We have often mentioned our respect for Charles Porterfield Krauth, the 19th-century Lutheran theologian whose Romantic return to sources spurred the creation of the General Council, the Philadelphia seminary, and far more than those.
This choice bit is among our favorite passages from his best-known book, The Conservative Reformation, pages 215-216. While it certainly does not reflect a modern ecumenical spirit, nor even a full-throated evangelical catholicism, it does give a sense of how Krauth understood Lutheranism, especially in relation to Roman Catholicism and tradition. Read it cum grano salis, but by all means read it:
An age of darkness is a creedless age. Corruption in doctrine works best when it is unfettered by an explicit common statement of that doctrine. ... Error loves ambiguities.In the contest with Rome, the Reformers complained bitterly that she refused to make an explicit official statement of her doctrine. Our opponents, says the Apology, "do not bestow the labor that there may be among the people some certain statement of the chief points of the ecclesiastical doctrines."[Members of the Papal party were] reluctant to have its doctrines stated in an authorized form, and only under the compulsion of a public sentiment which was wrought by the Reformation did the Church of Rome at length convene the Council of Trent. Its decisions were not completed and set forth until seventeen years after Luther's death and thirty three years after the Augsburg Confession.The proper date of the distinctive life of a particular Church is furnished by her Creed. Tested by the General Creeds, the Evangelical Lutheran Church has the same claim as the Romish Church to be considered in unity with the early Church, but as a particular Church with a distinctive bond and token of doctrinal union she is more than thirty years older than the Romish Church.Our Church has the oldest distinctive Creed now in use in any large division of Christendom. That Creed is the Confession of Augsburg. Could the Church have set forth and maintained such a Confession as that of Augsburg before the time over which the Dark Ages extended, those Dark Ages could not have come. There would have been no Reformation for none would have been needed.
To modern eyes, it looks a little ... quaint. Too defensive, too recherche. And yet it is, in a sense, our own Tract 90 -- a guide to reading one's central document, and in this case a statement of what it means, or at any rate could mean, for Lutherans to read their history not with an hermeneutic of disruption but rather one of continuity.
Of course, the question is not whose church should get bragging rights for antiquity, nor even -- quite -- upon what basis. The question is what it means for a church to be the bearer of a continuous tradition. Lutherans willing to adopt this hermeneutic of continuity would not, we imagine, be quite so ready to cast aside ancient forms simply because those forms were, technically speaking, adiaphora. They would be moved rather by Melanchthon's summa voluntate, the utmost desire to preserve such forms wherever those were not frankly injurious to the Gospel.
Pace Braaten and Jenson, we wonder whether, of all recent theologians, it has not been George Lindbeck who most nearly succeeds in realizing Krauth's vision in a way that is credible to modern theology. While not so archly confessional as Krauth, he is as deeply engaged with contemporary culture, perhaps because of the differences between his time and Krauth's, seemingly more able to discern continuity without recourse to the Romantic myth of repristination.
We mention all this, it may be worth saying aloud, after eavesdropping on some recent conversations among our colleagues, especially younger ones. We are not surprised to learn that many Lutherans, and many Lutheran pastors, care little about the external forms of tradition, epitomized by worship and discipline. We are surprised -- okay, shocked -- to discover how many of them there are, and how little they seem to care, or even to know, about such basic matters as what vestments to wear and why one might choose to wear them, much less the plain fact that our service books contain orders for both private and public services of confession, on the assumption that such things have a role in church life.
We're not trying to impose a law here, any more than Krauth was. We are trying to hint, as delicately as possible, that Lutheranism, understood not merely as a confessional movement but more deeply as an expression of unbroken tradition, has no need to strip itself down to its undies when it can profitably make use of a full wardrobe. Or something like that.