The Evangelical Church is the Catholic Church Purged of Heresy and Abuses

“Lutheran theology differs from Reformed theology in that it lays great emphasis on the fact that the evangelical church is none other than the medieval Catholic Church purged of certain heresies and abuses. The Lutheran theologian acknowledges that he belongs to the same visible church to which Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine and Tertullian, Athanasius and Ireneaus once belonged. The orthodox evangelical church is the legitimate continuation of the medieval Catholic Church, not the church of the Council of Trent and the [First] Vatican Council which renounced evangelical truth when it rejected the Reformation. For the orthodox evangelical church is really identical with the orthodox Catholic Church of all times. And just as the very nature of the Reformed Church emphasizes its strong opposition to the medieval church, so the very nature of the Lutheran Church requires it to go to the farthest possible limit in its insistence on its solidarity and identity with the Catholic Church. It was no mere ecclesiastico-political diplomacy which dictated the emphatic assertion in the Augsburg Confession that the teachings of the Evangelicals were identical with those of the orthodox Catholic Church of all ages, and no more was it romanticism or false conservatism which made our church anxious to retain as much of the old canonical law as possible, and to cling tenaciously to the old forms of worship.”

Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand, Augsburg Publishing House, 1938, pp. 110-11.

Note: By 'Evangelical' Sasse means Lutheran; in German 'Evangelische' is/was a synonym for Lutheran or more generally for Protestant.

Comment: If the Evangelical Church is the medieval Catholic Church reformed, then the distinctly Roman Catholic Church begins with the Reformation, or more specifically with Rome's authoritative response to the Reformation, the Council of Trent. Roman Catholicism surely reaches its 'apotheosis' with the promulgation of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility at Vatican I in 1870. This doctrine, which exalts the Pope over scripture and history, stands in absolute contrast to the Evangelical rule of faith, which is that scripture alone establishes doctrine (see the relevant entries at 'Lutheran Catholicity' [link from this blog] for patristtic testimony to the primacy of scripture).


  1. How much of the "old canonical law" have we retained?

    (Yes, this is a wide-open question, not necessarily for you or me to answer. But I wonder if anyone's ever undertaken to answer it. It seems like it would be in the spirit of, say, Chemnitz, Krauth, or Piepkorn to broach the subject.)

  2. Good question, Phil, and worthy of a study, I agree. I would venture to say we have retained very little or none, and this no doubt has its roots in Luther's burning of the papal bull and assorted canon law books by the Elster Gate in Wittenberg. That experience, I think, led Lutherans to want to base ecclesiastical administration on a more evangelical basis. I think Elert has something to say on this somewhere.

    It is interesting, is it not, that Roman Catholicism and even Anglicanism both have their canon lawyers, and lawyers are also almost a necessity in Reformed and Presbyterian presbyteries, as they developed a tradition of church order to replace canon law, but in Lutheranism no such phenomenon is known.
    A church without lawyers, has to be a good thing, yes! [Hope you're not a lawyer ;0)]

  3. This is quite a profound statement and one that needs wider distribution in our pews. We can be so sectarian in our thinking and practice, when it is essential for us to be as catholic as possible.

  4. Yes indeed, Jon, we are not sectarians!

    But at the same time, if Lutheran identity is found in circling incessantly around the evangelical-catholic poles, we need to keep both ends of that polarity alive and in balance, else we spin off into either Protestantism or Romanism. Sasse understood but condemned both options.

    More to come!


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