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date: 23 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

It is by now a well-established fact that Martin Luther never intended to start a new church. He grounded his reforming and theological claims in the universally acknowledged canon of Scripture and decisions of the Early Church. Despite the fundamentally ecumenical intention of the Augsburg Confession and many overtures toward reconciliation, Luther and his colleagues were unable to reverse the divisive impact of their reforms. In the 20th century, however, the twin processes of establishing a worldwide Lutheran fellowship and participating in the nascent ecumenical movement after 1910 prompted Lutherans toward a fresh appreciation of Augsburg Confession, Article 7 and the universal quality of Luther’s theology. This can be seen already in the constituting assembly of the Lutheran World Convention in 1923, where Bishop Ludwig Ihmels made a case for Lutheran ecumenism on the grounds of Lutheranism’s cultural adaptability, commitment to the dogmas of the Ancient Church, and Christocentric focus. Lutherans were accordingly significant figures in the multilateral process during the first half of the 20th century, with Swedish archbishop Nathan Söderblom serving as head of Life and Work, and American Lutherans pushing for confessional rather than national membership in the World Council of Churches. The newly constituted Lutheran World Federation undertook its first theological study in the 1950s on the topic of “The Unity of the Church,” continuing to affirm a double commitment to Lutheran confessional identity and ecumenical reconciliation. Ecumenism underwent a dramatic change as a result of the new involvement of the Catholic Church following Vatican II, a change that suited Lutherans well. The new focus was on bilateral dialogue, resolving the specific difficulties between two churches. While ecumenical efforts have mostly been directed toward outlining areas of doctrinal consensus and removing obstacles to visible and structural unity, in certain dialogues the person and work of Luther himself has been at the center of the conversation. This can be seen most clearly in the dialogue with Catholics on the Reformation legacy, with the Eastern Orthodox prompting a reassessment of Luther’s teaching on union with Christ, and with Mennonites in narrating the painful history of Lutheran persecution of Anabaptists.

Keywords: Martin Luther, ecumenism, Lutheran World Federation, dialogue, unity, World Council of Churches, Augsburg Confession, Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox, Mennonites

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