Faith and Act: The Survival of Medieval Ceremonies in the Lutheran Reformation, by Ernst Walter Zeeden. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012. 147 pages.
Prof. Dr. Ernst Walter Zeeden was a German historian of some note whose specialty was the late medieval and Reformation eras.
What does it mean to be truly “Lutheran?” What does “real” Lutheranism look like in practice? How should we expect genuine, faithful Lutheranism to be practiced? Sooner or later, every Lutheran who cares about his or her church – especially about the way that the Lutheran church worships or ought to worship – will ask questions similar to these. It’s inevitable. Lutherans seem to be poised in the no-man’s-land between Roman Catholicism and the Reformed – between the weight of traditional accretions of false doctrine on the one hand, and the slashing scalpel of unsanctified reason that tries to cut down everything to its own size, on the other. We honor and respect the heritage of our forefathers in the faith, but we struggle to focus on the Word, and the Word alone, as our only guide in faith and life. So what are we to do? What will real Lutheranism look like?
This is not a hypothetical question. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, towns and territories in Lutheran lands had their worship and church life ruled and guided by documents called church orders. These church orders laid out, often in exacting detail, just what was and was not permissible in worship and parish life. Since there was no separation of church and state, these church orders were enforced with both civil and ecclesiastical sanctions. (For instance, we cannot fine our members or put them in the stocks for neglecting preaching or the Sacrament, but they could, and probably did!) If we want to know for certain what Lutheranism looked like, sounded like, lived like in that bygone time, the church orders are the place to start. The church orders especially focus on how worship was to be conducted, and thus Zeeden’s book does as well.
In one of the endorsements of Faith and Act, William Weedon, Director of Worship for the LC-MS, enthuses, “[Faith and Act is] the next best thing to having a full set of Sehling gracing your shelf!” Just who Sehling was quickly becomes apparent: he was the first historian to make a thorough, systematic study of the Lutheran church orders, publishing the texts of many of them with commentary added. Often throughout the text, Zeeden summarizes Sehling or presents a digest of his findings, but Zeeden’s approach – mature, balanced, fair, and crystal-clear – and his conclusions are ultimately his own. For those who have never studied the church orders, or who lack the necessary language skills or interest to tackle such a topic, but yet would like to get a taste of what the church orders contain, Zeeden’s book is made to order. Here lies the answer to the question, “What is Lutheranism?” – or perhaps more accurately, “What was Lutheranism?” Without answering the second question we cannot know the answer to the first.
It was both gratifying and interesting to note while reading Faith and Act just how much the Lutheran Church has managed to retain, or recover, over time. This should not be surprising, because the liturgy, among all the precious treasures of our heritage, continues to be celebrated among us. Many of the extra adornments involved in worship may have lapsed from common or frequent use among us since the days of the church orders. Among them we might mention a number of the ceremonies associated with the Holy Communion like genuflection or elevation of the consecrated elements, or the multiplicity of festivals and saints’ days taken over in large part from the medieval Church. At the same time, the basic shape of the liturgy is still present in many of our churches. The doctrine that the liturgy teaches and reinforces continues to be cherished and taught, which also breeds an appreciation for the liturgy – not only its beauty of expression, but its wonderfully solid, orthodox doctrine. The two—doctrine and practice—go hand in hand, and the history of Lutheranism that Zeeden documents demonstrates this well.
It’s interesting to note that as Calvinism encroached, Lutheranism’s ceremonies became the benchmark by which the truth was confessed. Our doctrine is already firmly founded on God’s Word. Should not the ceremonies of our worship confess that doctrine visibly – especially in an age where people are hyper-sensitive to any disconnect between words and actions? We should at least consider expanding the range of ceremonies we use, for the sake of confessing Christ clearly.
At the same time, the life of the ordinary people, and the clergy who served them, continued after the Reformation as before – only with Lutheran preachers and pastors complaining about the laxity and worldliness of their people. It provided some backhanded encouragement to see that our Lutheran forebears struggled under many of the same conditions imposed by the world and the flesh that we do today. People skipped church, misused church property, battled with their clergy over issues monumental and trivial, and tried to chisel their shepherds of the material support due them, back then just as often as now. Superstition and people’s own ideas substituted for the Word of God more often than they would have liked to acknowledge. We see these same problems in our own day. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
One of the benefits of reading this book is the historical background it provides. As an example: for those who have wondered about the vehement, acid broadside Luther launches in Article XV of the Smalcald Articles, where he rips into the papists for baptizing bells, among other things, and charging good money for it, Zeeden provides some background. It turns out that the church bells were often tolled during storms as a reminder for the people to pray for God’s mercy and protection, and over time the tolling and the bell itself occupied significance in the minds of the people (71-72). Superstition gradually replaced the worthwhile reason that the bells were rung in the first place, and it is against that superstition that Luther responds.
Zeeden’s analysis of the church orders provides welcome context that frees us from ignorance and from Lutheran myths. The abuses that the Reformation sought to correct were not remedied overnight. Some took a long time to root out. Others are endemic to human nature and still encountered today. Lutherans might be prone to speaking or thinking as if Luther found everything wrong in the church in his day, and after he took his stand and inspired others to follow, everything fell back naturally into place and remained there, pristine and unruffled, to this day. Reading works like Zeeden’s can guard us against both traps: thinking that the medieval church was all wrong, and thinking that just because Luther stampeded across the stage of history, everything was hunky-dory in his considerable wake. Both mindsets are half-truths at best. Zeeden helps us see our own heritage more clearly. For that he deserves our thanks.