I’ll come clean. I have to admit it. I am a Lutheran.
And that, at least according to Joshua Green at The Atlantic, would seem to be pretty fringey stuff. Definitely outside the realm of respectable opinion in today’s world. (Which must be a surprise to all those Garrison Keillor fans.)
If you were to speak to an official of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, to one of whose congregations presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann used to belong, they’d probably tell you that my own church, a member of a conservative but pietistic fellowship, isn’t really Lutheran in the proper meaning of the term. We’re insufficiently sacramental in our focus, and so not truly Lutheran.
And you know what? I’m OK with that.
Among ourselves, we other Lutherans laugh at the Wisconsin Synod sometimes. You might call them our Hasidim. A little strict, a little stiff by our standards. They have their own ways, which sometimes can even cause offense, as when we visit their churches and are denied communion.
But at bottom we respect them. They have their principles, and they stick to them.
The “sin” of the WELS, you see, is that they take their foundational documents seriously. Dr. Martin Luther, over the course of his life, involved as he was in a bitter struggle with Rome (not a theoretical debate but a war in which blood was being shed), came to be convinced that the pope, as the chief opponent of what he saw as the true, essential gospel, had made himself the chief enemy of Christ in the world—the “anti-Christ.”
(It should be noted that the term antichrist has two meanings. In Scripture, the actual term is only used in a couple places—1 John 2:18 and 2 John verse 7—primarily to describe an attitude common in the world rather than some individual. But Luther, along with many other Bible interpreters, identified the antichrist with the prophesied “man of sin” spoken of in 2 Thessalonians 2, and linked him to the “Beast” spoken of in Revelation and the perpetrator of the “abomination of desolation” in Daniel. Believing that he was living in the closing days of history, it seemed obvious to Luther that the pope must be this ultimate Nero, this supervillain in the great apocalyptic drama of the fallen world.)
And here’s the “dirty secret”—every Lutheran church body in the world has this teaching as a part of its constituting documents. Even the hyper-liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which now openly ordains practicing homosexuals and has embraced universalism (in practice if not explicitly). Even the latitudinarian state churches of Europe which maintain largely empty church buildings and serve mainly as departments of government bureaucracy. Examine their founding documents, and you will find that they affirm the Lutheran Confessions as a faithful statement of true Christian theology. And the Lutheran Confessions include (among other relevant documents) the Smalcald Articles, which say, “This teaching shows forcefully that the Pope is the very Antichrist, who has exalted himself above, and opposed himself against Christ, because he will not permit Christians to be saved without his power, which, nevertheless, is nothing, and is neither ordained nor commanded by God .”
(And don’t think you’re off the hook if your church comes out of the Calvinist tradition. This was one issue where Luther and Calvin were in perfect agreement.)
Such teachings are no real problem for liberal Lutherans, believing as they do that words only mean what you want them to. But those who, like the members of the Wisconsin Synod, take words seriously have to deal with the issue. The Wisconsin Synod, being a courageous church body, has made the choice to state this belief publicly rather than to sweep it under the rug, as the rest generally do.
Oddly—and this would probably surprise readers of The Atlantic—I’m not aware of any Catholic churches that have been bombed by WELS members, or of any murders of priests by WELS hit squads.
Do I myself believe the pope is the antichrist? Pardon me, there’s something in my throat.
Not in the Left Behind sense. But as a Lutheran I do believe that the pope was operating in the spirit of antichrist when he opposed Luther’s theological reforms. That’s not a full-bore, classic Lutheran position, but (as a WELS member would tell you), I’m a second rate Lutheran anyway.
So is all this much ado about nothing?
Not at all.
What we see in this religious attack on Michele Bachmann (it was “bigoted” when a similar attack was made on Pres. Obama’s former pastor, but of course the rules are different for liberals) is the extreme, doctrinaire intolerance of America’s intellectual class.
Michele Bachmann’s social crime was membership in a group that believes a doctrine, which believes that words have meaning and that the meanings must be affirmed and lived out.
This attack is actually—at its heart—being directed against believing, orthodox Catholics just as much as WELS Lutherans. Not to mention the Eastern Orthodox, Christian Fundamentalists, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims.
Be warned. The gatekeepers of our culture have instructions to refuse entrance to anyone who actually believes anything other than the vaguest, most syncretistic, sentimental religion.
And that’s the true significance of the attack on Michele Bachmann.