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Current Status and Future of Lutheranism: Estonia’s Example – Presentation of Rev. Prof. Dr Thomas-Andreas Põder at the EELC Jubilee Congress on 26 May 2017 in Tartu


Rev. Prof. Dr Thomas-Andreas Põder. Photo Tiit Kuusemaa

Dear colleagues, I am delighted to address you at the jubilee congress of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church! I thank the board of the Clerical Conference for the invitation and the subject matter given to me. My task is to reflect, as a systematic theologian, on the current status and future of Lutheranism based on Estonia’s example. My reflection consists of three parts and starts with the clarification of the concept of ‘Lutheranism’ and the methodological approach used for defining Lutheranism – the accessibility and comprehensibility of Lutheran identity for us. Next, I consider options for assessing the current status of Lutheranism and illustrate this by reflecting on the role of Lutheranism in present-day Estonia. Finally, I explicate the theologically profound and comprehensive significance of education for a projection of the future of Lutheranism – and Estonia – in the light of the current status of Lutheranism.

  1. Obviously, Lutheranism can be defined in various ways. My approach is to define ‘Lutheranism’ very specifically through the concept of ‘Lutheran church’. At a first glance, this may seem as a problematic limitation, a one-sided ecclesiastic perspective, which ignores the wider social and cultural significance of Lutheranism or the emphasis on deeply personal and individual aspects, which have often been associated with Lutheranism. However, I hope that my argument will eventually demonstrate that this is not the case. Describing ‘Lutheranism’ through the perspective of ‘Lutheran church’ is relevant, essential for its nature, and productive for practical purposes.

1.1 The question about the essence of Lutheranism – i.e., about Lutheran identity – should be answered by defining the Lutheran church. A fundamental statement can be found in the preamble of the Statutes of the Estonian Lutheran church, declaring that the Lutheran church “is based on the gospel of Jesus Christ who is the Lord of the one, holy, universal and apostolic Church”. The name “Evangelical Lutheran Church” aptly reflects an essential tenet of the identity of the Lutheran church, namely that the Lutheran church is based on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Consequently, the identity of the Lutheran church is not within the church but outside – in the gospel. This first sentence of the Statutes of the Evangelical Lutheran Church includes several important aspects. (a) This sentence is formulated from the perspective of self-understanding of the Lutheran church. The sentence is a reflection of belief in the truth of the gospel and is, therefore, a confession by nature – confessing Jesus as Christ. (b) The fact that the truth of the gospel is recognised and confessed as the origin of church means that the Lutheran church defines itself fundamentally and comprehensively through the gospel. The gospel is the foundation of the church. According to Section 3 of the Statutes, the goal of the church is to guide people toward the knowledge of the truth of the gospel, i.e., salvation. Therefore, the primary mission of the church is preaching the Word of God – the Law and the Gospel – and administration of the sacraments. (c) While the main part of the first sentence of the preamble identifies the gospel as the foundation and source of identity of the church, the subordinate part of the sentence reflects the self-understanding of the Lutheran church as part of the one, holy, universal and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ (cf. Section 3). It means that the identity of the church cannot be equated to a particular institutional structure and that the Church has existed in history from the very beginning in multiple forms – this is clearly illustrated by the fact that the single gospel of Jesus Christ is expressed in diverse ways in the canon of the New Testament.

