Issue 26-1: Lutheran Triumphalism

Introduction

— by Paul Lehninger

According to a quotation making the rounds recently, “Success without decency is a hollow victory”or perhaps a “hollow triumph”? The articles in this issue provide valuable insights as to the nature of Lutheran triumphalism, its relative decency, and its contemporary relevance, especially in light of the forthcoming Reformation 500 observances.

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Michael Albrecht takes us all the way back to Reformation 100 and carries us through the centuries to the present, demonstrating how in the past century Luther and the Reformation were reimagined to suit Unitarian and Communist ideologies. His description of J. P. Koehler’s term for triumphalism, the “hurrah sentiment,” which causes individuals to substitute a charismatic leader for the gospel as a means of salvation, is especially chilling during election years.

Compelling leaders who champion pseudo-theologies that obscure the gospel have always been with us. Arnold Koelpin argues that a misunderstanding of the two kinds of righteousness lies at the heart of this deception, and he sets forth the example of liberation theology to demonstrate this.

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A more prevalent pseudo-theology in America today is that the music used for worship is a means of grace, or at least a necessary handmaiden of the gospel, and Luther has been quoted and misquoted to support this view. Too often the lines have been drawn between those who believe that the pews will empty unless the language of worship is accompanied by “contemporary” music, and those who are convinced that only chant and Baroque-era compositions have the Holy Spirit’s stamp of approval. Both are forms of triumphalism, and James Crockford does the church a great service in his analysis of the three senses of music. His reminder that, while music is a great gift  from God, like any gift  it can be abused in this sinful world.

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For those of us who have fond memories of the Synodical Conference, Mark Braun and Erling Teigen provide evidence that triumphalism is a debilitating disease that can contaminate even confessional Lutherans when they ignore the symptoms of their illness. Missouri is still medicating (as must we all), while the ELS ultimately had to amputate the gangrenous limb.

While Michael Albrecht took us back to Reformation 100, Carl Springer turns our attention all the way to pagan Greece and Rome. Springer’s pagans dealt seriously with death as well as life.  They celebrated their triumphs thoroughly, but in the background they were always conscious of death, the memento mori. Of course, they had no concept of the Lutheran theology of the cross. This is the only valid answer to the question of Lutheran triumphalism. Surely, “In the midst of earthly life snares of death surround us,” but even more surely, “Who there my cross has shared finds here a crown prepared; who there with me has died shall here be glorified.”