Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

A landslide victory for Catholics and Lutherans

Allyson Felix of USA competes in the women's 400m final on August 15, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Last week, while the sports-loving public watched timed Olympic events, viewers relearned the values of timing, measuring, and scorekeeping. Some races were decided by 1/100th of a second margins. The substantially smaller, microscopically observable religion-news-watching public did not always have to measure outcomes quite so close. Thus on August 18 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, during its Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans, voted to approve a document called “Declaration on the Way” relating to a document, “From Conflict to Communion,” approved earlier by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation. The vote, by more than a whisker? 931-9.

Those with historical senses could recall what Catholic-Lutheran actions used to be like. For instance, through the first centuries after the start of the Protestant Reformation, to be celebrated next year after 500 years, most of these actions were not close calls with whisker-thin margins. No, characteristically and regularly, linked with civil authorities, Catholics and Lutherans by the thousands killed each other. They got mixed up on both sides of a Thirty Years’ War, whose Christian devastation provides cheerless comparison to Muslim-related conflicts in Syria and elsewhere today.

Then, when the gunfire subsided in Europe, “conflict” got exported to new sites in the New World, where civil authorities were no longer free to choose up sides. So the people, believers on both and all sides, invented free-enterprising, individualistic ways to fight. Historians recall, at book length, “crusades” of Christians against Christians. Current older generations can well remember vehement if not violent actions of believers versus believers, in the name of…? In the name of “justification by faith” and its favored alternatives.

Despite such history and with little outside encouragement, many leaders in the churches, nurtured with the prayers of many of the faithful, made efforts to bring about and recognize change, which has moved so far along that in our safer(?), secular world positive actions do not make front-page news. Some see the change as betrayal. If Catholics and Lutherans had convictions, we hear, they’d still be murderous toward each other, and not be greeting other comers, like the United Methodists who signed on a few years ago, leaving the welcome sign up for others.

Those who read blog comments on the New Orleans action will find that, as is often the case in blog comments, the crabby and self-assured voices and writing have their way. They summon far more than the nine who “nayed” in New Orleans. This is not the place to go into the issues of justification and the steps “From Conflict to Communion.” (I have written about this trajectory and these issues from a theological vantage in my new little book October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World. It’d be “bad manners” to advertise implicitly in more than this parenthetical aside. Or it’d be a sin? Luther encouraged believers to “sin boldly.” OK.)

The point of this column is to set in context some of the reasons why some issues in the life of the church have faded and quieted, and why others, if revised, remain alive to be stirred up by various factions and interests, as they were in the first Christian generations, or in 1517, or ever since. Whatever others will do, Sightings will celebrate.

RNS-MARTIN-MARTYAuthor, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

This post appears courtesy of Sightings, a publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Martin Marty Center.

To read previous issues of Sightings, click here.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


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  • I wonder how the ELCA likes the water now that they’re closer to the Roman side of the Tiber.

  • I think this is wonderful news. The more Christian Churches can see that they are more alike than different, the more hope there is for unity in Jesus, for the greater glory of God, in my view.
    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, MD, MSpir

  • Well, as the Hollies pointed out, “The road is long, with a many a winding turn, that leads to who knows where…” I embrace Catholics and Lutherans (of whatever denominational construct) as fellow believers in a common faith. The issues upon which they are conferring or agreeing are not deal breakers, at least not today, as pointed out by the author. The greater tragedy, though it is beyond mitigation, is the testimony and the human cost of the Thirty Years War alluded to by Prof. Marty. What a horrible witness to the world. It is on the basis of historical facts like these that so many reject the precepts of the Gospel. Never in the teachings of our Savior did He suggest that in the difficulties of theological disagreement were we to resort to warfare and bloodshed. Let us hope that we have finally absorbed that command.

  • Absolutely not surprised the ELCA is moving toward Rome given they have been moving away from Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions since their founding.

    I believe there are still yet Lutherans in the world that believe that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone (yes we are justified by faith and not by works) as proclaimed through Scripture alone (which is the only rule and norm for faith and not tradition, papacy or fallible human reason) because of Christ alone.

    Augsburg Confession Article 4 Of Justification.

    1] Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their
    own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.

    Council of Trent Canon 9

    CANON 9: “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is
    justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to
    co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and
    that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by
    the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”

    Council of Trent Canon 24

    Canon 24: “If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved
    and also increased before God through good works; but that the said
    works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not
    a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.”

    So who moved? Rome or the ELCA? Who surrendered on this fundamental issue?

    Or does faith matter anymore to ELCA Lutherans or Roman Catholics?

    Is the ELCA truly Lutheran anymore if they don’t hold to Article 4 of the Confessions?

