I like Lutherans, really I do. If I didn’t, why would I be talking to Paul T. McCain. I just met this brother, but I can already tell he’s the kind of guy I want to hang out with. He’s theological, funny, and publishes books. And the title, “Those Dern Lutherans” was his idea.
1. Paul, why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about yourself—your background, your family, your ministry.
I was born and raised in Pensacola, Florida, in the Heart of Dixie, the son of Lutheran day school teachers. I saw my first snowfall and heard my first real Northern accent when I went to college in Chicago at the age of 18. I am a pastor in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. I studied for the ministry at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, where I stayed on for a couple extra years of advance study and served as an instructor in the department of systematic theology. After that I spent about three years as a pastor in Iowa, serving a wonderful little congregation which taught me how to be a pastor.
I came to Saint Louis in 1992 and spent nearly ten years serving two of our church body presidents as their assistant, and from there I’ve been serving at Concordia Publishing House for now nearly ten years, where I serve as Publisher.
I’m married to a great lady, Lynn, for almost thirty years. We have three children–Paul, John and Mary–all of whom are now covered under our car insurance plan. Let the reader understand.
2. As you know, I wrote a post a few weeks ago, “What’s Up With Lutherans?” It wasn’t the finest moment in blogging history. I’m not sure my post did what I wanted it to do. But I think it succeeded in getting Lutherans riled up! Why do you think evangelical Lutherans and conservative evangelicalism seem to be in two different worlds? Or was my whole premise mistaken?
I’m sorry to hear it got Lutheran riled up, but we tend to be easily riled, particularly the Germans. The Scandinavians are much more laid back. I’m Irish and I’m a Lutheran, so that’s an interesting combination.
Your question is intriguing. It does feel at times we are in two different worlds. I think it might be the case that conservative/confessing Lutherans like me are more aware of what’s going on among Evangelicals than Evangelicals are about what’s going on among us, simply because there are so many more of you, than us.
I think that Lutherans, on the whole, tend to go about their business rather quietly and do not seem to capture the public imagination as much as Evangelicals (loosely defined). After all, we are the Lake Wobegon people, who are humble, shy and retiring by nature. Fundamentally, however, I do not think we live in two different worlds. I’d say we are in the same city, but just live in different parts of town, if that makes sense.
3. What is the history of the term “evangelical” for Lutherans? Do most Lutherans think of themselves as a part of American evangelicalism?
Interestingly, the first Evangelicals were the Lutherans. That’s how we chose to refer to ourselves and how we were known early in the Reformation. We published a book a number of years ago and it remains one of our best sellers, by Dr. Gene Edward Veith, titled, The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals. Dr. Veith does a great job exploring these kinds of issues in a clear understandable way.
But then our opponents started calling us “Lutherans.” It stuck and the term “Evangelical” fell away from common usage, particularly here in the USA. The term “Evangelical” now means, in my opinion, just about what anyone wants it to mean. Confessing Lutherans can point readily and easily in fact to a single book when somebody asks us, “What’s a Lutheran?” We pull out the Book of Concord from 1580 and say, “Here, this pretty much covers it.” I think that tends to give us more interest in a clear sense of doctrinal identity and unity.
I do not think that most Lutherans consider themselves to be American Evangelicals. We tend to think of ourselves first, and foremost, simply as Lutheran Christians. I must say in light of the fact that conservative Lutherans do have a single book by which they can identify themselves, doctrinally, we find trying to nail down precisely what “Evangelicalism” is a bit like an exercise in nailing jello to a wall, and that kind of gives us the heebie-jeebies. That’s a technical term.
4. Do Lutherans like Calvinists?
Yes, but only if they pay for the cigars and beer.
5. More seriously, what do you see as the main difference—theological, cultural, stylistic, historical, whatever—between Lutheran and Reformed churches? Big questions I know.
My fellow Lutherans may have different answers, but after all the years I’ve been carefully watching and following American Evangelicalism and interacting with it, I would respond in this way. First, a HUGE disclaimer. I can only speak for the Lutheranism I confess and am a part of: that is historic, orthodox, authentic, genuine, confessional Lutheranism, not the liberal mainline form of it that we find here in the United States (primarily with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).
