor-in-chief of the Gemeinde-Blatt.

Several factors strongly suggest that this article was authored by Moldehnke. First, the position (first) of the article in the Gemeinde-Blatt makes it a prime candidate for editorial authorship. Secondly, its nature and content suit a seminary professor well. Thirdly, the author mentions in the article that he “once met two families in the backwoods.” Moldehnke was originally the Wisconsin Synod’s exploratory missionary who, beginning in 1862, spent some time “in the Mississippi Valley’s woods while Indians were rising not too far away.”1 Finally, the author also describes in the article a lengthy sermon that a professor gave “at a Reformation festival in my time in the dome at Königsberg.” Moldehnke was ordained at Königsberg in July of 1861 (thus the sermon he heard would have been from an earlier year).

However, more important and interesting than the who is the when. Under the guidance of men such as these editors (especially Bading and Hoenecke), the fledgling Wisconsin Synod was steadily solidifying its stance as a confessional Lutheran church body. A little less than three years after the printing of this article, the Wisconsin Synod publicly declared fellowship with the Missouri Synod, which was widely (and rightly) regarded as the confessional Lutheran church body in America. Articles such as this one certainly contributed to this movement.

To the translator’s knowledge, the article is appearing in English for the first time in what follows. Why has it not been translated until now? Part of the reason may have to do with the content. Moldehnke presents himself as a very proud member of the Wisconsin Synod (ironically so, when one considers that he left the Synod later the same year), and his pride shows itself in a sometimes polemic tone. See footnote 4, for example. Such a comment, while arguably appropriate at the time, would have been an embarrassment to the Wisconsin Synod if printed in English while we were in fellowship with the Missouri Synod, and distasteful if printed soon after the termination of fellowship between the two synods. Now that considerable temporal distance separates the translator from that split, perhaps the author’s polemic will be read more fairly.

The italicized type represents s p a c e d print in the original. Bold typeface represents original bold. The footnotes preceded with a right guillemet (») belong to the original; the rest belong to the translator. Abbreviations for books of the Bible correspond to those in the list of abbreviations in the Concordia Self-Study Bible and the NIV Study Bible.

The translator owes a debt of gratitude to Professor James Korthals of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary for doing the lion’s share of the investigation into the article’s authorship.

The translator found the content of the article to be historically informative and interesting, spiritually edifying, and relevant to many of the discussions taking place in the Wisconsin Synod at present. He prays that any reader of his work may benefit as least as much, if not more. Soli Deo Gloria!

  • 1. E.C. Fredrich, The Wisconsin Synod Lutherans (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 2000), p. 14.

Part 1

Some time ago a letter from a preacher was shown to us in which he declared that he was not deep enough in darkness to be Lutheran, and he would have nothing to do with people such as us. In this way he put the consequence of his theory into practice, even if not in such a vile way as a certain Pastor Körner, who joined himself to a licentious female. Pastor Körner intended by this union to depict the impurity of the church symbolically, like the prophet Hosea (cf. Luth. Kirchenzeitung, Nov. 1, 1865). Another fruit which fell from the tree of our synod like a worm-infested apple at the first gust of wind (to use Luther’s choice expression) was that pastor who wrote to us that he was leaving us with the peel and keeping the fruit for himself – very generous indeed!

Still, these remarks do cause us to shed a little light on the frightful specter of Lutheranism. One may then find that, just as things appear monstrous and ghostlike in the fog, so also the fog in many heads and hearts, not Lutheranism, is to blame for these perverse judgments.

First we certainly must note that much passes for Lutheran and so also is regarded as Lutheran which is not actually Lutheran. There are perverse examples of this sort, but one should not make generalizations from them. I once met two families in the backwoods who considered themselves especially Lutheran. They thought that they would be the only ones with whom the Lord would find faith when Christ returned. Another time I encountered a Lutheran who, at the mention of Harms’ mission, would quickly turn around and run away shouting angrily. (Such excesses are self-reprimanding.) If, as that man maintained, Harms’ mission had been from the devil after the time of the apostles, then we have no reason to celebrate Luther.1 Surely no one would say that prophecy is Lutheran just because Melanchthon used to prophesy off the cuff. It just so happened that he too was self-corrected unexpectedly (rf. No. 7 of our paper).2