  • Prof. Marty, you might consider using the term “commemoration” over
    “celebration” (as both Catholic & Lutheran officials in Los Angeles,
    California, are doing) to honor the 500th Anniversary of the
    Reformation’s beginning. After all, the division of Christ’s church is
    nothing to celebrate, not to mention the violence that followed which you
    yourself just described.

  • “Let us hope that we have finally absorbed that command.”

    “We”? Who is “we?”
    Why is it so difficult for so many to see that the Thirty Years War indicated that
    despite outward appearances, Church authorities had little or no knowledge of the gospel of Christ preached and taught by the apostle of the Gentiles. (Rom. 11:13)

  • If, as I expect, you are writing from the point of view of a Christian, you might understand that the collective “We” I used reflects the fact that the best of saints is still a sinner as long as they remain in mortal flesh. The Thirty Years War was not fought by the Churches, but by the people led by those Churches. I am not in arguing on behalf of misguided Church authorities, but misguided people unlearned in the scriptures (as most people of the Middle Ages were, as are many today). Given that religious warfare still exists even within Christendom, how much more do we need to reject internecine fighting among putative brethren.

  • Well, best i can tell, Marty is Tsk-tsking the fact that Catholics and Lutherans are making-nice and not burning each other’s villages any longer. Just wait until the Romans start to discuss abortion with the ELCA folks . . . .

  • My understanding of this agreement is not unanimity on all points of theology, for that is not the case. However, those of a more rightward, King James Bible type, have considered the ELCA sinful ever since it gave up diminution of women and LBTG folks. It doesn’t hate enough people to be considered Really Christian. Sad commentary on some members of the faith.

  • ELCA has always been a daith and scripture church, but perhaps not judgmental and harsh enough to suit your tastes. If you are Lutheran you must be WELS, LCMS, Lutheran Brethren, or a similar variety best known for your list of “unacceptables.” Good luck with those exclusionary policies.

  • Marty writes, “like the United Methodists who signed on a few years ago, leaving the welcome sign up for others,” and links to a report that the World Methodist Council had previously approved the Vatican-Lutheran document. Not to be picky, but the World Methodist Council is not a United Methodist body, although it also includes among its other Methodist and united denominational members a preponderance of delegates from The United Methodist Church.

  • Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.”

    Sounds a bit exclusionary.

    Interesting that rather than answering the question with factual information you turn to attack other Lutherans who still hold to AC 4.

  • I directly answered your question, but perhaps you didn’t catch it. “Faith and scripture church.” That refers to “Faith Alone” and “Scripture Alone.” No works righteousness. I thought that was clear enough.

    “Sounds a bit exclusionary.” But you are not the decider. Nor is any other human. So the churches in listed are not to be in the business of choosing who is welcome to full participation.

    So which is your denomination?

  • YOU WROTE: “ELCA has always been a daith and scripture church, but perhaps not judgmental and harsh enough to suit your “TASTES”/

    ~~~~~~ “Tastes” have nothing to do with the orthodoxy of the Scriptures!

    A denomination stands or falls by their loyalty to Scriptural doctrine.
    Plain and simple … ELCA has chosen to support teachings that contradict what the Scriptures teach, even going so far as challenging the divinity of Christ. They also profess that one can judge for themselves whether miracles are true or not.

    ELCA has succomed, in many ways, to what the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy ………… ” Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” ~ TIMOTHY 4:2

  • You are in error on a couple points Claus.

    The ELCA does not doubt that Jesus Christ is the divine son of god. Some individuals may, but they are not ELCA doctrine.

    ELCA does welcome questioning and rigorous discussion of various aspects of the faith. In fact, one of my grad school professors, Rev. Dr. Arland Hultgren, is known for his challenging views. Are you familiar with the “Jesus Seminar?” He was a member and Hultgren challenged many aspects of faith. If we disagreed, he welcomed argument – but we had to back our opinions up with hard evidence. We couldn’t just say, “I believe differently.” We had to be able to say why. If the response was a scripture quote, someone else in the class was likely to cite a contradictory text. Why should one text take precedence over another? The class hashed it out, arguing, supporting, responding, and so forth. Those kinds of experiences make faith stronger, solider, and more open to learning new things and adjusting to new information.

    I can’t imagine going to a school that simply teaches denominational doctrine for students to parrot back. If a faith is real, it can handle rigorous challenges.

    Claus, you said, “A denomination stands or falls by their loyalty to Scriptural doctrine.”

    I disagree. I believe a denomination or faith stands or falls by their willingness to wrestle with their scriptural doctrine. (It worked out okay for Jacob, Jeremiah, most of the disciples, Paul, Jonah, Job and many, many other biblical characters.)