Topics: Christianity - Lutheranism


Lutheranism, major Protestant denomination, which originated as a 16th-century movement led by Martin Luther. Luther, a German Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony (Sachsen), originally had as his goal the reformation of the Western Christian church. Because Luther and his followers were excommunicated by the pope, however, Lutheranism developed in a number of separate national and territorial churches, thus initiating the breakup of the organizational unity of Western Christendom.

The term Lutheran was deplored by Luther, and the church originally called itself the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession or simply the Evangelical Church. Scandinavian Lutherans adopted the names of their countries for their churches (for example, the Church of Sweden). As a result of the missionary movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, Lutheranism has become a worldwide communion of Christians and the largest Protestant denomination in the world, with more than 60 million members.

Doctrine and Practices

Lutheranism affirms the ultimate authority of the Word of God (as found in the Bible) in matters of faith and Christian life and emphasizes Christ as the key to the understanding of the Bible.

Salvation by Faith

Salvation, according to Lutheran teaching, does not depend on worthiness or merit but is a gift of God’s sovereign grace. All human beings are considered sinners and, because of original sin, are in bondage to the powers of evil and thus unable to contribute to their liberation (see Justification). Lutherans believe that faith, understood as trust in God’s steadfast love, is the only appropriate way for human beings to respond to God’s saving initiative. Thus, “salvation by faith alone” became the distinctive and controversial slogan of Lutheranism. Opponents claimed that this position failed to do justice to the Christian responsibility to do good works, but Lutherans have replied that faith must be active in love and that good works follow from faith as a good tree produces good fruit.


The Lutheran church defines itself as “the assembly of believers among which the Gospel is preached and the Holy Sacraments are administered according to the Gospel” (Augsburg Confession, VII). From the beginning, therefore, the Bible was central to Lutheran worship, and the sacraments were reduced from the traditional seven to baptism and the Lord’s Supper (see Eucharist), because, according to the Lutheran reading of the Scriptures, only these two were instituted by Christ (see Sacrament). Worship was conducted in the language of the people (not in Latin as had been the Roman Catholic tradition), and preaching was stressed in the divine service. Lutheranism did not radically change the structure of the medieval mass, but its use of vernacular language enhanced the importance of the sermons, which were based on the exposition of the Scriptures, and encouraged congregational participation in worship, especially through the singing of the liturgy and of hymns. Luther himself contributed to this development by writing popular hymns (for instance, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”).

In the Lutheran celebration of the Eucharist, the elements of bread and wine are given to all communicants, whereas Roman Catholics had allowed the wine only to priests. In contrast to other Protestants, particularly the Anabaptists, however, Lutherans affirm the real bodily presence of Christ “in, with, and under” the elements of bread and wine at the Lord's Supper. Christ is sacramentally present for the communicant in the bread and the wine because of the promise he gave at the institution of Holy Communion, when he said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood” (Matthew 26:26-28).


Lutheranism affirms the traditional practice of infant baptism as a sacrament in which God’s grace reaches out to newborn children. For Lutherans, baptism signifies God’s unconditional love, which is independent of any intellectual, moral, or emotional achievements on the part of human beings.

Christian Life

For Lutheranism, saints do not constitute a superior class of Christians but are sinners saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ; every Christian is both saint and sinner. The Lutheran doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is related to baptism, by which all Christians, both male and female, are made priests of God, serving him during their entire life in their chosen vocations, all of which are to be understood as equal opportunities for discipleship. The office of the pastor is a special office in Lutheranism based on a call from God and from a congregation of Christians. Unlike Roman Catholic priests, Lutheran clergy may marry.

Doctrinal Texts

Although Lutherans accept the canonical books of the Bible as “the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be judged” (Formula of Concord), they also recommend the books of the Apocrypha of the Old Testament for Christian edification and have traditionally included them in vernacular versions of the Bible. Lutherans accept the authority of the three ecumenical creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian) and use the first two regularly in worship services. The special doctrinal statements of Lutheranism are Luther’s Schmalkald Articles (1537), Small Catechism (1529), and Large Catechism (1529); Melanchthon’s Augsburg Confession (1530), Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531), and Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (1529); and the Formula of Concord (1577), which was written by a commission of theologians after the deaths of the original reformers. Together with the creeds, these documents constitute The Book of Concord, adopted by Lutheran princes and cities in 1580. Only the creeds, the Augsburg Confession, and Luther’s two catechisms, however, have been recognized by all Lutheran churches.

Church Organization and Government

Because of their origin in the 16th century, the older European Lutheran churches are closely tied to their respective governments as established churches, either exclusively, as in the Scandinavian countries, or in a parallel arrangement with Roman Catholicism, as in Germany. (In both situations other religious groups have complete freedom of worship but not the same support and supervision from the government.) In non-European countries, Lutheran churches are voluntary religious organizations. A uniform system of church government has never developed in Lutheranism; congregational, presbyterian, and episcopal structures all exist, although a tendency has emerged in the 20th century to give the title of bishop to elected leaders of judicatories (synods, districts, churches).

