“Canonical” and “organic” Lutheranism?

A comment left this morning on an old post suggested some interesting terminology to describe different tendencies among Lutherans, namely “canonical” and “organic” Lutheranism. The commenter describes this distinction as follows:

Canonical Lutherans represent the “by the book” Lutherans who resoundingly agree with the Confessions and the traditional Liturgy without hesitation. An example would be that a Canonical Lutheran, in response to a question or given problem might say… “the Formula of Concord says…” or even “Luther states…”

An Organic Lutheran might see the deeper roots presupposing the Confessions as well as Lutheranism in its entire import. He might see the varied “matrices” that guide and form the discussion. In other words, he may not demonstrate this by quoting the Formula or the Apology, but rather by assessing given problems in light of a Lutheran framework such as, but not limited to: Theology of the Cross, Active and Passive Righteousness, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Coram Deo/Coram Hominibus and so forth.

That rings very true for me. I think this can be seen on the Lutheran blogosphere, as well as in “real life”. Certainly my own sympathies and temperament lean more towards the “organic” rather than the “canonical” end.

Note that I don’t see this as being a matter of whether or not one subscribes to the Book of Concord wholeheartedly, or as a means of subdividing and categorising Lutherans. Rather, these are two poles, or two dynamics, within the Lutheranism of the confessions. Most people will exhibit a mixture of “canonical” and “organic” tendencies to a greater or lesser degree, depending on circumstances and temperament.

Both approaches have their uses. Within a Lutheran context, where the Book of Concord is accepted as common ground, “canonical” appeals to the confessions will carry more weight than they will in dialogue with Christians from other traditions. However, “organic” concepts such as the theology of the cross and so on are often greatly appreciated by other Christians, and for many of us were the main route by which we were brought into the Lutheran tradition.

To that extent, I disagree with some of the commenter’s further remarks, which seem to drive more of a wedge between the two approaches. However, rather than dissecting those further comments, I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts on the general concept of distinguishing between “organic” and “canonical” approaches to Lutheran theology and practice. Is this a helpful analysis?

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8 Responses to “Canonical” and “organic” Lutheranism?

  1. Theresa K. says:

    This rings true for me, as well. I think there are times when it is best to respond canonically and times to respond organically. I also wonder if it is easier for a Lutheran convert to distinguish between the two, without labeling one “good” and one “bad”…

  2. Rick Ritchie says:

    Sounds similar to a distinction often made between the conservatives and the orthodox. Though this sounds like a division within the orthodox. But it could be that the canonicals are the conservative side of the orthodox, and the organic are the other. Perhaps.

    I can follow what you’re saying about organic concepts being of greater interest outside our circles. But I also think that there is another distinction to be made there.

    Some prefer discussions to be about abstract insights, and some to be about concrete actions. And even there, I think that there are different motives in play. Sometimes you could have one party focused on the concrete action from a canonical standpoint. “We don’t admit those people to the altar because in the past we never have.” Others will be focused on the concrete action from an organic standpoint. “We should allow people who hold to x, because they can receive the benefit offered. The others should be spoken to. Now what do we do with those who would take it the wrong way?…”

    We could develop our own Myers-Briggs test if we worked at it long enough.

  3. Jesse says:

    I think Theresa is headed in the right direction. They seem to be two ways of responding to someone more than two types of Lutherans. Besides, someone called a “canonical Lutheran” might well see themselves “assessing given problems in light of a Lutheran framework.” Likewise, one called an “organic Lutheran” may quite readily see some “given problems [assessed] in a Lutheran framework” in the Lutheran Confessions.

    I imagine the Lutheran Confessions are a darn good specimen of “a Lutheran framework” in any case. However, I can definitely think of many times in my experience it was sensible to quote the confessions. I can also think of many times it was sensible to describe the Lutheran framework embodied in the confessions while leaving them well out of the discussion.

    I don’t see any benefit to calling these “types” rather than “ways of responding.” I do see a lot of divisive potential in “types” though.

  4. John H says:

    I agree pretty much 100% with what you’re saying there, particularly the risk of divisiveness in talking about “types” rather than “ways of responding”.

    “Canonical Lutheranism” needs to be animated by the spirit of “organic Lutheranism” to avoid hardening into a lifeless orthodoxy (I know some people dislike talk of “dead orthodoxy”, but alas it can be a reality). Conversely, “organic Lutheranism” needs to listen to the witness of “canonical Lutheranism” to avoid bursting its banks and repeating the 16th century errors addressed in the Formula of Concord in particular.

  5. Art Going says:

    I have to say I find this distinction limiting and sadly rather intramural (a habit among us lutherans). I’m all for being solidly grounded in the Confessions. I often tell parishioners that the best living theology they’ll find is in the Large Catechism. But I would have thought we would take our cue from the Confessions (not to mention, from Luther) and make our arguments directly form Scripture. Can it be that many can more readily cite dogmatic points than cite the Word of God?

  6. Josh S says:

    “By-the-book” Lutheranism often devolves into Roman Catholicism with a different canonical Tradition.

  7. Rob says:

    My gut feeling is that all constructions, clung to as ultimate expressions and explanations of the way God works, obscure the cross. “By-the-book” Lutheranism often devolves this direction, becoming a meter for orthodoxy, rather than a description of how God’s attack on human sin is carried out in the here-and-now.

  8. C Lynn says:

    Theology of the Cross more than a theme. I used to think of the Theology of the Cross in Lutheran thought as a mere theme; moreover, a sub-theme amongst greater and larger ones such as- simul iustus et peccator, the two kinds of righteousness, Law-Gospel and others. But I have learned in my research over the years that the Theology of the Cross is more than a theme- it is the “skeleton” of Lutheran Theology.

    I started seeing this through Walter von Loewenich’s work, “Luther’s Theology of the Cross”. In it, von Loewenich mentions how Luther wanted his entire theology to be a theology of the Cross (Ich will meine theologie zum einem Theologie des Kreuzes sein). According to von Loewenich, the Theology of the Cross would not be one point of Luther’s thought or a mere item of devotion but provide as the interpretive-framework informing Luther’s entire theological scheme and development.

    It is therefore called a “general principle” in Luther’s theology serving as the brain or nucleus influencing the other major teachings of Luther and subsequent Lutheran Theology. It’s influence may regarded in two ways: 1) by way of Biblical Theology 2) by way of Dogmatic Theology

    Regarding the former, the Theology of the Cross becomes a hermeneutical-grid. It not only makes Christ the center for interpreting particular Scriptural data, but also knows where the boundaries are for going ‘too far’ or trying to discover something beyond God’s Revealed text. Theology of the Cross becomes a rule for guarding us and keeping us within the limits.

    Dogmatically, the Theology of the Cross becomes a form of is both an Epistemology and Spirituality for all doctrine. The Theology of the Cross reminds us that God is known through hidden things, namely things that are lowly, seemingly base, and even seemingly despairing. This holds particularly true for the Sacraments- the lowliness of bread, wine and plain water. Likewise, a spirituality based on the Theology of the Cross is rightfully an ’empirical spirituality’. That sounds rather strange; how can you have an “empirical” spirituality? Since God comes to us under hidden forms and those forms become physically manifest, it means that we commune with God where He has made Himself present. Spirituality is then not ‘spiritual’ or a sought in an etherial manner by transcending the world around us. Spirituality is found where God is found and that is in the sensory things- the Word (read and heard), the Sacraments felt and tasted, and in the community of believers in prayer, confession, dialogue, and other communal activities.

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