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The Problem with “Evangelical Catholicism”

September 7th, 2011
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There has been circulating in Lutheran circles for some time the term: “evangelical catholicism.” People who are fond of this notion describe themselves as “evangelical catholics.” I have, for years, been asking “evangelical catholics” to define it. Doing so is like trying to nail jello to a wall, or herd cats. It just can’t be done. It has been my observation that many of those who describe themselves as “evangelical catholics” enjoying discussing the minutiae of liturgical ceremonies, rites, rubrics, vestments, and so forth, but they are less comfortable discussing precise doctrinal practice and confession.

I’ve never been sure precisely how to articulate the inherent inability of the “evangelical catholic” movement to be genuinely and truly Lutheran, until today, when I read this comment made by Peter Speckhard on a discussion site. It is precisely, spot-on.

I think the problem for the future of Evangelical Catholicism is its allergy to authority of any kind. It hates inerrancy, infallibility, inflexibility, etc. as though somehow that reaction is one of freedom. The problem is that it leads inevitably to a sort of mushy meaninglessness held together entirely by external ceremonies.    

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Categories: Lutheranism
  1. Sven Wagschal
    September 7th, 2011 at 06:47 | #1

    That reminds me of the anglican church family. The uniting band is the liturgy (and the office), whereas in regard to doctrine there is a broad spectrum possible.

  2. Peter Sovitzky
    September 7th, 2011 at 07:36 | #2

    I guess I am one Evangelical Catholic that actually thinks we need more authority. I think one of the problems with the Missouri Synod is we don’t have bishops as the early church did and as our LUTHERAN CONFESSIONS say we maintain. We need bishops to correct false teachings and point out when pastors and congregations are being unfaithful to our Confessions.

    Why do we make such a big deal of the Book of Concord but yet just ignore those articles from the Augsburg Confession.? If this was done at the founding of the Synod due to people being biased against something that was deemed “too Catholic” well, then this was merely done out of ignorance. I think we need to return to our Confessions.

    I think the main reason these Lutherans prefer to call themselves Evangelical Catholics is to distinguish themselves from the other “Lutherans” in the Synod that are simply blatant “evangelicals” in the Willowcreek vein.

  3. Jen
    September 7th, 2011 at 07:57 | #3

    I don’t call myself an Evangelical Catholic, but I certainly do associate with those who wouldn’t take issue with that term, and I understand the motivation to use that term. Never have I seen hatred for authority, inerrancy or infallibility. All are very pleased to discuss precise doctrinal practice and confession.

    • September 7th, 2011 at 08:00 | #4

      Jen, you have a very limited exposure to the “evangelical catholic” many of whom are in groups and organizations that embrace the ordination of women, etc.

  4. Peter Sovitzky
    September 7th, 2011 at 08:17 | #5

    Yeah, I am in the same camp as Jen. I have NEVER heard anybody talking about false teaching like Ordination of Women. Yikes.
    I guess I am not exposed to this heresy. What are they using to justify this craziness?

  5. September 7th, 2011 at 08:27 | #6

    Evangelical catholic is no more difficult to define than Lutheran… though we have an extensive written confession, the modern day Lutherans are more divided than ever in terms of what those words mean and how they are applied. It seems that this may have more to do with the difficulty of ANYONE to be bound by any authority today than a specific issue with those who identity with the term evangelical catholic.

    Those who use that term within Missouri and, to be fair, some outside Missouri, are not at all deterred by authority but the term has become a catch word for those who lean in the liturgical direction. As Piepkorn said, the true liturgical movement and evangelical catholicity has little to do with smells and bells and everything to do with faith and dogma. I am not so sure that the term is the problem as with the way it is bantered about by those whose confession includes things in conflict with the evangelical catholicity of the Lutheran Confessions — which, to be sure, are the real defining documents of this terminology.

  6. Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    September 7th, 2011 at 08:30 | #7

    I’ll have to admit a push/pull myself on this “evangelical catholic” thing.

    Growing up RC, the impression was always that Lutherans are just people trying to be Catholic without being Catholic. Catholics without the pope, Catholics who flunked Latin, stuff like that. Never read the Book of Concord, figuring this is what happens when you step outside the teaching authority of the church, you say something then it takes you fifty years to agree as to what in the hell you said.

    Reading the Book of Concord, in the context of an adult information class, something quite different emerged. Seeing the reforms proposed there, and seeing in my “mind’s eye” had those reform happened instead of the “reforms” I actually did see happen in the church during and post Vatican II.