So, theological? We are keen on emphasizing the proper distinction between God’s Law, that shows us our sin, and God’s Gospel, that shows us our Savior and we emphasize God’s objective work through both His Word and His Sacraments. The “S” word makes our Evangelical friends very nervous, but we hold and cherish the Sacraments and really believe that God works saving faith by the power of His promising Word through Baptism. We also believe that the Lord’s Supper is our Lord Christ’s own dear body and blood, actually under, with and in the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and drink, and that through it we receive forgiveness and life, and wherever there is forgiveness and life, there is salvation.
Cultural? Wow, that’s all over the map. Lutherans come in all cultural shapes and sizes. Evangelicalism as well. I think we probably share more of a common American culture than we do a common ecclesiastical culture. For Lutherans, Evangelical worship forms and practices have become more popular, but ironically, just when some Lutherans are running after Evangelical “style” we have Evangelicals coming our direction looking for better substance and loving the historic, traditional Lutheran style of worship. It is reverent, dignified and liturgical, with forms dating all the way back to the 16th century. It is anchored in the liturgical life of the Christian Church, the major elements of which can be traced all the way back into nearly the first century, as evidenced in the Didache.
Historically, of course, Calvinism and Lutheranism have come to blows, sometimes literally, over very important subjects like: predestination, the Sacraments, and Christology. This is too big an issue for this brief interview, but I would trace the cause of our differences to fundamentally different understandings of the doctrine of the Incarnation and its implications for all our theology.
6. What are some good resources to read on Luther or Lutheranism?
Well, of course, anything published by Concordia Publishing House! Seriously, though, I would recommend the volumes in the Essential Lutheran Library. We put this collection together as a “core” library for Lutherans to use in their personal daily devotional life and to inform and shape their confession of the Christian faith. Here’s the link to it.
7. What are some of your favorite Lutheran authors/books? What about non-Lutheran favorite books or authors?
Favorite Lutheran authors? Of course, number one, is Martin Luther. I just love the guy. His writing has a vibrancy and relevancy unmatched by few others. After Luther, I enjoy the works of Martin Chemnitz, John Gerhard, C.F.W. Walther and Dr. Gene Edward Veith, to name but a few Lutheran authors.
Non-Lutherans? That’s easy: Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I love the Lord of the Rings, and am very keen on any of Lewis’ non-fiction. I just find him to be one of the most articulate and eloquent Christian writers in the English language. I must confess however I do not like Chronicles of Narnia. I’m sorry!
8. Have you ever been to Lake Wobegon?
Yes. Take my advice. Do not want to go during the Lutefisk festival. Nasty stuff that, and the Lutheran church ladies will make you eat it. You have been warned.
9. Anything else you think the world needs to know about Lutherans?
I would say this: I think Evangelicals often find themselves searching for something they feel might be a bit “missing” in their Christian walk, and think that Rome or Eastern Orthodoxy may fit the bill, while all the while Lutheranism is there, right around the corner. Often when they find a traditional Lutheran Church they are surprised to find a robust, rich worship life, rooted in the Scripture (which is what the liturgy is, in its entirety). They find a rich focus on Christ and the Gospel–Lutherans are adamant that Christ is the heart and center of everything, and they also find a tangible experience with God, not based simply on feelings or emotions, but on a concrete and objective experience with God’s grace through the sacraments. And all this is wrapped up in such a vibrant passionate love for Jesus. We Lutherans combine the best of what is Evangelical, with the best of what is truly catholic about the Church, with the rich heritage of the Lutheran Reformation. I think it is a winning combination, but of course, I’m kind of biased.
A word of caution though: Lutherans are usually the ones most shy about Lutheranism. I suspect this is why you, Kevin, rightly asked, “Hey, where are the Lutherans?” You actually made a good and valid point. We suffer often from an inferiority complex and sometimes think that only Lutherans would care about Lutheranism and sometimes some of us are tempted to ditch our heritage to try to go with the “new” and “flashy” stuff, when all the time, the sturdy trustworthy Word of God is there, and it is from that inerrant and inspired Word that we know the Holy Spirit is working powerfully in our lives, as he is in your life!
Thanks Paul for an insider’s look at Lutheranism, presented with the sort of vim and vigor Luther would be proud of. But, of course, conscience (a good Lutheran word) compels me to add that if anyone reading this blog is looking for a sturdy, robustly theological Christian heritage that prizes faithfulness over flashiness, is evangelical and catholic in the best senses of those two words, and is wrapped in a vibrant passion for Jesus Christ–feel free to try the Reformed faith too!