Some people think that it is really Lutheran when the fanatics (Schwärmer) are soundly scolded and the Methodists, Albright Brethren, Baptists, etc. are soundly beaten in every sermon. We too certainly think that defending against false doctrine and preserving the truth belong to evangelical confession. But we regard that method of sermonizing against heretics as odd and as a weakness. The story used to be told about the blessed Sander. He could not deliver a single sermon without railing on Napoleon. I only heard one of his sermons, a mission sermon, and it confirmed that allegation. But there are in fact many preachers in this country who, by this kind of attacking, instill in people the notion that true Lutheranism consists in manufacturing a catalog of heretics similar to the Maundy Thursday Bull in Rome.3 We heard about a preacher who brought up and refuted in order all the heretics from Paul of Samosata to the present at every Reformation festival. At least that was more spiritual than something Professor G. did at a Reformation festival in my time in the dome at Königsberg. His lengthy sermon detailed for us the number of volumes in which Luther had this or that work published.

Furthermore, the accusations of heresy in this country go so far that the Missouri Synod even vehemently rebukes the Iowa Synod for receiving offerings from our Wisconsin Synod for the Native American Mission.4 Since one synod is accusing the other of heresy, many often do not know what “Lutheran” actually means. Indeed, many turn to entirely external things. They cling to these things all the more firmly, the less they are clear on what “Lutheran” means.

Thus some people think that the difference between Lutherans and the Reformed emerges from this: We pray, “Father of ours (Vater unser),” but the Reformed pray, “Our Father (Unser Vater).” Luther himself, though, translates Matthew 6 and Luke 11, “Our Father,” etc. And none other than Zwingli says in his Church Order for Zurich of 1529, “Father of ours,” etc.

Likewise people say that “deliver us from evil” is Lutheran, but that “deliver us from the evil one” is Reformed. Yet Zwingli prays in the aforementioned Church Order, “deliver us from evil,” while the Lutheran Church Order of Wittenberg of 1533 reads, “deliver us from the evil one.” Likewise the Lutheran Church Order from Brunswick (Christian Order for the Honorable City of Brunswick by Bugenhagen, 1528) reads, “deliver us from the evil one.”

Some people think that Lutheranism could not exist without altar, candles, crucifix, etc. Let them hear how Luther himself speaks in the German Mass and Order of Service of 1526:

On Sunday we still let vestment, altar, and candles remain until they all fall out of use or it pleases us to change. But whoever wants to do something else in this area, we will allow it to happen. But in the mass proper (celebration of the Holy Supper), among simple Christians, the altar should not remain where it is and the priest should always turn to face the people, as Christ doubtlessly did in the Holy Supper. For now, let that await its own time.

The aforementioned Brunswick Church Order explains:

We let our priests dress in special garments. For their garments do neither any more harm nor good to Christ’s commission than do the coats the communicants are wearing, whether they be red, blue, etc. For this reason we also do not regard these things as necessary, but as free for the sake of love towards others, because they are not forbidden and do not hinder Christ’s commission.

Therefore the Lutheran Church Order of Wuerttemberg explains, “The clergy should no longer wear the gown (Chorrock) during the service, but a respectable and modest outfit that is not too short.” Concerning all such things, the Electoral-Saxon Instruction for the Inspectors of 1528 says that they are done “not to earn grace or to make satisfaction for sin. It is also not necessary to retain them. They are simply useful.”

The same goes for private confession. In this country many controversies have arisen among the Lutherans and many congregations have broken up over this. The Wuerttemberg Church Order of 1553 and the Bremen Church Order of 1534 contain only the public confession and absolution. On the other hand, the Prussian Church Order of 1554, the Pomeranian Church Order of 1542, et al. do not have the general confession, but the specific. Luther speaks of it in the Latin version of the Wittenberg Service of 1523, “But concerning private confession I think, as I have always taught, that it is neither necessary nor to be compelled. It is nevertheless beneficial and should not be despised.” The same holds true for the liturgy and the dialog and antiphon between the preacher and either the choir or the congregation, as beautiful and commendable a liturgical altar service as it is.