History and Influence

The early development of Lutheranism was greatly influenced by political events. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was unable to undertake the forceful suppression of Lutheranism because the Holy Roman Empire was being threatened by the Ottoman Empire. Despite the Edict of Worms (1521), which placed the Lutherans under imperial ban, the movement continued to spread. Intermittent religious wars followed, ending in the Peace of Augsburg (1555), which stipulated that the religion of the ruler of each territory within the Holy Roman Empire was to be the religion of his subjects, thus in effect sanctioning the Lutheran churches and also establishing the territorial princes as primates of their churches. The Formula of Concord (1577), prepared by theologians to resolve disputes among Lutherans, was signed by political leaders to ensure Lutheran unity at a time when renewed religious warfare threatened. The survival of Lutheranism after the Thirty Years' War was the result of the intervention of the Lutheran Swedish king Gustav II Adolph and of Roman Catholic France on the side of the Protestants. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) brought an end to the religious wars in Europe.

Beginning in the late 17th century, the reform movement called Pietism, which stressed individual conversion and a devout way of life, revitalized Lutheranism in Germany and spread to other countries. Lutheran theology, during the 18th century, reflected the rationalism of the Enlightenment. During the 19th century, the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, who emphasized universal religious experience, exercised a major influence on liberal Lutheran theologians. At the same time, idealism, the dominant movement of modern German philosophy, had a profound effect on Lutheran theological thought. In the 20th century, the neoorthodoxy of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth and existentialism have been the most prominent theological developments.

The political ascendancy of Prussia among the German states by the early 19th century led to the establishment (1817) of the Church of the Prussian Union, which united Calvinists and millions of German Lutherans into one church. This development was bitterly opposed by a large number of Lutherans, some of whom broke away to establish a separate church. The crisis of German politics in the 20th century gravely affected German Lutheranism. Adolf Hitler’s attempt to control German churches led to the split of the German Lutheran Church and to the internment of some Lutherans (such as Martin Niemöller) in concentration camps and the execution of others (notably the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Lutheran leaders in Norway and Denmark took major roles in the resistance to Nazi occupation of their countries, and the German Confessing Church, which had resisted Hitler, made an important contribution to the reconstruction of West Germany (now part of the united Federal Republic of Germany) after World War II.

Lutheranism in America

Lutheranism arrived in America with the early European settlers. In 1625 some Dutch, German, and Scandinavian Lutherans settled in New Amsterdam (now New York City). In 1638 another early Lutheran settlement was founded by Swedes in what is now Delaware. At the beginning of the 18th century German Lutherans settled in large numbers in Pennsylvania. In 1742 Pastor Henry Melchior Muhlenberg arrived from Germany and soon founded (1748) the first Lutheran synod in North America. After the American Revolution (1775-1783), each successive group of Lutheran immigrants founded its own churches and synods and conducted its services in the language of its country of origin. Because of the large numbers of immigrants to the United States and Canada in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the integration of Lutherans into North American society went slowly, and Lutheranism was divided into numerous German, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, and Slovak groups.

Following World War I (1914-1918), however, unification and integration proceeded rapidly. The process accelerated after World War II (1939-1945), and by the early 1980s mergers had consolidated most Lutherans in the United States and Canada into five major bodies: the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), the American Lutheran Church (ALC), the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC). In 1988 the LCA, ALC, and AELC merged after five years of preparatory work, forming the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). In the late 1990s the ELCA reported a membership of 5.2 million in 11,000 churches. Membership in the LCMS was 2.6 million, and in the WELS, 411,000. Lutheranism is the third largest Protestant denomination in the United States.

In 1997 the ELCA agreed to share full communion with three other Protestant denominations—the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, and the Reformed Church in America. The agreement meant that the churches could exchange clergy and that members could worship and receive sacraments at the other churches. The ELCA entered a similar alliance with the Episcopal Church in 2001, following years of debate.

Canadian Churches

The Lutheran churches in the United States have Canadian counterparts. The newly formed Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, composed of wings of the former LCA and ALC churches, reported membership of 199,000 in the mid-1990s. The Lutheran Church-Canada was originally a member of the LCMS but became autonomous in 1988. Reported membership is about 80,000.

World Lutheranism

Although a majority of the world’s Lutherans still live in the traditionally Lutheran countries of central and northern Europe, Lutheranism has been growing most rapidly in Africa and Asia. Indeed, the only country outside of Europe where a majority of the population is Lutheran is Namibia in southern Africa. The Lutheran World Federation (LWF), headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, coordinates the activities of almost all Lutheran churches in the world. It oversees ecumenical relations, theological studies, and world service and is guided by an international executive committee. Most Lutheran churches are also members of the World

Council of Churches

In 1998 the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation issued a joint declaration that ended a split on the doctrine of justification—how a human being achieves absolution from sin—that had begun in Luther’s time. Although many differences remained between the two bodies, Lutherans and Catholics agreed that divine forgiveness and salvation come only through God’s grace and that good works follow from that.

Cultural Influence

Lutheranism has always been concerned with the cultural and intellectual aspects of the Christian faith. Its influence on music through such composers as Johann Sebastian Bach, Dietrich Buxtehude, Michael Praetorius, and Heinrich Schütz has been as profound as it was on philosophy. Thinkers of Lutheran background, such as Immanuel Kant, J. G. Fichte, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Søren Kierkegaard, articulated their ideas in dialogue with and often in opposition to the Lutheran tradition. Lutheranism has also produced a number of notable biblical scholars, such as D. F. Strauss and Albert Schweitzer, and theologians, such as Albrecht Ritschl, Adolf von Harnack, Rudolf Otto, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich.

Source: Encarta Encyclopedia

Luther's Seal