I like Lutherans, really I do. If I didn’t, why would I be talking to Paul T. McCain. I just met this brother, but I can already tell he’s the kind of guy I want to hang out with. He’s theological, funny, and publishes books. And the title, “Those Dern Lutherans” was his idea.

1. Paul, why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about yourself—your background, your family, your ministry.

I was born and raised in Pensacola, Florida, in the Heart of Dixie, the son of Lutheran day school teachers. I saw my first snowfall and heard my first real Northern accent when I went to college in Chicago at the age of 18. I am a pastor in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. I studied for the ministry at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, where I stayed on for a couple extra years of advance study and served as an instructor in the department of systematic theology. After that I spent about three years as a pastor in Iowa, serving a wonderful little congregation which taught me how to be a pastor.

I came to Saint Louis in 1992 and spent nearly ten years serving two of our church body presidents as their assistant, and from there I’ve been serving at Concordia Publishing House for now nearly ten years, where I serve as Publisher.

I’m married to a great lady, Lynn, for almost thirty years. We have three children–Paul, John and Mary–all of whom are now covered under our car insurance plan. Let the reader understand.

2. As you know, I wrote a post a few weeks ago, “What’s Up With Lutherans?” It wasn’t the finest moment in blogging history. I’m not sure my post did what I wanted it to do. But I think it succeeded in getting Lutherans riled up! Why do you think evangelical Lutherans and conservative evangelicalism seem to be in two different worlds? Or was my whole premise mistaken?

I’m sorry to hear it got Lutheran riled up, but we tend to be easily riled, particularly the Germans. The Scandinavians are much more laid back. I’m Irish and I’m a Lutheran, so that’s an interesting combination.

Your question is intriguing. It does feel at times we are in two different worlds. I think it might be the case that conservative/confessing Lutherans like me are more aware of what’s going on among Evangelicals than Evangelicals are about what’s going on among us, simply because there are so many more of you, than us.

I think that Lutherans, on the whole, tend to go about their business rather quietly and do not seem to capture the public imagination as much as Evangelicals (loosely defined). After all, we are the Lake Wobegon people, who are humble, shy and retiring by nature. Fundamentally, however, I do not think we live in two different worlds. I’d say we are in the same city, but just live in different parts of town, if that makes sense.

3. What is the history of the term “evangelical” for Lutherans? Do most Lutherans think of themselves as a part of American evangelicalism?

Interestingly, the first Evangelicals were the Lutherans. That’s how we chose to refer to ourselves and how we were known early in the Reformation. We published a book a number of years ago and it remains one of our best sellers, by Dr. Gene Edward Veith, titled, The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals. Dr. Veith does a great job exploring these kinds of issues in a clear understandable way.

But then our opponents started calling us “Lutherans.” It stuck and the term “Evangelical” fell away from common usage, particularly here in the USA. The term “Evangelical” now means, in my opinion, just about what anyone wants it to mean. Confessing Lutherans can point readily and easily in fact to a single book when somebody asks us, “What’s a Lutheran?” We pull out the Book of Concord from 1580 and say, “Here, this pretty much covers it.” I think that tends to give us more interest in a clear sense of doctrinal identity and unity.

I do not think that most Lutherans consider themselves to be American Evangelicals. We tend to think of ourselves first, and foremost, simply as Lutheran Christians. I must say in light of the fact that conservative Lutherans do have a single book by which they can identify themselves, doctrinally, we find trying to nail down precisely what “Evangelicalism” is a bit like an exercise in nailing jello to a wall, and that kind of gives us the heebie-jeebies. That’s a technical term.

4. Do Lutherans like Calvinists?

Yes, but only if they pay for the cigars and beer.

5. More seriously, what do you see as the main difference—theological, cultural, stylistic, historical, whatever—between Lutheran and Reformed churches? Big questions I know.

My fellow Lutherans may have different answers, but after all the years I’ve been carefully watching and following American Evangelicalism and interacting with it, I would respond in this way. First, a HUGE disclaimer. I can only speak for the Lutheranism I confess and am a part of: that is historic, orthodox, authentic, genuine, confessional Lutheranism, not the liberal mainline form of it that we find here in the United States (primarily with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).

