This essay appeared in the first issue of the newspaper that Dr. Walther started in the mid 1800s to advance and promote confessional Lutheranism in the USA. It remains a very helpful walk through the various reasons why we continue to use the name “Lutheran.” The translation below has some rough patches, but it serves the purpose of putting this text, in English, in front of us for study and discussion.
Concerning the Name “Lutheran” by C.F.W. Walther
Translated by Mark Nispel
From: Der Lutheraner, Vol. I, pp. 2-4, 5-7, 9-12
PART I – September 1, 1844
A. Is it wrong to use such a name?
Isn’t it wrong to use the name “Lutheran”? We did not shy from giving our periodical the title “the Lutheran” and so we consider it our duty to give answer to those who might ask us what this name means and why we would use it. There have been many people at all times, as we well know, that have been offended that the Lutheran Church should be named after Luther, or any man. ‘Why’, they ask, ‘can’t everyone see in light of this that this church could not be the true church of Christ but instead only the work of a man, a sect?’ ‘Indeed,’ says another, ‘you Lutherans should read what St. Paul says about such names of men. In 1 Corinthians 1 and 3 he says: “it has been reported to me that there is discord among you. I am speaking of the fact that among you one says: I am of Paul! and another, I am of Apollo! and a third, I am of Christ! How can this be? Is Christ divided. Has Paul been crucified for you? Or are you baptized in the name of Paul? — So one says: I am of Paul! the other, I am of Apollo! Are you then not fleshly? Who is Paul and who is Apollo? They are servants through whom you believed.” Are you listening, Lutherans? It is cried out to us: Don’t you do the same thing the holy apostle condemns here in Corinthians when you name yourselves Lutherans? You continuously say that one should always follow the letter of the Scripture precisely, then why do you not do so here?
There are not a few honest Lutherans who become quite embarrassed when this is said to them by our opponents. But this accusation is so fictitious, that it will be shown to be without basis as soon as we consider the matter more closely. First, it is a mistake if it is believed that Lutherans took this name for themselves. History reports to us instead that they were first given this name by their opponents in order to insult them. Dr. Eck, who held that well known disputation with Luther in Leipzig, was the first to call those who held to Luther’s teaching by that name. We see clearly what Luther thought of this in a writing which he completed in 1522: “Admonition Against Insurrection,” in which he says among other things:
I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians. Who is Luther? The doctrine is not mine. I have been crucified for no one. St. Paul in 1 Cor. 3:4-5 would not suffer that the Christians should call themselves of Paul or of Peter, but Christian. How should I, a poor stinking bag of worms, become so that the children of Christ are named with my unholy name? It should not be dear friends. Let us extinguish all factious names and be called Christians whose doctrine we have. The pope’s men rightly have a factious name because they are not satisfied with the doctrine and name of Christ and want to be with the pope, who is their master. I have not been and will not be a master. Along with the church I have the one general teaching of Christ who alone is our master. Matt. 23:8.
This judgment of Luther is as clear as the sun. he did not want in any way that the church should be named after him and even less did he want this to happen for his own glory.
Let no one imagine that in and of itself it is wrong when Christians let themselves be named after a man. This is shown undeniably by the fact that the church of the Old Testament was named by God himself after a man. What did He call them? – the Israelites. Didn’t Christ himself say of Nathaniel: “See, a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” What was Israel? He was a man. Therefore it is clear, it depends on the sense in which the children of God are named after a man. In that alone can there be sin. In which sense and on what grounds did the Corinthians name themselves of Paul, of Apollo, of Safes, of Christ? In this fashion, as we can read, they wanted to separate themselves from one another. Although Paul, Apollo, and Peter (or Safes) taught one and the same thing, the Corinthians rejected the others when they chose one. They separated themselves from one another by taking on a name and setting up factions. The sin for which Paul rebukes the Corinthians exists not only in that they named themselves after a man but instead that by doing this among those who had the same orthodox doctrine they wanted to establish divisions. Therefore the apostle himself rejects the name “of Christ” as the name of a sect (which some of them were using) when they wanted to establish division with it. Paul does this even though this last name is not taken from a man but from the Son of God himself. Now true Lutherans have never named themselves after Luther in this forbidden sense. With this their name they have never wanted to depart or separate from other orthodox teachers. They declare their allegiance as Lutherans to Athenasius and all true teachers of the Gospel in all times and lands just as much as to Luther. Luther himself was far from wanting to be the only true teacher. He publicly writes among other things about a friend, the Würtemburg theologian Brentius: “I value your books so highly that my books entirely stink when I compare them to your books and those like them. I am not mocking you here. I am not dreaming and I am not saying something to insult you. I will not be deceived by my judgment, for I am not praising Brentius, but the Spirit that is in you is much friendlier, and full of love and joy than the spirit in me.” Certainly no one speaks this way if he is trying to lead a sect. But Luther speaks this way because he wants to be nothing more than a witness of the truth.
Therefore, we do not call ourselves Lutherans after him in the same way that we are called Christians on account of Christ. We are not called such because we believe in Luther. As highly as we treasure this vigorous witness, in our church we still do not accept so much as a word in matters of faith simply because Luther said it. Rather, we accept his words only in the instance that it can be shown written clearly in the Word of God. We do not accept him as any apostle or prophet but rather we know that he was subject to error and sin like other men. He is not the head of our church. He is not our pope. Therefore whoever accepts everything in blind faith simply because Luther said it is separated from the true Lutheran church as far as earth is from heaven and day is from night. In this manner then Luther wrote to Melanchthon in 1530 who was at the Imperial Council in Augsburg [confessing the Lutheran faith to the Emperor and the Roman Catholic Church, tr.]: “It does not please me in your letter that you write that you have me as the head of this matter and have followed it on account of my reputation. I do not want to direct or command anything, nor will I be called the author. And even if someone might find some kind of correct understanding in using that word I do not want it. Isn’t this matter likewise yours and does it not fit you as well as me, therefore one may not say that it is mine.” Just as Luther refused any improper esteem in the church so our church has not improperly honored him. Just as it says in the beginning of the Formula of Concord, which is one of the most important public confession of the orthodox Lutherans:
We believe teach, and confess that the one rule and guide, according to which all doctrine and teachers should be judged is the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and new Testaments alone. Other writings of old and new teachers whatever their name should not be considered equal to the holy Scriptures, but rather all of them together one with another are subject to it and together are taken only as witnesses of how much and at which places after the time of the apostles such doctrine of the apostles and prophets were kept.
So finally we ask ourselves, do we call ourselves Lutherans in order to show that we cling to a new doctrine which Luther first 300 years ago brought forward? Read more…