A History of Lutheranism/Documents from the History of Lutheranism 1517-1750

By Johnson, Dale Walden | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2004 | Go to article overview

A History of Lutheranism/Documents from the History of Lutheranism 1517-1750


Johnson, Dale Walden, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


A History of Lutheranism/Documents from the History of Lutheranism 1517-1750 A History of Lutheranism. By Eric W. Gritsch. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002, 346 pp., $29.00 paper. Documents from the History of Lutheranism 1517-1750. Edited by Eric Lund. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002, 330 pp., $30.00 paper.

Oscar Handlin opened his classic book Uprooted with the observation that he once began to write a history of immigration in America and then soon realized that he was writing a history of America. Eric Gritsch could rightfully make a similar observation about Lutheranism and the history of the Western world since the Reformation. Far from being a mere sub-topic or side-show in Western religious history, it is a major topic in its own right; the sheer scope of the undertaking is daunting. Gritsch notes that, to date, no one has attempted (or perhaps dared) to write a history of global Lutheranism. Though the field of international Calvinism has attracted many scholars, the same is not true of global Lutheranism. Gritsch, however, does not claim originality in this book. He calls it a sequel to a book he co-authored with Robert Jensen entitled, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings (1976).

Gritsch organizes his history around two themes, the catholicity and ecumenical implications of Lutheranism, and its global spread. This first theme allows the author to "take sides" while purporting to tell the story of Lutheranism. Gritsch never misses an opportunity to criticize Spiritualists, Enthusiasts, Zwinglians, and Calvinists. Later in the book Gritsch is fond of dismissing Missouri Synod Lutherans (and any others affirming the literal inspiration of Scripture) as fundamentalists. While he does mention 2 Tim 3:16, Gritsch informs us that the "notion of the inspiration of the Bible is rooted in Hellenistic Jewish thought" (p. 122). Furthermore, his coverage of the Counter or Catholic Reformation places the Roman Church in the best possible light. By contrast, his analysis of John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and Puritanism is couched in the worst possible terms. For example, Gritsch cannot mention Zwingli's view of the Lord's Supper without the pejorative label "Aristotelian." Gritsch's ecumenism is thus more likely to include Catholicism than significant Protestant groups. This is the case despite the fact that at Trent the Roman Church called the idea of justification by faith alone "erroneous teaching" (p. 84). Not to be deterred, Gritsch wishes to look forward and not to the past. At the same time, the author's analysis is not completely partisan. For example, he does not ignore Luther's inflammatory writings against the peasants or Thomas Muntzer. Gritsch admits that Luther relied upon rumors and did not study the writings of the Swiss Brethren or the Anabaptists.

Gritsch's second emphasis on global Lutheranism succeeds modestly. A map claims a world population of 64 million Lutherans with 37 million in Europe. Can we say that the sun never sets on the Lutheran flag (or seal)? Lutheranism is in fact widespread, but it is also spread rather thin in many spots; thus, if it is global, it is with a very small "g." Culturally, however, Lutheranism can boast stunning achievements. It began as a reform movement and grew as a reform and educational movement. The Lutheran humanist Michael Agricola essentially created Finnish literature and invented his own orthography in the 1540s. In the 1780s Paul Egede produced an Eskimo grammar and a New Testament to aid Lutheran mission work. The cultural contributions of Lutherans and other Protestants were profoundly evident after the Thirty Years War (1648) through the genius of Rembrandt, John Milton, Christopher Wren, and J. S. Bach. This creative genius operated out of a context that Gritsch rightly calls a hunger for order after the devastating religious wars.

Gritsch is not certain how to assess the historical and theological significance of the Pietist movement. …

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