So, theological? We are keen on emphasizing the proper distinction between God’s Law, that shows us our sin, and God’s Gospel, that shows us our Savior and we emphasize God’s objective work through both His Word and His Sacraments. The “S” word makes our Evangelical friends very nervous, but we hold and cherish the Sacraments and really believe that God works saving faith by the power of His promising Word through Baptism. We also believe that the Lord’s Supper is our Lord Christ’s own dear body and blood, actually under, with and in the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and drink, and that through it we receive forgiveness and life, and wherever there is forgiveness and life, there is salvation.

Cultural? Wow, that’s all over the map. Lutherans come in all cultural shapes and sizes. Evangelicalism as well. I think we probably share more of a common American culture than we do a common ecclesiastical culture. For Lutherans, Evangelical worship forms and practices have become more popular, but ironically, just when some Lutherans are running after Evangelical “style” we have Evangelicals coming our direction looking for better substance and loving the historic, traditional Lutheran style of worship. It is reverent, dignified and liturgical, with forms dating all the way back to the 16th century. It is anchored in the liturgical life of the Christian Church, the major elements of which can be traced all the way back into nearly the first century, as evidenced in the Didache.

Historically, of course, Calvinism and Lutheranism have come to blows, sometimes literally, over very important subjects like: predestination, the Sacraments, and Christology. This is too big an issue for this brief interview, but I would trace the cause of our differences to fundamentally different understandings of the doctrine of the Incarnation and its implications for all our theology.

6. What are some good resources to read on Luther or Lutheranism?

Well, of course, anything published by Concordia Publishing House! Seriously, though, I would recommend the volumes in the Essential Lutheran Library. We put this collection together as a “core” library for Lutherans to use in their personal daily devotional life and to inform and shape their confession of the Christian faith. Here’s the link to it.

7. What are some of your favorite Lutheran authors/books? What about non-Lutheran favorite books or authors?

Favorite Lutheran authors? Of course, number one, is Martin Luther. I just love the guy. His writing has a vibrancy and relevancy unmatched by few others. After Luther, I enjoy the works of Martin Chemnitz, John Gerhard, C.F.W. Walther and Dr. Gene Edward Veith, to name but a few Lutheran authors.

Non-Lutherans? That’s easy: Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I love the Lord of the Rings, and am very keen on any of Lewis’ non-fiction. I just find him to be one of the most articulate and eloquent Christian writers in the English language. I must confess however I do not like Chronicles of Narnia. I’m sorry!

8. Have you ever been to Lake Wobegon?

Yes. Take my advice. Do not want to go during the Lutefisk festival. Nasty stuff that, and the Lutheran church ladies will make you eat it. You have been warned.

9. Anything else you think the world needs to know about Lutherans?

I would say this: I think Evangelicals often find themselves searching for something they feel might be a bit “missing” in their Christian walk, and think that Rome or Eastern Orthodoxy may fit the bill, while all the while Lutheranism is there, right around the corner. Often when they find a traditional Lutheran Church they are surprised to find a robust, rich worship life, rooted in the Scripture (which is what the liturgy is, in its entirety). They find a rich focus on Christ and the Gospel–Lutherans are adamant that Christ is the heart and center of everything, and they also find a tangible experience with God, not based simply on feelings or emotions, but on a concrete and objective experience with God’s grace through the sacraments. And all this is wrapped up in such a vibrant passionate love for Jesus. We Lutherans combine the best of what is Evangelical, with the best of what is truly catholic about the Church, with the rich heritage of the Lutheran Reformation. I think it is a winning combination, but of course, I’m kind of biased.

A word of caution though: Lutherans are usually the ones most shy about Lutheranism. I suspect this is why you, Kevin, rightly asked, “Hey, where are the Lutherans?” You actually made a good and valid point. We suffer often from an inferiority complex and sometimes think that only Lutherans would care about Lutheranism and sometimes some of us are tempted to ditch our heritage to try to go with the “new” and “flashy” stuff, when all the time, the sturdy trustworthy Word of God is there, and it is from that inerrant and inspired Word that we know the Holy Spirit is working powerfully in our lives, as he is in your life!

