By Wilhelm Torgerson
Is there a Lutheran congregation today in Wittenberg, the German town so closely associated with Martin Luther and the Reformation?
This would seem a fairly easy question to answer, but it also seems to be a matter of some dispute — or at least of confusion. I say that because the announcement last year that the Missouri Synod and its German partner church are starting new work in Wittenberg drew questions about the Lutherans who already are there.
There are Lutherans in Wittenberg, some of them from North America, and there are people who come from a Lutheran tradition. But there is today no congregation in Wittenberg with a clear confession of the Book of Concord or even of the Augsburg Confession.
The well-known Protestant congregations in Wittenberg are, since 1815, parishes of the “Evangelical Church of the Ecclesiastical Province of Saxony.” This territorial church is a United Protestant Church in the tradition of the Prussian Union. Its constitution “honors” the Lutheran Confessions, citing them by name. But it also “honors” the Heidelberg Catechism, a confession of the Calvinist/Reformed church.
“Prussian Union” refers to the early 19th-century forced union of Lutherans and Calvinists into one “Evangelical-Christian” church by King Frederick William III of Prussia. Protests against this union followed immediately. So-called “Old Lutherans” either formed their own, often underground, congregations, or they felt compelled to emigrate (to Australia or to the United States).
In November 2007, the synods (church conventions) of this union church and of the neighboring Evangelical Lutheran Territorial Church of Thuringia (headquartered in Bach’s city of Eisenach) voted to merge. The term “Evangelical Lutheran” will be erased, as the new church will call itself the “Evangelical Church in Central Germany.”
The American sister church of this territorial church has not been and is not a Lutheran church body, but rather the United Church of Christ.
It is true that the prominent Protestant congregations in Wittenberg — the Town Church (St. Mary’s), the Castle Church, and St. Martin in Friedrichstadt — regard themselves as being “in the Lutheran tradition.” It also is a fact that they belong to a denomination of the United Protestant Church, in which not only the Lutheran confessional writings are authoritative but also such theological documents as the Heidelberg Catechism, the Barmen Declaration, and the Leuenberg Concord.
As an SELK clergyman, a convinced Old Lutheran with an LCMS background, I find it absolutely necessary, for example, that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper according to Christ’s institution as set forth in the Augsburg Confession, which states that our churches “reject those who teach otherwise.”
This excludes what is normal procedure in the churches in Wittenberg, namely joint communion with anyone subscribing to the Heidelberg Catechism. Having attended the regular communion services at both St. Mary’s and the Castle Church, I have not once heard reference to or the proclamation of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. I have often heard: “Receive bread and wine as a sign of God’s love and our fellowship with one another.”
So, to maintain that the Wittenberg congregations of St. Mary and of the Castle Church are Lutheran in theology and practice at best looks upon their roots and history, but disregards their membership in a union church. At worst, this claim derives from a new, modernist view of what the Lutheran Church teaches and confesses.
The “Old Lutherans” — now the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (known by its German acronym, SELK) — did have a congregation in Wittenberg. For years it met for regular worship in Corpus Christi Chapel next to St. Mary’s Protestant Church, in wintertime in the nearby Bugenhagen parsonage. But only a remnant of that congregation remains.
Our “International Lutheran Welcome Center,” planned for the “Old Latin School” (boys high school) built in 1564, seeks to be a pilgrims reception center, a house for Reformation studies — and, most certainly, a mission and Gospel-outreach center to the population of the city. Only 15 percent of Wittenbergers claim membership in any kind of Christian denomination, and fewer than 20 percent profess to be Christian at all.
We respect the Protestants of Wittenberg for keeping the flame of the Christian faith alive under adverse conditions through two dictatorships, Nazi and Communist. The SELK and the LCMS, as confessional Lutheran churches, come to join them in the task of bringing the Gospel to a population that by and large has become indifferent to their theological roots in Martin Luther’s Reformation.
We surely do not want to work against any Christian church present in Wittenberg. Rather, we want to join them in doing those things together that are possible in serving as witness to our blessed Redeemer and Lord, Christ Jesus.
Rev. Wilhelm Torgerson is managing director of the International Lutheran Society of Wittenberg (ILSW), a joint project of LCMS World Mission, LCMS World Relief and Human Care, Concordia Publishing House, and Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church. The ILSW was organized to operate the new International Lutheran Welcome Center in Wittenberg.
Posted Jan. 31, 2008