It is just as odd when Lutherans do not regard as Lutheran the preacher who adds “universal” (Church) in the Third Article and says, “communion (Gemeinschaft) of saints.”5 Luther talks about the latter expression in his Large Catechism, except he is not translated correctly. It should really read, “a community of saints,” i.e. a holy community. I say this in order that people may understand what these words mean (namely, “communion of saints”), because saying “communion” is beaten down so habitually that it is hardly able to be helped back up again. And when someone changes one word, it will soon be condemned as heresy.

As for the word “universal,” it is the translation of “catholic.” It was probably let go due to misunderstanding, but it is found in the original Latin of the Nicene Creed.6

Part 2

Another perverse opinion is that the preacher who speaks on a free text, instead of on the Gospel or the Epistle for that Sunday, is not Lutheran. Indeed, some are so foolish as to say, “This or that preacher should be rejected; he doesn’t preach the gospel.” And why do they think he does not preach the gospel? Just because he does not preach on the Gospel appointed for each Sunday! Luther says about this (in the Order of Service of 1523), “that one may preach the ordinary Gospel in the morning and the Epistle in the evening, or he may even, if he so desires, take up a book or two (that is, an entire book of Holy Scripture), whatever he thinks is the most beneficial.” In the Order of Service of 1526 he says,

This is also one of the reasons that we retain the Epistles and Gospels as they have been arranged in the postils. There are few gifted preachers who are able to handle an entire Evangelist or other book masterfully and beneficially.

The Latin version of the service of 1523 shows what else Luther thought about the arrangement of the Sunday texts:

The sections from Paul’s letters in which faith is taught are seldom read. Instead the moral sections are given preference, so that the compiler of the Epistle texts seems to have been an unlearned and superstitious promoter of works. It is therefore necessary to incorporate in greater part those texts that teach faith, etc.

So too this order is not commanded by God, but simply useful for several reasons. This is also the case with the exorcism at baptism, which has been kept around longer than other customs like anointing with oil, holding candles, etc. The Local Order of the Duchy of Prussia of 1525 says that baptism should be performed “with the customary exorcisms and prayers,” but also that “no one may turn them into a compulsory necessity.”

Finally, a point that has occasioned especially much division and dissension and which was presented to me by a Bohemian thus: The difference between Lutherans and the Reformed consists in the fact that the former use hosts while the latter use bread in the Holy Supper.7 It is not difficult to examine and see that all by itself this is a matter of complete indifference and that the people should come to an agreement on it in Christian love, instead of turning it into a bone of contention. The same goes for the customs observed in connection with the celebration of the Holy Supper. Whether one sits, stands, or kneels during the Supper, or receives the consecrated elements with the hand or mouth, etc. is a matter of indifference all by itself. Concerning these and other external customs, regulations, and ceremonies, our Augsburg Confession says in Article 7, “and it is not necessary for true unity of the Christian Church that ceremonies instituted by humans be uniformly observed in every place.” Luther:

It is better to give up everything else than the Word, and it is good to promote nothing else more than the Word. It is an eternal Word. Everything else must pass away, even as it causes Martha much anxiety.

Among Christians everything in the service should be done for the sake of the Word and the sacraments.

An order is an external thing. No matter how good it may be, it can still fall into misuse. When that happens, it is no longer an order, but a disorder. For this reason no order is or amounts to anything for itself, as the papal orders have been up to now. But the life, worth, power, and virtue of all orders is their proper use. Otherwise they are worth nothing and are good for nothing whatsoever.

So the keeping of ceremonies and orders8 does not constitute Lutheranism, although so many believe that it does. Of what then does it consist and what then is a Lutheran?

Serving to answer this question is the legitimate and lawful name of our church since the 16th century: Evangelical. A true Lutheran is nothing more than an evangelical. If a person wants to be something more or other than that, then that person is not Lutheran. Thus a Lutheran is one who believes the gospel (Evangelio) and lives according to it, as Luther says so beautifully in his explanation to the First Petition, “where the Word of God is taught clearly and purely and also we as the children of God lead holy lives according to it. Help us in this, dear Father in heaven.” Where God’s name is hallowed, there the true Lutheran can be found. And what is the gospel? It is the good news about Jesus Christ, who makes sinners righteous out of his grace, that is, he forgives their sins and imputes his righteousness to them. The justification of poor sinners out of God’s grace for Christ’s sake is the article with which the Church stands or falls. Whoever does not believe this article is not an evangelical, not a Lutheran.