1.2 The fact that, according to the self-understanding of the Lutheran church, the church and its identity is based on the gospel of Jesus Christ means that the church is consistently understood from a theo-logical perspective. The origin and renewal of belief in the truth of the gospel, i.e., the source of faith and communion, is seen as being located in God’s own address, the Word of God, and in God’s own actions. In other words: understanding the church through the gospel means recognition and confession of the truth of the gospel, i.e., faith in Jesus as Christ. However, it also means that the fact of being defined through faith in Jesus Christ is recognised and confessed as the result of the presence and actions of God. The church is a group of people who see the reality of themselves and the world through the eyes of faith, i.e., in the reality of God, in the light of his presence and actions. A comprehensive formulation of faith’s Trinitarian understanding of reality, with the truth of the gospel at its core, is provided in the early Christian baptism creed. An excellent interpretation of the Apostle’s Creed can be read in the Book of Concord of the Lutheran church, more specifically in Luther’s Catechisms, published in 1529. A year earlier, using the same early Christian text as a model, Luther compiled a confession of faith, which can be regarded as the original confession of evangelical Lutheran churches. Through the Articles of Schwabach (1529) and the Marburg Articles (1529), it found its way to the Augsburg Confession (1530). This Luther’s confession includes a key passage, which could also be called the sum of confession. It is a comprehensive and vivid expression of that to which the ‘heart is bound’, i.e., what faith believes – the matter of faith: These are the three persons and one God, who has given himself to us all wholly and completely, with all that he is and has. The Father gives himself to us, with heaven and earth and all the creatures, in order that they may serve us and benefit us. But this gift has become obscured and useless through Adam’s fall. Therefore the Son himself subsequently gave himself and bestowed all his works, sufferings, wisdom, and righteousness, and reconciled us to the Father, in order that restored to life and righteousness, we might also know and have the Father and his gifts. But because this grace would benefit no one if it remained so profoundly hidden and could not come to us, the Holy Spirit comes and gives himself to us also, wholly and completely. He teaches us to understand this deed of Christ which has been manifested to us, helps us receive and preserve it, use it to our advantage and impart it to others, increase and extend it. He does this both inwardly and outwardly – inwardly by means of faith and other spiritual gifts, outwardly through the gospel, baptism and the sacrament of the altar, through which as through three means or methods he comes to us and inculcates the sufferings of Christs for the benefit of our salvation.

The creed, which is confessed on Sundays in the services of Lutheran churches, articulates the sum of Christian Biblical doctrine – the presence of the Creator in Christ through the Holy Spirit.  Consequently, it is a recognition of the work of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit which results in the individual confession ‘I believe’ and the congregation’s confession ‘we believe’. The subject matter of the creed is God’s own action, which results in faithful belief in who God is, what he intends and does. In the words of the Large Catechism: “here in all three articles he has himself revealed and opened the deepest abyss of his paternal heart and of his pure unutterable love. For he has created us for this very object, that he might redeem and sanctify us”. This confidence in the nature of God’s heart – that he works through everything to realise his goal of reconciliation and communion – liberates us to life in trust for God and joyful obedience to his will. Thus the real content of confession and Christian doctrine is the teaching of God himself as he gifts himself to us as the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, thereby being the source and foundation of faith and communion. Consequently, the fact that the church sees itself as based on the gospel means that its reality and situation are understood through the work and presence of the Holy Spirit (cf. Eilert Herms, Luthers Auslegung des Dritten Artikels, Tübingen: 1987). It is God’s Holy Spirit that opens human hearts to the truth of the gospel and demonstrates the present situation as being captivated and enraptured by the reality of the Triune God. Living in faith means perceiving each present moment through this determination and living with this orientation.

Therefore, as the preamble of the Statutes of the Lutheran church identifies the gospel of Jesus Christ as the foundation of the church, it expresses the conviction that the church is not based on any human accords or compromises regarding the wording of the doctrine. Similarly, the church cannot be based on personal decisions of faith and the subsequent desire to seek out others with similar beliefs. The church is not built on particular doctrinal formulas or catalogues of beliefs, nor on any specific forms of behaviour or catalogues of values. The conviction that the Lutheran church is based on the gospel should be understood as a conviction in the power of the Holy Spirit. Here, the foundation of the church is described from a pneumatological perspective – the gospel is seen as originating from God, as the Word of truth about God, and as the Word that creates faith and communion. The identity of the church as a communion of believers is understood in the context of the living reality of the Triune God, determined through his own actions.

  1. I have now reached the second step. Above, I sketched the identity of Lutheranism through self-understanding of the Lutheran church. The church is a community of faith, based on the gospel and called and instituted from its source to bear witness to the truth of the gospel and, as such, serve as an instrument in God’s reconciliation and liberation work (cf. Eilert Herms, Kirche für die Welt, Tübingen: Mohr, 1995, 231). In fact, the notion of church is the focal point of the entire Christian doctrine. The concept of church reflects faith’s understanding of reality as a whole, including understanding of the human being, society, and history.

