Evangelical and Lutheran: Reflections on the Gospel and Reformation
Address at the Theological Conference of the International Fellowship of Free Evangelical Churches, Tampere 19 September 2016
Dear sisters and brothers attending the Theological conference of the International Fellowship of Free Evangelical Churches. It brings me joy to greet you in the name of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. I am happy to wish you welcome to Tampere, particularly you, who have travelled a long way.
On top of that, I am happy to welcome to Tampere the Headquarters and the Theological institute of the Evangelical Free Church of Finland that have both been quite recently relocated in this city. The Evangelical Free Church already possesses a remarkable history of more than a century right in the city center, and now its presence will be enhanced and renewed. May God bless you and your future work in these new premises. Our Churches have had an ecumenical, theological dialogue since the 1980’s and I hope it will continue to bring blessings to the both of us.
Evangelical Free Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church. There is a lot of common in these two names. But is there a substantial difference embedded in the remaining one word that distinguishes the two names of our churches respectively, Free or Lutheran?
As a matter of fact, the adjective “free” is not far from the meaning of “evangelical”. Freedom is inherent to the Greek euangélion, the good news, glad tidings, or godspel in old English language, corresponding to the words good and spell. By definition, evangel in the Old Testament (Greek translation) denotes the message of the enthronement of a righteous king who brings peace, or news of his victory in a battle against the oppressor (Isa 52:7, Nah 1:15). The victorious king brings freedom.
In the New Testament, the Gospel according to Luke opens the message of Christ by a narrative of his birth. During the reign of the great and victorious Emperor Augustus, a King of another type is born. The heralding angels bring the good tidings and “evangelize” the simple shepherds with a message of a Savior born and put into a manger in a nearby little village (Lk 2:10-12). This is the Gospel for all people, not a message of a victory earned by a warrior with sword and spear and horses and might, but good tidings of a Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6) who hides his Kingship (Jn 18:36) and does not rely on the heavenly legions of angels (cf. Mt 26:53).
As Jesus opens his ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth according to the Gospel of Luke, he quotes the book of Isaiah and reiterates the prophecy of the anointed one as his own manifesto: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Lk. 4:18-19 NRSV) The Gospel message of salvation in Christ is a message of freedom granted by God, a message of liberation from all powers and obstacles that prevent human life to be lived in its God-given purpose.
The salvation is a free gift, not possible for human beings to earn by their own merits. Only in Christ crucified and risen is there full atonement of our sins and redemption of the power of death. Those who serve God in Christ are set free, they are no longer captives of death. They have been made heirs of eternal life through faith in the Son of God. Their service to God and to the neighbor is characterized by love and freedom, not by force and obligation. As St. Paul put it in his letter to the Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” (Gal 5:1 NRSV)
It is this evangel, the good message of freedom in Christ that unites us both as Evangelical Churches of Finland. Nevertheless, there might be differences in the understanding of how the Gospel unfolds into freedom in the life of our churches respectively. I reckon that for the Evangelical Free Church, the word “free” refers on one hand to freedom in expressions of faith in the worship – no binding pattern of liturgy is obligatory to local congregations – and on the other hand, to the structures of governance and funding, and particularly to the relation of the church to the state.
Here we come to the question of what it means to be the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. First of all, please note that unlike the other Lutheran Churches in our neighboring Scandinavian countries, we do not call ourselves “The Church of Finland” – which I consider an ecumenically important message to send. A name of that kind is typical to the historical churches that are predominant in monarchies and where the regent has also been given the title and position of supreme head of the church. These churches have usually closer ties to the state and some of them might still be called state churches.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland also acts in co-operation with the state in certain issues, and it has been granted a favorable position in the society, due to its history and size and contribution to the overall culture of this country. However, it cannot be characterized a state church in a strict sense, since it has had its own decision making bodies and a sole right to amend its constitution since 1869, when the first Finnish Church law became effective. Since then, the church has also carried its official title The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. It was adopted due to the fact that also the Orthodox Church of Finland, although being considerably smaller, has a similar relation to the state in Finland.
When Finland was annexed as an autonomous Grand Duchy to the Imperial Russia in 1809, the Tsar Alexander solemnly promised that the Swedish law, including the Swedish Church law, will remain in effect in Finland. However, since according to the Church law the head of state was also the head of Church, an anomaly emerged of an Orthodox regent being the head of a Lutheran Church. After the Tsar had granted the Bishop of Turku the title of Archbishop to commemorate the 300 years of Reformation in 1817, thus recognizing the Church being autonomous and no longer under the supervision of the Archbishop of Uppsala, a process was initiated to rearrange the governance of this autocephalous Church in the new autonomous Grand Duchy.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church considers itself both evangelical and Lutheran. The English word “evangelical”, however, is a difficult term due to its connotations in various different settings. During this conference you will be pondering its meaning. Some of my American colleagues have advised me that it even makes a difference whether you pronounce it “evangelical” with [i:] or “evangelical” with [e:]; luckily I have forgotten which is the way I should use it, or at least which is the way our sister church Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) pronounces its name, so please bear with me. Just remember that it is important to see that the evangel, the Gospel as a liberating message, is at the core of the self-understanding of Lutheran Churches.