    Being in a Lutheran church body, WELS at the time but since in LCMS, it was amazing that what one actually saw was neither, yet both: there was an agreement on retention with modifications all right, but what was retained with modification was Vatican II, not the historic worship, liturgy, lectionary, calendar and all, from the proverbial early church through Gregory and Jerome and on, but the modern pastiches of a variety of sources, with those who look to American “evangelical” sources and those who look to what the Confessions look to on either side.

    Bishops are no answer. The Roman church has them, the Anglican Communion has them, the EKD has them, the ELCA has them, and they are all a bleeding mess. Our synodical founders had the singular insight to see that our validity as a church had nothing whatever to do with reconstructing here the ecclesiastical structure of the old country or branching off from it — a structure whose tyranny of forced union with the very elements we resist to-day, and some willingly unite with, they came here to escape.

    Even so, the original constitution of the synod is not at all light on synodical supervision. There’s a great article by Dr Rast on this, in For the Life of the World, Vol 7, Nr 4, Oct 2003. http://www.ctsfw.edu/Page.aspx?pid=807 I think the Preface to the Small Catechism could have been written this morning — freed from the tyranny, so many despise the faith, yet a reconstituted “authority” is no answer and one might as well go back to Rome. Our ministry — well, yours, I’m not a pastor — is something different than it was under the pope.

  7. Bethany Kilcrease
    September 7th, 2011 at 08:49 | #8

    There seem to be at least two different groups who use the term: confessional Lutherans inspired by Veith’s Spirituality of the Cross book and ELCA theologians of the Jensen and Lutheran Southern ilk. It would be the second group that has the crisis of authority without a high view of Scripture. Of course, the unfortunate thing is that they realize this problem and then seek authority in an episcopacy or even in the Bishop of Rome – witness Michael Root.
    Bethany Kilcrease

    • September 7th, 2011 at 08:53 | #9

      I simply see no point to stop using the term “Lutheran” – never have and never will. Simply because it is hard to define, for some, or a challenge to explain, I don’t think trying to grab another term or phrase to be helpful.

      Thanks for your good points, as always, Bethany.

  8. Robert Buechler
    September 7th, 2011 at 09:43 | #10

    @Peter Sovitzky
    I don’t have a problem with bishops myself, but coming out of the ELCA (now AFLC) I would also say that we must not look to them for a sense of “catholic unity.” The bishops of the ELCA were only middle managers, not truly biblical bishops. That is to say, they weren’t really interested in defending biblical doctrines, but rather the man made teachings of the denomination. So if the LCMS ever did go with bishops be careful. They may just be middle managers too.

    Peace in the Lord Jesus Christ!
    Rob Buechler, who used to consider himself EC

  9. Guillaume
    September 7th, 2011 at 11:08 | #11

    I thought evangelical catholics were defined by an unconditional subscription to the Book of Concord as a true exposition of the Faith as taught by the Scriptures. Of course, most people just call us Lutherans.

    But in talks with my RC mother et al, I emphasize the “CATHOLIC” character of the Lutheran Church that in fact we are the true continuation of the visible catholic church on earth and Rome is a splinter group (a large splinter group).

  10. Gabriel Borlean
    September 7th, 2011 at 11:41 | #12

    I like the ORIGINAL use of the term “Evangelical Catholics” … the term the early Germany reformers called themselves … while the opossing Romists used the term “Lutheran” (followers of man Luther).

    How has meaning, contexts, pejoratives, and nuances changed on these two terms in our modern vernacular use.

    Evangelical Catholic suits me well. In the Evangelical Lutheran church the Gospel of Jesus CHrist is preached simple and clear (Law & Gospel), and the Catholicity of the ancient Faith is lived out/experienced/confessed in Word and Sacrament.

    Let’s also remember that Jews and Messianic Christians find the term Lutheran very insulting (as somehow alluding to Luther’s later anti-semitic words). “Lutheran” seems to be culturally more well known, while “Evangelical Catholic” seems confusing to Xtians from non-liturgical denominations or with little church history knowledge base. Then again, no matter what term we use, we will always be accused by the ignorant as being “just like Catholics” or reminding them of the Orthodox Church, etc. when one experiences the praxis in confessional and traditional LCMS churches.

  11. Jen
    September 7th, 2011 at 13:00 | #13

    @ptmccain
    I just call those types “liberals”. You’re right, the only authority they have is human reason and higher-criticism.