2.1 How would we assess the current status of Lutheranism? A key factor in this context is the realisation that an assessment of the current state of the Lutheran church should be guided by religious concept of reality (cf. Eilert Herms, Kirche für die Welt; E. Herms, Gesellschaft  gestalten, Tübingen: Mohr, 1991; E. Herms, Zusammenleben im Widerstreit der Weltanschauungen, Tübingen: Mohr, 2007). Naturally, the question about the current status of Lutheranism can be asked from many different perspectives. The status can be assessed differently, depending on perspective. The tasks and challenges entailed in the situation, as well as the ways to respond to them, can be different as well. For the church, the challenge is to integrate different approaches to assessing the current status on the horizon of the church’s self-understanding – the horizon of a religious concept of reality, which perceives the present in the light of God’s present. The task is to assess the social and historical situation of the church in the light of the evangelical source and identity of the church. The current status should be assessed in the light of the calling of the church according to the gospel, i.e., a communion of faith, based on the gospel of Jesus Christ and living to bear witness to this gospel. The gospel liberates us so that we may have faith – to live in trust for the God who gifts himself in the gospel, to a life with God. This is how the gospel builds the church, a community of believers, that bears witness to the gospel. The source of faith is also the source of communion.

2.2 As we celebrate the 100th birthday of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church with this jubilee congress, it is associated with the form of organisation, the perceivable social structure of the church. No church in the history could exist without it. Believed to have been created by the gospel, the church always takes the form of a publicly perceivable communal life in the history and each particular social context. The church is a structured amalgamation of various activities, or institutions, and thus becomes itself a social institution, which has an impact on society as a whole. 100 years ago, like at any present time, the church struggled with the task of shaping itself in ways that would be faithful to the gospel in the particular historical and social context, consistent with the identity of the church, enabling it to serve an authentic instrument for the gospel message. Thus the local Lutheran church was organised as a “free people’s church”. Such reorganisation of the form of the church was, in the eyes of the pastors and other church members of the time, the main task of the church, consistent with its evangelical identity, in an environment of major changes in society. In factual terms, it meant differentiation between those characteristics of the church that are essential for the identity and continuity of the church based on its origin, and others that can be modified in historical and social context and require responsible development. The word ‘responsible’ indicates that the task is to recognise the current situation of the church, to identify the challenges it entails, to find appropriate solutions and to implement them from the perspective of faith, i.e., in the light of the present of God as revealed in the gospel. This is the meaning of church’s independence. The organisation of the church in society is self-organisation and is accomplished in the light of the church’s self-understanding, not subject to political or other interests or considerations.

2.3 As an illustration for the question about the current state of the Lutheran church, I would like to reflect on the church’s role in the present-day Estonian society. A “free people’s church” tries to ensure that the organisation of the church reflects such an understanding of Christian church that can be found in the main concepts of Reformatory theology. This includes understanding of the need for correct differentiation between political and religious spheres. Differentiation does not mean separation, but it is also clear that the church is not a sub-system of the political realm and, equally important, the political realm is not a sub-system of the church. For varying reasons, the importance of this differentiation has been rather widely perceived and acknowledged in present-day Estonia. A political system cannot and should not be made absolute. A political system should only have limited, not total, authority and competence. A prolonged experience of inhumanity of an utterly totalitarian regime is now part of the history of present-day Estonia and also affects the situation of the Lutheran church. The organisation of the Lutheran church as a free people’s church means acknowledgement of the diversity of religions and worldviews in society. Membership of the church is voluntary.

Estonian society includes representatives of a wide range of diverse religious and worldview beliefs. Members of different Christian churches constitute a notable minority in Estonian society. These churches cooperate in several fields through the Estonian Council of Churches, but full mutual or unilateral recognition of the others as the true Church is only partial or even absent at places. Obviously, there are other religious and worldview communities in Estonia. Even if people do not feel affinity with a particular religion, their fundamental beliefs and acquired outlook on life certainly motivates, inspires and guides the ways people participate in society. These beliefs are the outcomes of individual life stories and experiences, and they continue to develop. The awareness and articulation of those beliefs varies from person to person, affecting the degree to which they are publicly accessible or can be subject to discussion. These fundamental beliefs, the overall mentality and mindset constitute a causative background and reference point for an individual’s participation in communal life.

