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  • Nathan Greeley

The Conservative Reformer: Classical Lutheranism for the Contemporary World

Every tradition occasionally needs people within its ranks to articulate a vision of its aims and to indicate the preferred means for bringing such a vision to realization. In other words, it calls for writers and thinkers who enable it to capture a true sense of what it is and clarify what it seeks to accomplish. To provide such a vision is not to presume to speak for everyone else within a given tradition, but it is to stake out a position regarding the best way forward for the tradition and to invite others to rally around this perspective. Such efforts often bring renewal to a tradition’s self-understanding and provide an impetus to reclaim and reinvigorate what makes the tradition exceptional.

An example of this kind of effort is found in Charles Porterfield Krauth’s book The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology.[i] This landmark study, first published in 1871, recalled American Lutheranism to its confessional roots, and shed much needed light on what distinguished the doctrine of the Lutheran church from the teachings of other church bodies. As a result of this publication, many nineteenth-century English-speaking Lutheran churches reaffirmed the value of their heritage, and solidified their commitment to Lutheran positions on topics such as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

The Conservative Reformer is a new online publishing outlet that intends to pay homage to Krauth both with its name and by setting forth again an invigorating vision for confessional Lutheranism. Behind it is a group of Lutheran pastors and laity who believe such an outlet will be of significant value to American and even global Lutheranism in the twenty-first century. Through the frequent publication of short essays, reviews, hymns, and poems, we hope to promote a brand of Lutheranism that in our estimation includes, exemplifies, and encourages all that is best in the history of the Lutheran church and in the broader historical and cultural context of Western civilization. This vision, which encompasses views on theology, philosophy, politics, education, literature, music, and the arts, can be summed up by saying that it advances a classical Lutheranism that is at once confessional, Christocentric, Catholic, conservative, and cultivated.

What do we intend to signify with these five latter words? By confessional, we mean that we adhere faithfully and without reservation to the Lutheran confessions contained in The Book of Concord. These precious documents, which we believe to be in all parts a clear and accurate presentation of the most important truths of Holy Scripture, establish for us the foundation upon which all authentic Lutheranism must stand. We hold with C.F.W. Walther that the doctrine contained in these confessions is unmatched in giving all glory to God alone.[ii] Moreover, we trust that the timeless theological principles announced in these confessions provide a light by which we are enabled to faithfully and critically engage with the thinkers, ideas, and movements which have given shape to our contemporary world.

The term Christocentric indicates that we affirm and emphasize that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Creator of all things, the all-sufficient and only Savior of the world, and the ultimate criterion by which all of our thinking and acting must be assessed. Both as the Logos through whom God created the world, and as the only perfect human being, Christ reveals who God is, who we are, what we are meant to be, what truth, goodness, and beauty are, and in whom we can experience lasting peace, freedom, and happiness. Christ is very truly the light of the world, and we seek in everything we do to be witnesses to him and magnify the perfect salvation which he offers to all people in the promises of the Gospel.

In using the term Catholic we convey that we wish to agree with the consensus of the Christian church throughout the ages. We believe that although the Christian church has been marked by much dissension over the past two millennia, there is still a notable universality of both doctrine and praxis that is clearly seen in the great ecumenical creeds and the most venerable liturgical formulas. Highlighting the authority and continuing importance of these historic expressions of Catholicity is in our view a hallmark of genuine Lutheranism. We also seek to honor and give due respect to the great teachers and saints of the church down through the centuries. Thus we commend the study and admiration of figures such as St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Bernard, and St. Thomas Aquinas. This is not, however, an uncritical esteem that we advise, for we acknowledge that all the fallible teachings of these illustrious saints must be evaluated in light of the most holy and infallible Scriptures.

By saying that our outlook is conservative, we denote that humility and gratitude generally characterize our outlook on the ideas, values, and material culture we have inherited as Christians living in what remains of Western civilization. Once again, this is not an uncritical appreciation of whatever may have been handed down to us, for we recognize that pernicious views and practices have often arisen, especially in recent centuries, and we understand that not all aspects of the various traditions that have molded Western thought deserve our approbation. Yet with C.S. Lewis we reject all “chronological snobbery,”[iii] and with Edmund Burke we affirm that what has thus far stood the test of time is most often worthy of our respect, approval, and preservation.[iv]

With the term cultivated, we signal our wish to join our Lutheran scholastic and humanist forebears in holding learning in great esteem. We believe that all genuine examples of truth, goodness, and beauty are gifts from God, and this is true wherever and whenever they may be encountered. Moreover, it is our belief that engaging with things which conspicuously reflect these transcendental attributes has an important role to play in our Spirit-enabled growth in godliness. We find it evident that edifying and elevating objects in the form of great books and artistic and musical masterpieces provide succor to our spirits and promote peace and order in our souls. The truth, goodness, and beauty in them point, however indirectly, to the Lord from whom all blessings flow, and to give them our attention will inevitably direct us back to him. For these reasons we commend humane learning in all its forms and place great value on the liberal arts. We also endorse classical educational practices that emphasize the reality of objective values and seek to influence students’ affections so that they love all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8).

It is to be hoped that by this point it is rather clear what we are seeking to promote. While some Lutherans promulgate the dead ends of a radical Lutheranism which denigrates the transformative dimension of the Christian faith or a watered-down Lutheranism which attempts to downplay all that makes Lutheranism distinctive, we insist on having a robust Lutheranism which embodies the fullness of what our tradition offers. Instead of the various forms of reductionism and minimalism that are evident in some parts of the Lutheran church, we encourage a Lutheran maximalism, a Lutheranism which takes all that is best in our history as Lutherans and Western Christians and gives it due recognition. We thus want a biblical and orthodox Lutheranism, a historic and Catholic Lutheranism, a pious and reverent Lutheranism, a learned and confident Lutheranism, a beautiful and humble Lutheranism. The Conservative Reformer will publish content that encourages the growth of Lutheran churches and communities which embrace all of these characteristics. If you too desire to see this kind of Lutheranism flourish, we will be most grateful to count you among our readers in the months and years ahead.


[i] See Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1963).

[ii] See C.F.W. Walther, All Glory to God (St. Louis: Concordia, 2016).

[iii] See C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017) 254.

[iv] See Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France and Other Writings, ed. Jesse Norman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).


Apr 22

Well articulated, and inspiring! Soli Deo gloria!


Jonathan Hamilton
Jonathan Hamilton
Apr 16

This is inspiring. Our tradition has so much to offer in truth and beauty. I look forward to following this.

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