The Lutheran confession is a confession to the Gospel. The Church carries the name of the Reformer Martin Luther; however, he or his work is not at the heart of the confession. The Reformer himself did not want his supporters to call the Church Lutheran. He was irritated by that. Nevertheless, that became to be to the case in order to identify the Church between Rome and Geneva – its confession points to the continuity in catholic and apostolic faith, particularly when it comes to the understanding of the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, but at the same time, the confession points to renewal. It rejects teachings and practices that were found contrarious to the Holy Scriptures and to the writings of the Fathers of the undivided Church.
The Lutherans don’t consider their church to be established in the age of Reformation. Instead, throughout the Lutheran Book of Concord it is repeatedly referred to the Holy Bible, to the classical Creeds of the early Church and to the writings of the Fathers. For Lutherans, the principle of sola scriptura, the Scriptures only, does not mean an exclusivity of the Bible. Truly, the Bible is the highest norm according to which all doctrine and all teaching in the Church shall be judged, but the Bible needs always to be read in the light of the Church living out its faith in sacramental liturgy and in continuity with its apostolic tradition. The phrase of sola scriptura needs to be balanced with another phrase, scriptura numquam sola – the Scriptures are never alone.
The Reformation in Finland was considerably more moderate and slower than the one in the central European heartlands. The Finnish Reformer, Mikael Agricola, was a student of Luther and Melanchthon in Wittenberg, but he also was an admirer of Erasmus, another great humanist. Agricola did not intend a full break with the Catholic tradition – that was not the intention of Luther, either – but he wanted to preserve more elements of Catholic piety than Luther, e.g. a longer canon of the Eucharistic prayer in the Holy Mass in his Finnish worship order, and the greeting of the angel, Hail Mary, in his Finnish Prayer Book.
Agricola also wanted to preserve continuity in the understanding of the episcopal ministry. When the Swedish King Gustavus Wasa appointed new bishops in his Kingdom without asking any consent from Rome, they were still consecrated in apostolic continuity with prayer and imposition of hands. The King himself didn’t want to apply the title “Bishops”, but instead to call them “ordinariis”. To demonstrate that even the Lutheran Bishops nevertheless are Bishops of the Church and no Clerks of the King, Agricola very soon after assuming his new position celebrated the High Mass dressed in full Episcopal outfit with the mitre on his head.
The Lutheranism in Finland is characterized by continuity. The Church considers herself to be the very same Church that was here already during the Middle Ages. The local parishes continued as they had been, the priests remained where they were – they only started to get married, of course. The Catholic calendar was observed and people continued venerating the saints according to it. Traces of it are still evident in the name calendar. The Church was renewed in certain aspects, but it took generations before one can speak of a particularly confessional Lutheran identity of Christians in the country.
To be Evangelical and Lutheran means to confess the apostolic faith, to proclaim the Gospel of the Son of God according to the Holy Scriptures and in the power of the Holy Spirit to witness and serve the world in the Love of God. But it also means to follow the traditional sacramental and liturgical order of worship as it was handed over from the early centuries on, the major parts of which can be traced all the way back to the New Testament or to the immediate post-apostolic era.
For Lutherans, the continuity in the apostolic message, the proclamation of the pure Gospel is substantial. This is reflected in the way the Lutheran Confessions highlight the doctrine of justification and the administration of the Sacraments as the criteria for Church unity (Confessio Augustana, Art. VII). The emphasis on vernacular language and priesthood of all believers, both central in the teachings of the Reformers, resulted in efforts for education and social responsibility.
The Reformation folded out in teaching, beginning with literacy – the first book of the Reformer Mikael Agricola was a Finnish ABC-Book; basically, it also was a Catechism containing central Christian convictions to be learned by everybody. This formed the basis for a later development of a national identity; in the course of the 19th century, an idea of a Finnish nation emerged. Nationalism is not a popular ideology today. We can see nationalistic tendencies arise in several European countries which can cause severe trouble in the future. Nevertheless, to identify oneself belonging to a culture or a community can also be a source of self-esteem. Spiritually it is important to recognize that you can pray in your mother tongue and be able to pass on to your children the faith you have received from the previous generations.
The public school system gradually and much later evolved from the Church activities, as well as the social responsibility of the state. Originally, it was emphasized in the Reformation that no begging should take place; everybody should work, and those not capable of work due to age or illness, shall be assisted from a common purse of the community. One can claim that the present social welfare system common in all Scandinavian countries is a distant reflection of the ideas of Reformation.
It can also be claimed that the whole contemporary notion of a civil society is based on the ideal of the priesthood of all believers. Making all members of the community responsible of their state and not only of their own family, is an outcome of considering yourselves spiritually part of those worshipping together and sharing the same village, neighborhood or city.
The Gospel can lead you to take your democratic responsibility seriously and not to isolate yourself into a purely spiritual life or into a contemplative life in a closed community. Of course, all the political or social developments have come to being by influences of a bunch of ideals and movements, like the humanism and enlightenment, but at the same time, these can themselves be interpreted to be an outcome of the Reformation.
Finally, let me come back to Reformation and to the notion of the Gospel as liberation. The Lutheran World Federation is preparing to commemorate the 500 years of Reformation. It has adopted an overall topic of Liberated by God’s Grace, which in turn is spreads out in three subthemes: Salvation – not for sale. Human beings – not for sale. Creation – not for sale. These themes have been received with great interest all around the global communion, since they point very practically to what it means to be a Christian and what it means to act as a Lutheran Church in various contemporary challenges. I warmly recommend the Evangelical Free Churches to consider these topics when they prepare to commemorate the Reformation next year.
May God the Father bless you through the Son Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.