The political ordering and functioning of society as a state is contingent on the citizens of the state having different bindings in their conscience and being characterised by diverse religious and worldview beliefs. This recognition is also reflected in the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia. § 40: “Everyone is entitled to freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and freedom of thought. Everyone is free to belong to any church or any religious society. There is no state church.” From the viewpoint of the Lutheran church, this is a genuinely Christian and human declaration. This provision of the Constitution recognises the fact that individuals’ internal beliefs are beyond the scope of political action and cannot be the responsibility of the state. Consequently, the identity of society as a communal life, with its different dimensions and sectors, cannot be derived from the political realm. This would be totalitarianism. Life in society is based on the communication of fundamental beliefs that guide human action and social participation, and on the results of such communication. Respecting such beliefs and the freedom of religious/worldview associations also means acceptance of the fact that public sphere of society has a fundamentally pluralistic character. Indeed, a free people’s church means recognition of such a situation as a normal state of maturity. This view is shared by the Republic of Estonia, celebrating its 100th anniversary in the next year.

Communal life can receive its identity, guidance and foundation from a number of things. Some people turn to politics as an absolute, while others look for guidance in economy – interpreting society, as well as aspects of private life, solely or primarily through the prism of economic relations. The idea that society is based on science or scientific knowledge is also naïve and unrealistic, as it overestimates the capability and role of science and underestimates prospects of scientific efforts. It can amount to a pseudo-scientific attempt at ideologization of science. Naturally, the Lutheran concept of reality and the resulting idea of a free people’s church is also not consistent with promoting or using politically a particular religion – such as the Lutheran church – to provide a foundation and identity for the entire society, i.e. like a civil religion.

It means that both the Statutes of the Lutheran church and the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia acknowledge the fact that human society and public organisation should take the individuality of persons seriously and should recognise freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. However, it also entails recognition that human society and public political order should respect the religious foundation of society, i.e., recognise that communal life as a whole is based on worldview/religion, rather than politics, economy or science. The specific role and contribution of the political realm in society is, therefore, a contribution of one particular system of interaction among others and its competence is – or at least should be – clearly limited. For example, the recent opinion of the President of the Republic that Estonia is a “strictly secular” state clearly diverged from the worldview neutrality of the state as declared in the Constitution, and incorrectly attributed a specific positive worldview to the state. This is not done in the Constitution. This opinion seems to reflect a longstanding dogma that religious/worldview beliefs are a private matter of no special relevance and, therefore, they have no place in the public political sphere, which tries to use the reference point of universal reasonability. The naivety and unreality of this position in increasingly recognised in Estonia as well. Naturally, we cannot ignore the potential of conflict between religious/worldview beliefs, but political nullification and exclusion from the public sphere is certainly not a solution. What is needed is quite the opposite: to recognise the public significance of religious/worldview communication and to support public discussion between and about different religious and worldview positions. Consequently, a state that is neutral in religious/worldview terms is dependent on the existence of diverse religious/worldview communities, which operate independently and with a right of self-organisation within the legal order of the state and perceive their calling and mission specifically in shaping people’s life beliefs – in educating their hearts. Noticing and recognising the public importance of this role continues to pose a challenge for Estonian society but, for several reasons, it is probably easier now than it was some time ago.

  1. I have come to the third and final step. Based on the previous two steps, we can and should argue that the present-day focus of the social and public responsibility, which is based on the source of identity of the Lutheran church, should be placed primarily in education and educational work (cf. Eilert Herms, Kirche für die Welt, 301-317). At first, this may seem like a reductionist statement and, therefore, it requires clarification and elaboration.

3.1 The challenge and calling of the Lutheran church in Estonian society is to be an independent church, a church that autonomously organises its public amalgamation of perceivable actions and institutions. As this autonomy and self-organisation proceeds from the gospel, the degree of the church’s liberty depends on the use of the evangelical source, including the goal and mission it entails, as guidance for the life and actions of the church.