Thanks Paul for an insider’s look at Lutheranism, presented with the sort of vim and vigor Luther would be proud of. But, of course, conscience (a good Lutheran word) compels me to add that if anyone reading this blog is looking for a sturdy, robustly theological Christian heritage that prizes faithfulness over flashiness, is evangelical and catholic in the best senses of those two words,  and is wrapped in a vibrant passion for Jesus Christ–feel free to try the Reformed faith too!



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38 thoughts on “Those Dern Lutherans: An Interview with Paul T. McCain”

  1. “feel free to try the Reformed faith too!”

    And Anglicanism! Don’t forget about us!

    Thank you, sirs. Both your blogs are a blessing.

  2. Brandon says:

    A great interview, spoiled by the last paragraph. I’d think you could allow Mr. McCain’s words to speak for themselves without interjecting the ‘me too!’ thoughts about your blog and the Reformed church. That seems pretty far from anything to do with ‘conscience’.

  3. Thanks for making my picture a bit blurry. Love covers a multitude of sins.

  4. There’s no worries, in my book, with Kevin’s last paragraph. I would have done the same thing if I interviewed him on my blog site.

    I’d always much rather deal with a person who holds to his confession passionately, rather than the limp-noodle variety of Christians who stand for little, and fall for anything.

  5. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Paul, I couldn’t find a bigger picture on the web. All your pictures are tiny thumbnails. So I had to blow it up a bit, which added some distortion. My Lutheran friends tell me you look like Brad Pitt in person.

  6. Randy Keyes says:

    Excellent exchange.

    Grace and Peace,
    Randy Keyes
    (former Baptist minister, now confessional Lutheran)
    Christ Lutheran Church
    Lansing, MI

  7. Stephen Shead says:

    Many thanks for posting this interview, Kevin – I really enjoyed it, and (I trust) it can’t but help us to rejoice in what we hold in common (namely, Christ our Saviour) and appreciate the united diversity of His body.

    Oh, and I’m with Jacob Andrews :)

  8. John HC Niederhaus says:

    The Baylyblog has interesting comments on Lutheran theology and practice. This article mentions some areas of concern: http://www.baylyblog.com/2011/06/some-noticed-my-comment-under-another-post-that-i-do-not-think-men-should-place-their-children-wives-or-themselves-under-th.html#more

  9. Pete says:

    With regard to comparing of Lutheran and Reformed theology, I remember something my dad taught me. He was a Lutheran who actually got his seminary training at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, so was well-versed in both camps. He ultimately wound up as a professor of systematic theology at a lutheran seminary. It was his observation (maybe not his, originally) that the key difference in the two theological systems was that the “touchstone” of Reformed theology was the sovereignty of God whereas the “touchstone” of Lutheran theology was the cross of Christ. Not to say the Reformed don’t value the cross or that Lutherans deny God’s sovereignty. But it does seem to make some sense of the theological differences. I am but a lowly layperson, but this observation seems to me to be on target. Surely some of the more theologically astute bloggers here can expand on that idea and have likely heard it before.

  10. Matthew says:

    Thanks Kevin for your post on “where are the Lutherans” and then following it up with this interview. Very well done! As a Lutheran I’ve often been frustrated by the lack of cultural engagement we have with the Reformed camp. Your questions were and continue to be much needed. Hint, hint: You should ask Paul to join the Gospel Coalition… =)

    @Pete – I think you’re right on in your assessment.

  11. MissionMobilizer says:

    If you guys are interested in further responses from Lutherans, here is one from Pastor Fisk who has a regular video blog on YouTube: http://youtu.be/xMCayHARWSM Be warned, he’s much more “in your face”, but the points he makes are really good about what is distinctive with Lutherans.

  12. Dave Lambert says:

    Pastor DeYoung… As a Lutheran and former Lansing resident, thank you for taking the time to interview Pastor McCain.

  13. Thanks for interviewing Pastor McCain.

  14. TDM says:

    Lutheran: “I think Evangelicals often find themselves searching for something they feel might be a bit “missing” in their Christian walk, and think that Rome or Eastern Orthodoxy may fit the bill, while all the while Lutheranism is there, right around the corner [in a Lutheran church].”

    Calvinist: “Feel free to try the Reformed faith too!”