    • September 7th, 2011 at 13:17 | #14

      But be aware of how many of them self-identify as “evangelical catholics” – they may be liberal theologically, but love and cherish the “smells and bells.”

  12. Daniel Baker
    September 7th, 2011 at 13:51 | #15

    The problem, it seems to me, is not with “Evangelical Catholicism,” but rather with those who have hijacked the term for their own hypocritical and diabolical ends. Many of these same types also self-identify as “Lutheran.” After all, the *EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN* Church in America is the body to which most of them belong.

    One should not, simply on account of cherishing the full scope of the Catholicity of the Lutheran faith – both in doctrine and practice – be characterized as liberal or Romanizing (at least in the bad sense of the term – if we are Romanizing “as known from its writers” [AC:XXI:5], then I am all for it!).

    The point is, as I’m sure we all know, doctrine and practice go hand-in-hand. To presuppose moral or confessional superiority over another group of fellow brothers in Christ who also adhere to and cherish the Lutheran Confession of the Catholic faith is not only divisive, but it is wrong. Those who presume to lump the “smells and bells”-obsessed apostates of the ELCA with, say, the “Gottesdienst Crowd” are no better than the Protestants/Papists who erroneously lump WELS and LCMS together with ELCA by virtue of the name “Lutheran.” Neither are justifiable comparisons.

  13. September 7th, 2011 at 14:34 | #16

    Rev. McCain,

    In our circles someone who considers themselves an evangelical catholic is a confessional Lutheran who rightly understands that there is nothing sectarian about the faith and practice encountered in the Lutheran Confessions but that it is nothing more or less than the Christian faith taught in Holy Scripture. The evangelical catholic is glad to discover that the church did not fall out of the sky in the 16th century nor has it ceased to exist since then. The evangelical catholic recognizes that the faith taught in Holy Scripture and confessed in the Book of Concord has a particular “shape” (formed by Word and Sacrament) that could be/can be recognized by Christians in every time and place. The evangelical catholic believes–with Walther–that the Evangelical Lutheran Church, according to her confession, is the true, visible Church of Christ on earth.

    • September 7th, 2011 at 14:37 | #17

      Dr. Walther called that person a “Lutheran” and in the first issue of Der Lutheraner wrote what remains to this day one of the most brilliant explanations of the meaning of the term: “Lutheran.” It is a brilliant piece of explaining what it means to be Lutheran and what a true Lutheran identity is all about.

      The phrase “evangelical catholic” has its roots in the liberal/moderate Missourian liturgical movement from years ago and I do not see it serving any useful purpose.

      We do much better to embrace the term Lutheran, with all that it means.

      Let’s be Lutheran, shall we?

  14. Jen
    September 7th, 2011 at 14:39 | #18

    @ptmccain
    So what if they do? So they have kept some externals. Big whoop. ;) What do they confess?

    • September 7th, 2011 at 14:41 | #19

      And that’s precisely why we should not, and do not need, to use the phrase “Evangelical Catholic.” It serves no useful purpose and only surrenders the term “Lutheran” to those who would wish to misuse it. Thanks for making my point! ; )

  15. September 7th, 2011 at 14:59 | #20

    Rev. McCain,

    “A true Lutheran identity.” Therein is the problem, isn’t it? You know as well as I do that there are all kinds of things that go on under the banner of “Lutheran” that are nothing of the sort. That is the reason that modifiers such as “true” and “confessional” are added to the word “Lutheran”.

    • September 7th, 2011 at 15:21 | #21

      Allan, you are absolutely right; however, as I’ve said several times, I do not think it is wise to swap our terms/phrases for tried and tested. It’s never been easy to be a Lutheran and it has always been a challenge to defend, explain and use the term. That’s no justification for embracing a phrase like “evangelical catholic.” Makes no sense.

  16. Weedon
    September 7th, 2011 at 15:44 | #22

    Now, I totally embrace the term evangelical catholic, and do as an accurate descriptor of that which the blessed Confessors considered themselves to be. I know I’ll not change your mind, but the term is helpful in my opinion.

    • September 7th, 2011 at 15:45 | #23

      No, you won’t change my mind, but I do think there is still hope for you. : )

  17. Weedon
    September 7th, 2011 at 17:30 | #24

    Actually, I want to stress that term (any term – including the Lutheran one) with an “ism” is a bit of a problem. Ferris Buehler had that one right – at least the first part of the quote. I’m not sure that there is such a thing as evangelical catholicism, but I am sure that there are evangelical catholics – holding firmly to the Augustana and viewing their churches as being in continuity with the Catholic Churches of the West, reformed by removing from our midst everything that contradicts the saving Gospel proclaimed in the Sacred Scriptures. Evangelical catholics don’t believe in evangelical catholicism; we believe in the Christ revealed in the Scriptures and confessed in the Lutheran Symbols and rejoice to live in the communion of His one holy catholic and apostolic Church. FWIW.