The church can be perceived in the world as a set of social institutions. According to the self-understanding of the church, God himself uses these institutions as an instrument to enable people to perceive the truth of the gospel, which transforms faithlessness of heart into faith. Thus the church as the perceptible amalgamation of institutions is the identity core of Christian life – the place where faith begins and is renewed. Consequently, the social institutions of the perceptible church are primarily institutions for developing and shaping the human heart in the sense of personal Christian identity. Worship service is the central event of personal and communal Christian identity creation, development and renewal. Worship service is the pivotal institution of the church – the ecclesiastic focal point of Christian life, but it is not the only educational institution of the church. I will return to the others in a moment. As Christian life – a life inspired and guided by the belief in the truth of the gospel –, the perceptible church and its formative impact extends to other relations of social life and contributes to shaping the character, organisation and development directions of the entire society. Obviously, the church also contributes to communal life through its self-organised activities, guided by its source and goal. Finally, considering the future prospects of the Lutheran church, I will provide a slightly more detailed reflection on the significance of theology and school.

3.2 Used as the legal basis of self-organisation of the Lutheran church, the Statutes specify in the beginning (§4) the “bases of the doctrine” of the church, i.e., certain texts. The bases of the doctrine are records of the original witness to the reality of the foundational gospel of Jesus Christ and guidelines to the concept of reality entailed in the faith in the gospel. Access to the doctrinal bases, i.e., the content of the church’s teaching about human beings, the world and God, requires learning and education. The church’s life, self-organisation and development can be free and reflect the true Church only if it is consistently guided by the doctrine of the church, i.e., if believers have learned how to observe the world in the light of God as revealed in Christ. For this reason, theology and theological education are particularly important for the church. The challenge is to develop a theology, which would help the church to monitor the current status of society and the church itself, to identify the relevant challenges, and to find ways to resolve them. Theology is self-reflection of the church and faith, i.e., understanding the church and faith from the perspective of self-understanding of the church and Christian faith – from the perspective of the reality and work of the Triune God revealed in the gospel. The church cannot naively import the understanding and evaluation of its nature, current social and historical status and focal points of its action from outside, letting others dictate it. The church can only be a free and authentic church if it uses consistent self-reflection to perceive and interpret the historical and empirical characteristics of the present situation on the horizon of the basic characteristics of the Christian concept of reality. Consequently, only theology can be the guiding horizon and instrument of church practice. The continuing challenge is, therefore, development of good, capable and competent theology, which would take seriously the internal theological division into several basic disciplines as well as the mission of theology to engage in dialogue with other, non-theological disciplines. This is the only way for the Lutheran church to retain its identity while being sensitive to context and situation, identifying challenges and relevant and contemporary solutions. Theology as self-reflection of the church and faith is actually not the precondition of church practice but rather the first step of a theologically responsible practice – guided by the gospel. It would be deeply incorrect to assume that only practical theology has practical outputs.

For this reason, it is the special future responsibility of the Lutheran church to make every effort to ensure continued existence of a theological faculty in Estonia, making it possible to learn and teach theology in the evangelical Lutheran paradigm. Today, it seems to mean the responsibility to maintain the only evangelical Lutheran theological faculty in Estonia at the EELC Institute of Theology in Tallinn. It is essential to develop the Institute to create the capacity for performing the functions of an ecclesiastic/theological research centre. However, continued cooperation with the University of Tartu is also very important; in this, the church should emphasise its hope and encouragement that our state-funded non-denomination theological faculty would continue to see teaching and study of evangelical theology as one of its focal points. Continuity of higher theological education in Estonian language and ongoing theological work and discussion in Estonian are critical for the Lutheran church, but also for Estonian society.

3.3 The work of the Lutheran church as a provider of education of the heart, or spiritual education, in Estonia is not limited to worship services as the focal point of congregation life, even though the service and sermon are at their core means of education of the heart and pastoral care. For small children, education of the heart is provided primarily at home. This is often, but not universally, supported by the Sunday school at church. There are now also several Christian kindergartens and day care centres. Some congregations organise youth work. Then there is also confirmation training for young people in upper secondary school age, but it is often also attended by adults of varying ages. In the state educational system, only a few schools offer religious education. For adults, Bible lessons are organised by a fair number of congregations, there are also training events and various counselling services. In terms of future prospects, the largest and most complex, but also a very promising challenge for the Lutheran church is probably re-establishing the general education school as a natural part of church’s educational task. This need is increasingly recognised in the church and several church schools have been created. We should continue on this path, because reaching school-age children and young people has been very difficult for the Lutheran church, even in recent decades. For this reason, creating and maintaining church schools is a matter of urgent necessity.