    During a Bible study years ago, the topic of denominations came up. One of the attendees said something I’ll not soon forget:

    “The word ‘Denomination’ sounds like division.”

    This article is a case in point.

  15. Cody says:

    “…Calvinism and Lutheranism have come to blows …over very important subjects like… Christology. …I would trace the cause of our differences to fundamentally different understandings of the doctrine of the Incarnation.”

    That sounds important! I’d like to know these differences in Christology and the their doctrines of Incarnation. Does anyone have any readings they would suggest?

  16. Laurette says:

    “Certainly I have met with little of the fabled odium theologicum from convinced members of communions different from my own. Hostility has come more from borderline people whether within the Church of England or without it: men not exactly obedient to any communion. This I find strangely consoling. It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the centre of each there is a something, or Someone, who against all divergencies of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.” – C.S. Lewis

    Thank you both for this insightful exchange!

  17. Stephen Shead says:

    @TDM: Funny, I came away from reading this interview with exactly the opposite impression: Unity, love and respect across denominations, due to the more important thing (or One) they hold in common, despite doctrinal differences (which are not unimportant). And I’m not from either of their traditions!

    Oh, and to me, the word “Denomination” sounds like “Derived from different national and cultural expressions of the same essential faith (German, English, Scottish, etc.).” … OK, doesn’t sound anything like it, but I don’t hold by the old “the existence of different denominations automatically equals division”. It’s an idealistic head-in-the-sand response which presents no real or workable solution, and it’s worth keeping in mind the natural historical factors in the emergence of many denominations. My experience of denominational differences has so often been that of enriching diversity, which I would never have experienced if we were all pushed through the same mould.

    I hope I haven’t been too blunt – please forgive me (and let me know) if I have been. But I thank God for my Reformed and Lutheran brothers and sisters, along with many others!

  18. Doyle says:

    “…rather than the limp-noodle variety of Christians who stand for little, and fall for anything.”

    That’s a pretty big slap at the Reformed Church in America after such a nice interview, Rev. Paul!

  19. Daniel says:

    The article linked to by John HC Niederhaus vividly demonstrates the difference between the catholicity of Lutheranism and the radicalism of the Reformed sects. Those who deny the faith given by God the Holy Spirit in Sacramental and Spoken Word are in no way our spiritual brothers. As Luther said, we should be civil in our public dealings with such people, “But in spiritual matters, as long as we have breath, we intend to shun, condemn, and censure them, as idolaters, corrupters of God’s Word, blasphemers, and liars; and meanwhile, to endure from them, as from enemies, their persecution and schism as far and as long as God endures them; and to pray for them, and admonish them to stop. But to acquiesce in, keep silence over, or approve their blaspheming, this we shall not and cannot do” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 37, p. 27).

  20. Ryan says:

    @ Cody

    To get a grasp on the differences b/w Lutherans and Calvinists vis-a-vis Christology, the best place to go (with an obviously biased Lutheran perspective) is Article VIII of the Formula of Concord, in the Book of Concord. You can access the Epitome (like the abridged version) here: http://www.bookofconcord.org/fc-ep.php#VIII.%20The%20Person%20of%20Christ. Caveat lector: it’s pretty heady stuff.

    Follow the links there to get the expanded argument of the same article in the Solid Declaration.

  21. Steve Martin says:

    The late Gerhard Forde is about the best modern day Lutheran Theologian that I have read.

    Start with “Where God Meets Man” and go from there.

    He is a real centerist Lutheran theologian.

    He keeps the poison out of the pure glass of water.

  22. Captain Thin says:

    Thanks much, Pastor DeYoung, for taking up the Lutheran response on your previous post. I enjoyed the interview quite a bit.

    I will say that I wish Pastor McCain had mentioned a few more recent authors in his “good Lutheran authors” response. That was, if I recall correctly, part of Pastor DeYoung’s original question in his first post on us Lutherans – whether any good Lutheran writers were currently active. Dr. Gene Veith is brilliant of course, but we have some other recent Lutheran writers worth reading as well. Thanks to Steve above for mentioning Gerhard Forde: just ordered his On Being a Theologian of the Cross today having heard excellent things about it.

