It’s one of the BIG QUESTIONS that all religious groups wrestle with: How do you hold to fundamental beliefs and bedrock traditions — while adapting to cultural change and expectations?
Bishop David Olson, the acting bishop of the New York Metro Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, opens his column this week like this: “What will Lutherans of the next generations believe? Belief, doctrine, even theology seem to be waning.”
Seem to be waning. Hmmm.
Instead of summarizing the rest, I’m going to give you the whole thing:
Seminaries have added practicalâ€”stewardship, administration, staff work, financeâ€”and contextual courses, partly due to the frustration of laity and many pastors that they werenâ€™t equipped for some essential ministries. One result is less attention to the Bible and historical theology.
Then thereâ€™s worship. Many congregations experiment with praise songs, alternative prayers, contemporary music, less scripture, and new styles of preaching. The accepted liturgies of our denomination reflect our beliefs, but when these beliefs are not learned, Lutheran theology is thin or absent. Of course, the publication of ELW with one liturgy in ten settings hardly straps us in. Bach is not God, and music has always reflected the times.
Similarly, key teachings and formulas are being modestly made gender-neutral or more inclusive. Is it as orthodox to say, â€œBlessed be the Holy Trinity, one God, the fountain of living water, the rock who gave us birth, our light and our salvationâ€? Or must we say, â€œIn the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spiritâ€?
Those who use such alternatives are not unthinking or unorthodox. They are reading their audience and encountering barriers to receiving the Word. They perceive that many are biblically illiterate and spiritually impoverished. They would like to bridge a growing gap, especially to the young, to the post-Christians or post-moderns who simply discard any kind of religious thought. They are indeed fishing for men and women.
The study of human sexuality is a particular case. The current draft does not presume marriage as an order of creation, as Lutherans have for centuries. It proposes incarnation and justification instead of natural law as an acceptable, Lutheran basis for an ethic to guide us in matters of sexuality. Carl Braaten writes that this confuses Law and Gospel, a fundamental Lutheran lens for reading Scripture and guiding Christian living. Are orders of creation or Law and Gospel absolutes and the core of our faith? Are alternative Lutheran themes as valid? To pose this one high-voltage dilemma succinctly: Will a whole generation of young adultsâ€”most of whom accept homosexuality as a givenâ€”be alienated? Or must we better persuade and teach them our tradition in this matter?
And how important in preserving our traditions are our ecumenical partners? We are intentionally growing closer to them, accepting and reconciling teachings our ancestors rejected. If we can make such ecumenical agreements for unity, can we not adapt Lutheranism for a mission to redeem and reclaim all peoples? If we reconcile with the Presbyterians our fathers in faith disavowed, we must be able to reconcile our faith in changing modern times. After all, we are the Reforming church.
Again, I invite you to consider not the merits of new or old liturgies, formulas of our faith, or current ethical topics, but simply how do we hold to the faith handed down to usâ€”what we call Lutheranism? Should we? And if so, what parts must not be changed?