The New Testament witness
The New Testament is the only document that gives us a reliable picture of Jesus of Nazareth, who he is and what he means for humankind. The Gospel according to St. Mark, the earliest of the recorded Gospels, (about 70 A.D.) says, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased'” (Mark 1:9-11).
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews calls him “… the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross … and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
St. Paul, the earliest of the New Testament writers, says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:15-20).
St. John’s Gospel calls Jesus the Word, saying “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).
The universal Christ
ELCA theologian, Carl Braaten, writes: “(Jesus) is clearly depicted as the Messiah of Israel, God’s only Son, the Lord of creation, the Savior of all humanity. The New Testament abounds with titles which identify the uniqueness of Jesus. It is simply not possible to … subtract these titles from the picture of the Man and have any real Jesus at all. We have no picture of Jesus as merely Jesus, to interpret as we please. The only Jesus we know is Jesus as the Christ, Son of God, Logos, Lord, Savior — all titles of highest possible honor, putting him in the place which Israel had reserved for God alone, so much so that ultimately the church’s “trinitarian formula (Father, Son and Holy Spirit)” (becomes) the only sound way to speak about the identity and meaning of Jesus. If we rightly read the New Testament, we learn that Jesus is not a son of God, but the only Son, not a savior, but the only Savior, not a Lord, but the Lord of lords, etc.” Braaten goes on to say: “The special quality of Jesus’ uniqueness is best grasped in terms of his universal meaning. The concrete person, Jesus of Nazareth, is unique because of his unequaled universal significance. The point of his uniqueness underlines his universality. If Jesus is the Lord and Savior, he is the universal Lord and Savior, not merely my personal Lord and Savior.”*
True God, true man
But for Christians all over the world he is that, too — a personal Lord and Savior. The earliest of the universal Christian creeds, confessed by ELCA Lutherans in worship and drawn from the New Testament witness, says:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father,
Through him all things were made
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
Incarnation, salvation, invitation
For ELCA Lutherans, as for all Christians, Jesus is fully man and fully God. We believe that in this Jesus atonement (the reconciliation of God and humankind) is accomplished. He is God’s promised Messiah, the Christ, humankind’s savior. In him, “God reveals to us most supremely who God is, how God relates to us and the world, and the depths to which God will go for our salvation.”
ELCA Lutherans believe that incarnated, enfleshed in this First Century human being, God’s promise to redeem all creation is fulfilled, God’s righteousness is shown, and God’s covenant with humankind is fulfilled. We believe that Jesus, who having been put to death by crucifixion by the decree of the Roman curator Pontius Pilate, was witnessed as resurrected, and became, in the words of St. Paul, the first born of the dead (Romans 6:1-11). We believe that in his death our own sin and separation from God died We believe that God intends humankind to participate in a resurrection like his that will unite us with him in his heavenly kingdom. Just so — as he did with St. Peter and St. Andrew — this Jesus invites each of us in our lifetime to “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19).
The Bible as encounter with the living Word
Lutherans believe that the Bible is the most important of all the ways God’s person and presence are revealed to humanity. That is because it is in reading the biblical books that we most reliably hear and encounter the living Word of God, who is the risen Jesus.
The Bible’s very name begins to tell us what we have between its covers. In Greek “the Bible” literally means “the books.” The Bible that Lutherans use is a collection of 66 books produced over a period of as much as 1,000 years. Each of these books had a life and use of its own prior to its incorporation into what we know as the “sacred canon.”
The Bible contains the story of God’s interaction with humankind, first through the understanding of the Jewish people (Old Testament, 39 books), and subsequently to all people through God’s self revelation in Jesus (New Testament, 27 books).
Lutherans believe that people meet God in Scripture, where God’s heart, mind, relationship to – and intention for – humankind are revealed. Through an ongoing dialogue with the God revealed in the Bible, people in every age are called to a living faith.
The Bible’s authority rests in God
ELCA Lutherans confidently proclaim with all Christians that the authority of the Bible rests in God. We believe that God inspired the Bible’s many writers, editors and compilers. As they heard God speaking and discerned God’s activity in events around them in their own times and places, the Bible’s content took shape. Among other things, the literature they produced includes history, legal code, parables, letters of instruction, persuasion and encouragement, tales of heroism, love poetry and hymns of praise. The varying types and styles of literature found here all testify to faith in a God who acts by personally engaging men and women in human history.
At the same time, we also find in the Bible human emotion, testimony, opinion, cultural limitation and bias. ELCA Lutherans recognize that human testimony and writing are related to and often limited by culture, customs and world view. Today we know that the earth is not flat and that rabbits do not chew their cud (Leviticus 11:6 ). These are examples of time-bound cultural understandings or practices. Christians do not follow biblically prescribed dietary laws such as eliminating pork from one’s diet (Leviticus 11:7) because the new covenant we have with God has replaced the Old Testament covenant God had with his people. Because Biblical writers, editors and compilers were limited by their times and world views, even as we are, the Bible contains material wedded to those times and places. It also means that writers sometimes provide differing and even contradictory views of God’s word, ways and will.
Listening to the living Jesus in the context of the church, we therefore have the task of deciding among these. Having done this listening, we sometimes conclude either that the writer’s culture or personal experience (e.g., subordination of women or keeping of slaves) seems to have prompted his missing what God was saying or doing, or that God now is saying or doing something new.
What is the Church?
The Christian church is made up of those who have been baptized and thus have received Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world. Sometimes it is referred to as “the Body of Christ.” Lutherans believe that they are a part of a community of faith that began with the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s presence with his people, on the day of Pentecost. The church, regardless of the external form it takes, is the fellowship of those who have been restored to God by Christ. Indeed, to be called into fellowship with Christ is also to be called into community with other believers.
To Lutherans, who subscribe to the Augsburg Confession, Article VII of that document defines the Church:
It is also taught among us that one holy Christian Church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among who the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel. For it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word. It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that ceremonies, instituted by (people), should be observed uniformly in all places. It is as Paul says in Eph. 4:4, 5, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”
The church is essential to Christian life and growth. Its members are all sinners in need of God’s grace. It has no claim on human perfection. The church exists solely for the hearing and doing of God’s Word. It can justify its existence only when it proclaims the living Word of Christ, administers the Sacraments and gives itself to the world in deeds of service and love. ELCA Lutherans recognize a wider fellowship of churches and are eager to work alongside them in ecumenical ministries and projects, in response to Paul’s description of the Church in Romans 12:4-5: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”