Our opponents take up the name “Lutheran” as a name of contempt. We use it against Luther’s will and hold to it firmly as a name of honor, not as though we believed in Luther,9 but in order to distinguish ourselves from those who deviate from us in faith and still call themselves “Evangelical.” Certainly we cannot legitimize those who say that the name is not important. The name admittedly does not matter as much as the beliefs. But the name should still match the beliefs. Now if the beliefs were the same, just bearing the name “Lutheran” would not matter to us at all, and we would gladly return to the original “Evangelical.” But there seems to be little chance of that happening anytime soon.

Part 3

Lutherans demonstrate their faith in the gospel simply by holding firmly to God’s Word, defending it, combating unbelief and errors, opposing all who deviate from Scripture, and confessing privately and publicly with Luther: “Sooner may the heavens crash in than one single little kernel of truth perish” [cf. Lk 16:17]. At the same time Lutherans demonstrate their faith by doing all this in love, as Luther also says: “I am free by faith; I am bound by love.” Thus they do all this in such a way that love takes nothing away from faith or the truth, and faith takes nothing away from love. So we see that holding firmly to God’s Word and apprehending the truth must be accompanied by love. “If I could prophesy and knew all mysteries and all knowledge and had all faith, so that I could displace mountains, but did not have love, I would be nothing” (1Co 13:2). Those who only carry the pure doctrine and the genuine evangelical faith in their head and not in their heart, and still think that their faith will suffice and that they do not need love, are holding a very dangerous position. Besides, faith and knowledge need to be distinguished from each other. Lutherans have the roots of their faith in justification by grace for Christ’s sake, and from this starting point they seek to know the entirety of Holy Scripture and to examine their faith in this context. There are many degrees of knowledge here, and very often what is said in Isaiah 65:8 holds true: “Do not destroy it; there is a blessing within it.” Thus many a person, who is turned away by bitterness, would have been won by love. For love, not hate, makes things better. Let no one misunderstand us: We are speaking here of a love that rejoices in the truth and makes use of the rod. We are not talking about that indifference in matters of faith and that fanaticism which pass for real love in this country.

Furthermore, since Lutherans have a simple faith in the Word of God and strive after love (1Co 14:1), they are flexible. Certainly they are not flexible in matters pertaining to the Word of God, but definitely in all those outward ceremonies and orders about which we have just spoken.10 From the first this has been a characteristic specific to the Lutheran Church, while the Reformed were breaking any connection to the Middle Ages even in outward matters. How Luther and Melanchthon would have done everything allowable, if only the Roman Catholics would have given the gospel free course! So we have retained hosts in the Holy Supper, organs, liturgy, crucifixes, images, candles, etc., because none of this is contrary to God’s Word.

At the same time, for the sake of the faith, the following questions must also always be asked in reference to church rites:

  1. Can Lutherans, although they are free through faith, allow their opponents to reject as godless, for example, the crucifix, the hosts, making the sign of the cross, and the like? By such opposition a thing that is free and indifferent all by itself is turned into a serious point of contention, is it not?
  2. Certain rites have a particular connection to false doctrine (e.g. the breaking of the bread as a sign that Christ’s body is not present, or the elevation of the host for adoration in the Catholic cult, etc.) and are made out to be necessary. May a Lutheran embrace such rites for the sake of peace?
  3. Do Lutherans have the right to break their church’s customs and rites at will when those customs and rites do not contradict the Word of God? For example, is it just as proper to baptize by immersion as it is to baptize by sprinkling? May a Lutheran now breach the order of the church and introduce other customs?

Certainly not, if Lutherans are truly free in faith and bound in conscience. For the same God who has made them free from all outward regulations is a God of order. He does not want consciences to be confused by the knowledge of the strong. He rather wills that “freedom not turn into an offense of the weak” [1Co 8:9]. So then Lutherans, as Holy Scripture and our confessions in agreement with Scripture present them, are disciples of Christ in a faith that, like the eye, cannot tolerate even one particle of dust, and in love that accepts the weak, has mercy on the enemy, opposes every lie and delusion, and does not rejoice in injustice, but in the truth.