    • September 7th, 2011 at 18:18 | #25

      Evangelical catholics are Lutherans. There, case closed. “Evangelical catholic” and “Evangelical catholism” are both phrases used by people who get all squeamish about the name Lutheran. It is a very fine name and we should be proud to use it.

  18. Jonathan Trost
    September 7th, 2011 at 19:21 | #26

    In its American context, the name “Evangelical Lutheran” strikes me as more curious than “evangelical Catholic”. In common American word usage, the adjective usually precedes the noun, e.g., a tall boy” rather than “a boy tall”. But, is “Evangelical” really a modifier of “Lutheran”, intended to describe which kind of Lutheran a group is? In English usage, isn’t there is redundancy in the term “Evangelical Lutheran?” What other kind of Lutheran is there, other than one who is evangelical?

    In Europe at the time of the Reformation, however, the name “Evangelical-Lutheran” not only made sense but became necessary. To this day in Germany, “Lutheran” in “Evangelical-Lutheran” describes which kind of Evangelical a church is. That all resulted from all early followers of the Reformers, (whether of Luther, or Calvin, or Zwingli) having chosen to call themselves “Evangelicals”. With the passing of not much time, the question became: “Which kind of Evangelical are you, ‘lutherisch or reformiert”? To this day in Germany, thereffore, there are those who are “evangelisch-Lutherisch” and those who are “evangelisch-Reformiert”, where “Lutherisch” and “Reformiert” are adjectives, not nouns.

    In American English, the name “Lutheran” is sufficient in and of itself. It needs no precedent modifier. In its transfer from Germany, “Lutheran” as an adjective became a noun, and “Evangelical” as a noun became an adjective. And that tends to raise the question of “What other kind of Lutherans are there other than those who are Evangelical?”

    In this country, “Lutheran” doesn’t need the redundant modifier, “Evangelical”, (does it?)

  19. Weedon
    September 7th, 2011 at 20:27 | #27

    Nope, that doesn’t work. I’m not squeamish about identifying myself as Lutheran, though I note that THAT term has become ambiguous in popular hearing. I have to add: “Not THAT kind of Lutheran, mind you.” At which point the question becomes: “What kind, then?” The answer is that I am an Evangelical Catholic kind of a Lutheran – the sort that believes what the Symbols actually say!

  20. September 7th, 2011 at 23:13 | #28

    I have used this term before when attempting to explain what Lutherans are, namely that we retain the rites of the historic Western Catholic Church so long as they are not contrary to the Gospel. Nothing new here.

    However, I had no idea the term was so loaded. Now it just feels dirty. I have no desire to be associated with those who use it to support women’s ordination, or to deny the authority of Scripture, or who abandon the name Lutheran. Yuck.

  21. Gabriel Borlean
    September 7th, 2011 at 23:13 | #29

    there seems to be two terms we are debating, but our viewpoints seem to be all internally reflective – how the term(s) is/are used by us confesional or not-so-much-confessing Lutherans. How about the use of the terms by outsiders ? What do outsiders see/understand when one says “I am an Evangelical Catholic” or “I am a Lutheran” ?

  22. Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    September 8th, 2011 at 00:29 | #30

    Strictly speaking, no adjective can modify “catholic”, even “Roman”, and if it can, the result ain’t catholic.

    The word in the title of the BOC is neither “catholic” nor “Lutheran” but “Christian”. Luther himself, on that basis, did not like the word “Lutheran” and rightly so. But until such time as Christian and Lutheran are recognised as synonymous and interchangeable, we are better served by “Lutheran” than these others.

  23. Jen
    September 8th, 2011 at 06:08 | #31

    @Weedon
    Ditto what Pr. Weedon said at #27. Both names are misused and need clarification these days.

    Heck, you can’t even say “Missouri Synod Lutheran” and have your hearer know where you’re coming from. When I meet new LCMS members in the community or online we go through a feeling-out phase where we try to figure each other out. “Does he/she go to one of those seeker-friendly congregations that threw away their hymnals?”

    Lutheranism is like a box of chocolates….

