Tuesday, February 28, 2012

To Be a Lutheran: A Response to Curtis

Imagine you are getting on to an airplane for a very long flight. The plane has a single column of seats, two wide. Every row has one of your fathers in it. The seat next to him is empty. You get to choose where to sit for the flight, but you won’t be allowed to move once you choose. You get to spend a very long, uncomfortable time in the company of one man, but only him. Your wife and children, parents, best friend from grade school, etc., are not on the plane.

On my plane, there would be rows of philosophers, theologians, saints, and authors. Socrates and Aristotle would be on the plane. So would Aquinas. Tolkien, Lewis, Shakespeare, and Burns. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson would be there, as would Thomas Paine and George Washington, so would Leonidas, Aesop, Cicero, and Caesar. St. Mary would be on the plane, as would all the holy apostles, prophets, and evangelists. The western and eastern fathers, including Augustine and John of Damascus would be there. Thomas A’Kempis, Ephrem of Syria, Bede, and Polycarp would have their own section. John Lightfoot and Alfred Edersheim would be there. There would even be some Lutherans. David Chrytaeus, both Gerhards, Chemnitz, and Melanchthon would be there. Walther, Pieper, Sasse, Bonhoeffer, Giertz, Franzmann, Robert Preus, David Scaer, and Nagel would be there. And there would be others, all those who have taught and fed and delighted me.

But I wouldn’t sit with any of those listed so far. I would sit with Luther.

Fr. Curtis’ criticisms of Luther, as posted here on Gottesdienst Online over the last couple of years, are spot on, in my estimation. I don’t doubt that gouty, old Luther would fart and belch, be rude to me, gossip, insult my family and education, and even blaspheme from time to time. But even though I know that, I would still sit with him. There would be nicer people on the plane, better conversationalists, and a few that might even be smarter or better spoken. But if I could sit with anyone, I would sit with Luther.

I would sit with Luther because Luther has taught me more than any other writer. I would choose that seat over the seats next to the Apostles and St. Mary even because without Luther I fear I would never have known their work. Luther frustrates and annoys me at times, even, occasionally, embarrasses me. But even in translation, he speaks to me. The Small Catechism and his hymns alone are enough for him to win the contest for my first choice, but there is more to Luther than that. I will sit with Luther. I will stand with Luther. If God demands it, I will die with Luther.

Yet, that is not why I am Lutheran. To be sure, it has something to do with it. So also, I was born to Lutheranism. I can hardly say that has nothing to do with it either. But I wouldn’t say those things have made me, or kept me, a Lutheran. I am Lutheran because of the Book of Concord. I love Luther, but I don’t confess Luther. I confess Christ. And I confess Christ as declared in the Creeds and the Book of Concord. But I’d still choose Luther over Melanchthon on that plane.


  1. Well said, Fr. Petersen. I, too, stand in much debt with Luther. And your last paragraph especially mirrors my thoughts in this regard. I am probably more mad at those who uncritically love and quote Luther than I am at Luther. I certainly think that modern English speaking Lutherans have much homework to do in learning just how wide the variation in Luther between good and bad really is.

    But on to your airplane. That is a fun thought experiment. I agree that the saints are out as seat mates. They would make me look bad. So I'd probably sit with you.

    Or Jefferson.


  2. I would rather see myself as the steward passing out the littlest bags of pretzels made and pouring sodas into small glasses filled with ice, occasionally pouring a wine or beer or cocktail for the fathers who have the cash... and listening to every tidbit of conversation I can hear...

    1. You're like the kid who wishes for more wishes. Foul! You can't make up your own rules, Pr. Peters. You have to choose.

  3. Well, isn't this fun.

    But of all the people on that plane, as much as I'd love to sit with Luther (truly I would, I agree), I would love most of all to sit with the B.V.M., Mother of God. The reason is that Luther himself would direct me to sit there, where he is also sitting. Behold! We're sitting in coach, and there are three seats in a row. Or maybe even four, come to think of it: Blessed St. Anselm would likely be there too. I say Anselm, because he seemed to understand the importance of proximity to those who were closest to the incarnate One on earth.

    Isn't that pious of me?

  4. What a bunch of losers. I'd be in the cockpit with Jesus. (Ok, time to duck and run!)

  5. I'm humbled by your question, because I realize how many fathers I have yet to learn from!

    But, of those you have listed -- a number of whom I can legitimately claim among my own fathers -- I am hard pressed to choose between St. Polycarp of Smyrna and Paul Gerhardt. They were pastors who lived and confessed the theology of the cross, with such humility and grace and tenderness, I dare to think they would deal kindly and patiently even with me. It would take more than my lifetime to learn everything I would do well to learn from either of those great men; so there's no point in my wondering who might have more to offer.

    I love Luther, and I'm still learning from him (over and over and over again). I deeply admire and appreciate St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Basil the Great, and St. Cyril of Alexandria. Martin Chemnitz is my Lutheran hero, as far as theologians go; but, then again, like it or not, I'm more like Melanchthon than either of the great Martins. I don't see Wilhelm Loehe in your list; he would be a close third after Polycarp and Paul Gerhardt, for the same reasons.

    I'd sit with one of those two or three fathers, because they are the pastors I most aspire to be like; so far from it as I am. No one else teaches me the humility and patience and struggle of the Cross like they do.

    Since you're going to tell me that I have to choose, I'll sit with St. Polycarp. But I want Wilhelm Loehe to sit with Paul Gerhardt in the two seats right in front of us.

  6. This is like winkel on vicarage: 20 pastors all trying to out-ridiculous each other. Gottesdienst is its own Michael Scott Convention...

  7. Great post Fr. Petersen and great question.
    I would sit next to the Semper Virgin, St. Mary of Nazareth, Mother of God. but it might also be interesting to sit by Saint Judas, not Iscariot, too :)

  8. In theory, it sounds like fun sitting next to Luther on a plane. But would you really want to have this stream of consciousness coming from the fat guy using two seatbelts next to you in the micro-seat as you try to read (or sleep) in peace?

    See here: http://www.theorant.com/2012/02/lutheran-insulter.html?fb_comment_id=fbc_10150815008448082_24620653_10150815010158082#f1a313d078

    Somehow, I don't think the BVM would sound like Don Rickles snd reek of cabbage...

    1. There is definitely a price to paid for sitting next to Luther, but it would not be boredom.

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  10. "There is definitely a price to paid for sitting next to Luther, but it would not be boredom."


    True enough! But when flying, especially in this day and age, boredom is not a bad thing at all. Like the old Holiday Inn commercial said, "The best surprise is no surprise."

  11. GO Editor: Mind if I sit here?

    BVM: (Sighs, looks out window.) Fiat mihi . . . .


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