  23. Jeffrey Brannen says:

    @Cody,
    This is what I remember from studying this a few years ago – on the issue of the incarnation, Lutherans and Reformed differ about how the divine and human nature are distinct. How is it that we can speak of the “blood of God” being shed or God dying. The latin phrase is (and pardon my spelling) “communicatio idomatim” – the communication of properties.

    Where the differences become pronounced on this issue is on the nature of the risen and exalted body of Christ. Reformed believe that the glorified human nature of the Son of God sits on the throne at the right hand of God while the divine nature of Son of God sustains and upholds the universe by the word of his power.

    Lutherans believe that the glorified body of the Son of God, in some way, now exists everywhere – it is ubiquitous or immense (I forget the exact wording). This is directly related to their theology of the Lord’s Supper – that the body of Christ is actually present, in some way.

    My uncle put it this way – Reformed believe the Supper takes place in the presence of the risen and exalted Lord in heaven by the power of the Holy Spirit (we are spiritually in the presence of Christ at the Supper). Lutherans believe the Supper takes place in the presence of the risen and exalted Lord on earth by the power of the Holy Spirit.

  24. Thank you Pr DeYoung for interviewing Pr McCain and showing that we Lutherans are still out and about! God’s peace. †

  25. Good interview. I’ll invite you to consider another, though very small group of Lutherans, who consider themselves very much in the “Evangelical” camp. See http://aflc.org/ for information on the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations. I also have written a blog page exploring how Lutherans are Biblical evangelicals. It is posted at https://clayonthewheel.wordpress.com/a-case-for-evangelical-lutheranism/

  26. Rev. Denton White says:

    As an LCMS pastor that used to be a pastor in a very conservative Presbyterian church, I appreciate this healthy interview and am glad it is posted. For those interested in trying to understand Lutheran positions: My advise is take plenty of time. Try and avoid knee-jerk responses and be willing to think a long time with Scripture in your mind as you read. Above all, don’t assume that you always understand what Lutherans mean straight out of the gate. How we read, understand and interpret any literature at all is through a highly developed hermeneutic we are often unconscious of. That can and often doesn’t allow us to take things as they are intended, but as we have been conditioned by many other factors in our life. First book I’d read: “The Genius of Luther’s Theology” Michael Horton reviewed it with favor.

  27. Thanks, everyone, for the interesting comments and conversation.

  28. Helen says:

    The difference between Lutheran and Reformed appears from Niederhaus’ comment and link, to be the same difference Luther had with Zwingli, a different understanding of the sacrament.

    Mr. Niederhaus should read Luther’s Small Catechism on baptism, because Lutherans do not believe what he says about it.

    EG, in the explanation: “How can water do such great things?”
    “It is not the water indeed that does them, but water comprehended in God’s command and connected with God’s Word and faith which trusts such Word of God in and with the water.

    Re “coming to faith before baptism” Niederhaus puts an age restriction on faith that Christ rejected. As He said, “Let the little ones (the word is infants/newborns) come to Me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” and “Except you become as a little child, you shall not enter therein.”

  29. Gary says:

    Points 2 and 9 are interesting. McCain says that Lutherans like to quietly go about their business. In point 9, he seems to be trying to attract people to his church. Interesting though, McCain didn’t react too well when a pastor named Fenton left the LCMS. But you can google all of that to see some of McCain’s comments and how he reacts on other blogs. Preview: He doesn’t always come across in the kind, gentle way that this interview portrays him.

  30. Gary, you are correct. I am not a pussy cat when it comes to confronting, and rejecting, liars and false teachers, such as a man you describe. Some people would rather pussy foot around…not me.

    : )

  31. James Heaney says:

    I have only the deepest love and respect for my Lutheran cousins. It is only a matter when reconciliation with the Roman church becomes a reality!

  32. Gary says:

    Paul,

    So if you leave the LCMS, does that make one a false teacher?

  33. Just FYI, for any Reformed who are interested in Lutheran and Reformed dialogue/debate, I have a blog which deals with a lot of these topics from a Lutheran perspective: justandsinner.blogspot.com Unfortunately, I often see the two sides talking past each other.

  34. Tom Hogan says:

    I’m so glad I’m a Catholic boy. No issues or problems. Pax

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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