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Religion: Forward to Luther

5 minute read

In the bomb-scarred German city of Hannover last week, 20,000 delegates and pious visitors met for the second assembly of the Lutheran World Federation. At their first meeting, held at Lund, Sweden in 1947, the air was thick with gloom. Churchmen sadly analyzed the near collapse of German Lutheranism under Hitler; they were just as glum about Lutheran participation in the worldwide ecumenical movement. But in 1952, although the world seemed to be even worse off, the glum gloom was gone. Exuberant, vigorous Lutherans showed new signs of a desire for Christian cooperation and an honest awareness of Christianity’s common danger that few other churches could match.

The delegates to Hannover, drawn from 24 countries, represented the bulk of Protestant Christianity’s largest denomination (total Lutheran membership: 68 million).* Among them: Norway’s Bishop Eivind Berggrav; Sweden’s Bishop Anders Nygren (who set the keynote: “Not back to Luther but forward to Luther”); Dr. Franklin Clark Fry, the hustling president of the United Lutheran Church in America; Hannover’s Bishop Hanns Lilje. But the central figure of the assembly was a man who had never been to Hannover in his life: Martin Luther. Lutherans talked of their founder in a spirit of devoted familiarity. They spent their spare time in Hannover singing Luther’s hymns, talking fondly of his greatness and his mistakes, his piety and his beer-drinking. Said Lutheran Fry to a reporter: “Luther was really a great guy. I wish you could have known him”

“Captive Brethren.” The assembly’s No. I problem was one which Founder Luther had never reckoned with. There are more than 20 million Lutherans behind the Iron Curtain, more “captive brethren” than belong to any other Protestant denomination. Just before the assembly opened, East Germany’s Red rulers denied passage to 5,000 visitors and delegates who wanted to go to Hannover. Hungary’s 460,000 Lutherans were represented not by beloved 51-year-old Bishop Lajos Ordass, in prison or under house arrest since 1948, but by young Bishop Laszlo Dezsery, an avowed and militant Communist.

In the circumstances, the Lutherans might have been expected to walk cautiously. An overrigid insistence on Christian respect for civil authority has often blinded Lutherans to the abuses of tyrannical governments, e.g., the Nazis. But not this time. In a loudly applauded speech, Norway’s Bishop Berggrav, who led an anti-Nazi resistance movement in World War II, set forth a firm new stand. Said he:

“It is a positively frightful misrepresentation of Lutheran doctrine to assert that wild conquerors and despotic revolutionists should be acknowledged as God-appointed rulers. It is high time such views be labeled as heretical . . .† The church has a sacred duty, come what may, fearlessly to proclaim to the unjust ruler the unvarnished truth set forth in the Gospel and the Law . ..

“Gullible stupidity is neither Christian nor Lutheran . . . The most important of Luther’s occasional utterances on this subject is his statement that princes and Christian citizens need not obey emperors and kings who plainly violate the law . . . Translated into modernterminology this means: active resistance.”

“Be a Salt.” From the battle against the police state, Bishop Berggrav went on to take up arms against the welfare state. “The slogan is: ‘The welfare state takes care of all problems arising in the life of its citizens down to toothaches and bath water.’ The state we see today attempts to take the place of God by substituting welfare for faith and God . . . Here is a state that, even when it cloaks itself in the garments of democracy, is blasphemous. It assumes for itself the rights of God and is therefore our mortal enemy. It need not develop in this direction provided the church and individual Christians exert a positive and helpful influence.” Bishop Berggrav’s prescription: “Be a leaven, be a salt; if need be, a dangerous salt.”

Seconding Bishop Berggrav’s opinions, the assembly elected as its new president Hannover’s Bishop Lilje, 53, one of the most potently anti-Communist churchmen in Europe. A famed spiritual leader as well as a theologian, he is given credit for “revitalizing” the church in Germany. On his visits to East Germany (which he can no longer make), pious crowds often surrounded him in the streets, spontaneously breaking into hymns.

Under Lilje’s leadership, the Lutherans plan: 1) to enlarge their extensive world relief service; 2) to increase their ecumenical cooperation with other Protestant communions; 3) to continue warfare against world Communism.

* Some 51 million belong to churches in the federation. Most important holdout, which sent 25 “observers” to Hannover: the conservative and independent-minded Missouri Synod in the U.S. (membership: 1,700,000). † An opinion apparently not shared by the Church of England. Fortnight ago (TIME, July 28), the Archbishop of Canterbury told the House of Lords that Dr. Hewlett Johnson, the Red Dean of Canterbury, cannot be considered as having heretical views just because he propagandizes for the Communists.

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