A major challenge is to take and present this step in a manner, which would reduce the probability of it being perceived by the public as a form of isolation, withdrawal or opposition, which could increase the potential for religious/worldview conflicts in society and undermine social cohesion and peace. Consequently, it is also important to support similar efforts of other religious and worldview communities. We need to explain that church schools have an important function in providing education of the heart, as described in the second part, which is very important for society as a whole, but cannot be offered by the neutral state. We need to continue our ecumenical communication with other churches, as well as with representatives of other religions and worldviews. It is important for the public to see and realise that the difference of basic religious/worldview beliefs and truth claims does not inevitably result in conflict and violence, but can also facilitate constructive dialogue and harmonious life in the same society.

Even though Estonian public schools – like the Republic of Estonia – are not secular but neutral in terms of worldview, it is a fact that even non-confessional religious education is provided only at a small number of Estonian schools. The Lutheran church has rightly supported development of non-confessional religious education and its inclusion in school curricula, but even if it became available to many or the majority of school students, it would still not be enough. The work of the church as an educational institution is oriented to a goal, which is beyond the capacity of teachers and students themselves. More specifically, the goal is for everyone to discover that their life, relations and the entire world are based on their relationship with God, for everyone to learn to live in the world in the light of the gospel and bear witness to the gospel in the world with their lives. In Christian general education schools, where specific subjects are naturally taught according to the official curriculum, teaching and learning takes place in the context of Christian life and spirituality, providing an opportunity for an authentic and natural experience of Christian faith – demonstrating that it is not only a collection of special beliefs, rituals and rules of behaviour, but rather a way to experience and perceive reality through a gifted relationship with God and to live with a vigour provided by this joyful conviction.

It seems that ensuring continuity of these diverse educational institutions and their continual development and promotion according to carefully considered long-term plans is a task of prime importance for the Lutheran church, considering its future prospects. The task is to maintain and develop the activities and institutions of the church in a manner that provides a new beginning for life in society based on Christian identity, helping the church to be autonomous, mature and dynamic, and to contribute to the development of social life.

The future of the Lutheran church in Estonia depends on the ability to offer meaningful and profound educational experiences in connection with the church – these experiences should invite and inspire people to assume an active role in Christian life and in the life of the church as the centre of identity of Christian life. Such educational experiences can also be realised in the church’s diaconal work. It can help demonstrate how the entirety of Christian life serves fellow human beings and the entire creation. Therefore, the church’s diaconal work is an embodiment of life with God as revealed in the gospel, showing that it means love, compassion, support for those who are weak and need help, taking a stance against injustice, care for the natural environment. The church’s diaconal work exemplifies the meaning and form of Christian life as a calling and service in response to God’s invitation.

I come to the end. As was said above, the future prospects of Lutheranism depend on possibilities to experience relevance of the Lutheran church and to be inspired to participate in the life and work of the Lutheran church – being involved in the life of the congregation and supporting the work of the church also on others levels. It has sometimes been debated whether Christian life according to Lutheran understanding means primarily something personal/individual, something social/political, or something connected to the church. There are proponents of all of these positions in Estonian Lutheranism. Some prioritise the personal experiential nature of faith, spirituality, pastoral care. Others emphasise social responsibility and service. Some focus on the liturgy, doctrine and office of the church. It is important for future prospects of Lutheranism to acknowledge the personal, political/social and church dimensions of Christian existence without setting them against one another. However, equally important is to develop an understanding that these different dimensions are rooted and concentrated in educational institutions and practices of the church, used by God himself as instruments for educating people’s hearts – for eschatological renewal of humanity and creation. And this also applies in Estonia.


Thank you for your attention!


Thomas-Andreas Põder

26 May 2017