  24. September 8th, 2011 at 10:00 | #32

    Pr McCain, Evangelical and Catholic is one of the ways Issue Etc. refers to itself in between segments. Perhaps Pr Wilken or Mr Swarz can clear up what the term means. In addition it is in the website of Holy Trinity Lutheran church pastored by Wm Cwirla.

    Good point in your article about having clearly defined terms. It can be very hard to know what you have otherwise.

    God’s peace. †

    • September 8th, 2011 at 12:31 | #33

      I’m all for making clear that Lutheranism is THE evangelical faith and THE catholic faith, no issue there. We just don’t need to refer to ourselves as “evangelical catholics” – we be Lutheran!

      : )

  25. Christopher
    September 8th, 2011 at 10:33 | #34

    As I have often heard from “confessional” & “Lutheran” teachers and professors ~
    “One must Qualify your terms” when speaking the truths of doctrine and faith.

    Grace, Love, Gospel, Law, Evangelical, Lutheran, Catholic, catholic, Orthodox,
    orthodox, Christian, Sacrament Salvation, Christ… even “God”…
    ALL mean different things to different people. (Even if there is a “correct” definition
    of each term- not everyone uses the correct definition as others do.)

    So…always qualify your terms- define exactly “who” and “what” you’re talking about
    when discussing things as important as “faith” and “salvation” and “God”.
    One MUST ask that age old “Lutheran” question when discussing these revealed things
    with other people… “What does this MEAN?”, if we have ANY hope of communicating
    the timeless truths revealed to us by our Lord through Christ by grace through faith.

    We must do this hard work- and draw tight distinctions if we are to be truly effective in the
    proclamation of the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. “Lord have mercy upon us!” as
    we do.

  26. Christopher
    September 8th, 2011 at 10:42 | #35

    Rev. McCain~ an aside- not to be included as a “post”…. how does one get comments
    to properly “justify” on your comments window? My “posts” look terrible. Can you tell me
    “how” to fix them so that they look good. Thanks!

    Christopher

  27. Bob Gruener
    September 8th, 2011 at 20:29 | #36

    How about: Members of the Exalted Order of Rightly Faithful Christian Followers of Luther, Walther and Other Notable Theologians of Like Mind

  28. Mike Baker
    September 8th, 2011 at 21:56 | #37

    I think that part of the reason why “Lutheran” bodies like the ELCA are able to get away with speaking for a confessional movement that they have largely abandoned is because the minority of Lutherans who remain true to the confessions segment and divide themselves in name, in association, and in their public face to outsiders. Further division through cliques with evermore pious-sounding adverbs and adjectives to elevate themselves among the “not us” people only weakens our common confession to the world.

    To use crass political terms: you can’t expect to effectively stand against your opposition when your own party is split and two major groups in your base are running on seperate tickets. You might as well just hand the victory over to those you disagree with.

    It is not my intent to lump everyone into the same boat here, but I have run across “Evangelical Catholics” that cause me to ask why they bother with such a cumbersome term when I–a boring ole Lutheran–agree with the vast majority of what they say. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just not enough to be Lutheran with some particular private opinions and individual preferences. We all have to be “special” Lutherans of some sort or another.

    And who, outside of a very small group of theological nerds, really knows what “Evangelical Catholic” even means? It seems we languish in obscurity enough with “Lutheran” in this day and age. Why make even harder on poor people? :P

  29. Pr. Mark Schroeder
    September 18th, 2011 at 13:00 | #38

    @Mike Baker
    “And who, outside of a very small group of theological nerds, really knows what “Evangelical Catholic” even means? It seems we languish in obscurity enough with “Lutheran” in this day and age. Why make even harder on poor people?”

    FWIW: this is what I think also. It’s been my experience that outside of the “theological nerds”, most folks look at me as if I two heads when I explained “evangelical catholic”. I use to use the term. And that term is also related to the notion that then Lutheran pastor, Richard John Neuhaus would say: the Lutheran Church is a “reforming movement” within the church catholic. As a blessed friend said to me: “I was not baptized into a reforming movement”. But that notion like ‘ec” was part and parcel of those “in the know”. So then one has this two tiered church, a kind of hierarchy: theologians and pastors writing, talking about one thing and the mass of folks thinking and talking as usual: heck we’re Lutherans, etc. I wonder if it goes deeper and ‘trojan horses’ have snuck in bad stuff. I wonder what kind of deleterious effect this two-tiered church has maybe had on the Lutheran Church over the years.

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