So let us be Lutheran. The more Lutheran we are, the better.

  • 1. The translator struggled to translate and understand the point of this section in the original. Moldehnke is probably referring either to Claus Harms’ “mission” or goal of combating rationalism, especially with his revised 95 Theses, or to the Hermannsburg Mission Society, which was founded by Ludwig Harms.
  • 2. Moldehnke is referring to a brief article in the previous issue written by Carl F. Goldammer. A footnote near the end of that article reads: “When Melanchthon was in Cassel visiting his friend Melander, he saw a half year old child lying in the cradle. He prophesied to the child on the spot that he would one day become a very learned man, etc. The father laughed and said, ‘If only it were a boy! That’s a girl.’”
  • 3. The Maundy Thursday Bull “excommunicated and cursed all heretics and schismatics, and all who without the Pope’s permission read, owned, or printed books written by people of another faith” (Dr. Fredrik Nielsen, The History of the Papacy in the XIXth Century, trans. Arthur James Mason [London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, W., 1906], 1:69). Its reading on Maundy Thursday has been omitted since 1770.
  • 4. » The fact that we are not regarded as Lutheran by the Missouri Synod (who in turn are denied genuine Lutheranism by the Buffalo Synod), but rather receive from them such titles as liars, imposters, etc., does not surprise us. We also should not expect otherwise from people who need to make public apologies for their coarseness.
  • 5. The wording “communion of saints” is commonplace and acceptable to English speaking members of the WELS today. But our Lutheran ancestors were more familiar with Gemeine, “community” or “congregation.” Moldehnke is asserting that Gemeine and Gemeinschaft (“communion”) essentially have the same meaning.
  • 6. » Caspari, in his explanation of the Small Catechism, asks, “Why has this Church also always been called ‘universal’ or ‘catholic’?” He answers, “Because it is no longer made up of a particular people, as in the Old Testament, but it is supposed to span all the peoples of the earth without distinction.” ― Erdmann Neumeister (The Most Holy Faith, p. 164) says, “In the Latin, the word is indeed ‘catholic.’ By itself, it is a very good name and means the same thing as the one, true, universal Church. Only because the papists apply this word to themselves and boast that they are and are called Catholic has the word ‘Christian’ been preferred as a substitute for it, in order not to lead the common man astray.” [It is unclear in the German article where Neumeister’s quotation ends. The punctuation here seems to be preferred. – trans.] ― Already prior to Luther the word catholica had been translated “Christian” (christlich). The Church is called universal, because not only is it meant for all peoples, but it also confesses the universal doctrine of the apostles and prophets without adulterating or mutilating it.
  • 7. It is unclear whether the misunderstanding is one of terms – hosts vs. bread – or of elements – unleavened wafers vs. leavened bread. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Deutsches Wörterburch identifies the German Hostie as conforming to the Latin hostia, “sacrificial victim.” Perhaps then the Reformed thought that the term “host” carried too much Roman baggage, which would agree with the former understanding. However, Moldehnke’s language leans more toward the latter understanding. Concerning the latter, cf. Prof. Joel Fredrich, “The Lord Jesus Institutes Holy Communion,” p. 4.
  • 8. » We wish that more detailed treatises and further information from the old church orders concerning the particulars of the points mentioned here would be sent in for the benefit of our congregations.
  • 9. » Erdmann Neumeister (Supplement to the Epistles [or Gleanings from the Epistles; German: Epistolische Nachlese], p. 294): “I believe neither in Luther nor in Luther’s doctrine, but in the pure, apostolic word of God which Luther has purified from the yeast of the papal errors.”
  • 10. The 2009-2010 Catalog of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary states that one of its objectives is to “instill in its students the kinds of attitudes that will assist them as they carry out their ministry in the contemporary world” (4). It then goes on to list some examples of these attitudes, one of which is being “appropriately flexible.” Moldehnke, the Seminary’s president and sole professor almost a century and a half ago, would have wholly approved.