Luther vs. the Proto-Pentecostals


In the November issue of First Things, sociologist Peter Berger (A Rumor of Angels, The Heretical Imperative) looks at the Pentecostal movement through Lutheran eyes, especially the former’s emphasis on healing and the miraculous:

I am a friendly observer of the Pentecostal phenomenon. Of course I respect Pentecostals as fellow believers, but I also value their contribution to what David Martin has called “betterment” in the lives of people. But I am convinced that interfaith dialogue, while acknowledging areas of agreement, must also be frank in stating disagreements. In other words, it is as important to say no as to say yes. I will now say no to the Pentecostal project of placing supernatural charismata at the center of the Christian faith. This in no way diminishes my appreciation of what Pentecostalism has to offer otherwise to the Christian community and to society at large.

In formulating my friendly dissent, I will (inevitably, I guess) use certain Lutheran categories. I think, though, that others, at least this side of radical Calvinism, can translate these categories into terms of their own traditions. It so happens that Lutheranism has a long history with proto-Pentecostals. Luther himself had serious disagreements with the “spiritualists” (Schwärmer) of his time, who evinced many of the characteristics associated with Pentecostalism. While Luther was hiding from the imperial ban in the Wartburg, some preachers from the town of Zwickau came to Wittenberg, where they agitated for a more spiritual form of the burgeoning Protestant movement. They were inspired by the teachings of Thomas Müntzer, who was a pastor in Zwickau for a while and later became much more radical theologically and politically; he became involved in the Peasants’ Revolt and was executed in the course of its suppression. Luther’s colleagues begged him to return to Wittenberg to deal with the agitation. He did, despite danger to himself, and preached a series of sermons against the “Zwickau prophets.”

Thus official Lutheranism positioned itself in an anti-Pentecostal stance from early on….

[I]t is the Lutheran view of the Eucharist that provides a useful clue to the problem of “spirituality,” from the ecstasies of Zwickau to those of Pentecostalism today. The surprise comes from the fact that this particular view came, not from the contestation with the Schwärmer of the sixteenth century, but from a different contestation. The clue may be found in one phrase in Article 10 of the “Augsburg Confession,” the document that the Protestant party submitted to the Imperial Diet of 1530 and that has become the founding statement of Lutheran theology. The phrase refers to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist: Christ is present in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine.

The contestation here was not between Luther and Thomas Müntzer, but with both the Catholic Church and the early version of the Swiss Reformation represented by Zwingli. The Lutherans tried to position themselves between Rome and Zurich. On the one hand, there was what was popularly called “the miracle of the Mass,” celebrated at the altar by the priest empowered to do this by virtue of his ordination, signaled by the ringing of the little bell at the precise moment when the “transubstantiation” was supposed to occur. (I am not concerned here with the question of whether this miraculous understanding accurately reflected official Catholic doctrine, then or now.) On the other hand, there was the Swiss view that the Eucharist was a simple memorial, literally following Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (I am also not concerned here with the fact that a more complex understanding of the Eucharist developed later in the Calvinist phase of the Swiss Reformation.) The polemical intent of the phrase is clear. Christ is present in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine: What occurs here is neither transubstantiation nor a simple memorial—that is, neither a miracle nor a mundane event. …

The Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist implies a view of creation itself being a sacrament. All of nature, the world as perceived in ordinary experience and in empirical science, is sacramental—in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, displays “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.” In one of my earlier ventures into unauthorized theologizing, I adumbrated this proposition by the phrase “signals of transcendence”: God, as it were, hides in the universe, but here and there we can find signs of his presence. In their understanding of the Eucharist, Lutherans used the phrase finitum capax infiniti—“the finite can contain the infinite.” The finite, perishable elements of bread and wine can, invisibly, contain the infinite, eternal presence of the risen Christ. But so can the finite, perishable reality of the empirical universe. George Forell, one of the best American interpreters of the Reformation, opined that the phrase finitum capax infiniti expressed the very core of Lutheran faith.

I think that the Lutheran view of creation is expressed most powerfully not in dogmatic statements but in hymnody. …

You would do well to read the whole thing. And by “do well,” I mean drop everything you’re doing and read it now. You’ll need a subscription to either the print or the Web edition of the journal, which you already have, correct? Yes? If not, you can purchase one here.

I’ll wait.


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