The Catholic Movement in German Lutheranism

This essay by the German Lutheran scholar Friedrich Heiler is from a collection I have in my library – Northern Catholicism, centenary studies in the Oxford and parallel movements, edited by N.P. Williams and Charles Harris, London SPCK 1933. This is a particularly fascinating book which I picked up many years ago at Thornton’s in London for a mere £4.

This whole book, with its collection of essays over 550 pages, seeks to compare and contrast the native Northern Catholic tradition in its various forms and Counter-Reformation Roman Catholicism. I like the geographical “Nordic” designations given to the British Isles, Scandinavia, Holland and North Germany. I would also include the north of France, Normandy in particular. This book was collated at a time when the Nazis were ranting and raving about German racial superiority, burning books and killing people – but the author of the Foreword dismisses such an idea. We northerners are not better than Latins or Slavs – but different.

What really determines the “northern” type of Catholicism seems to be its attitude towards authority and relative freedom from the survivals of pagan folk religion. We cannot afford to be too schematic in this, but we have a certain guide.

I will be dipping into Northern Catholicism quite a lot to set the spirit of this new blog.

Lutheranism, as with many branches of European Protestantism in the early twentieth century, lived through a movement not dissimilar to Anglicanism a few decades before. The Lutheran Catholic movement promotes liturgical practices and doctrines that bear some similarity to those found in both Roman Catholicism and Anglo-Catholicism. Lutheranism in the Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland and Estonia were much less influenced by the Reformation than in some other countries.

Lutheranism does not have the “high church” and “low church” of Anglicanism or the way of “comprehensiveness”, because they were always united by the doctrine expressed in the Book of Concord. However there were Calvinistic and Pietist tendencies in Lutheran history. Rationalism led to the neglect of liturgy, ceremonies, vestments or even the regular celebration of the Eucharist. Unlike the English Reformation, Lutherans were much less iconoclastic and most pre-Reformation churches have been remarkably preserved.

Marienkirche in Lübeck before the war

* * *


By Friedrich Heiler

In the eyes of many, the Anglican Church is the only one of the Reformed Churches which has retained Catholicity in essential points, and, after passing through a period of decadence, has triumphantly restored it through the great Oxford Movement. The peculiar line of development taken in the course of the centuries by German Protestantism deprives many observers of any glimpse of the vigorous catholicity which was a mark of Lutheranism in its original form. It was not Luther’s idea to set over against the ancient Catholic Church a new Protestant creation; he desired nothing more than that the old Church should experience an evangelical awakening and renewal, and that the gospel of the sovereign Grace of God should take its place as the centre of Christian preaching and piety. Luther and his friends wished, as they were never tired of emphasising, to be and to remain Catholic. For this very reason, the champions of the religion of the Gospel at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 were constrained to make an attempt to restore the broken union with the Roman Catholic Church. The credal statement drawn up by Melanchthon, which was submitted at Augsburg to the Holy Roman Emperor, and is known as the Confession of Augsburg (Augustana), is an eirenicon intended to serve as an instrument of reunion. The Protestant princes and cities therein set out a statement that the Protestant doctrine of Justification “stands in no single point in contradiction, either to Holy Scripture, or to the Catholic Church and the Roman Church, so far as can be ascertained from [official] theological teaching.” “Our Churches,” they say, “depart in no single Article of Faith from the Church Catholic: they lay aside only a few abuses which are innovations, and have been introduced at a later period of aberration in contravention of the Church’s Canons.” “Nothing with us in matters of doctrine and ceremony has been brought in which offends against Holy Scripture or the Church Catholic.” In a letter handed in by Melanchthon to the Papal Legate, Cardinal Campeggio, after the submission of the Confession, he goes even further and writes as follows: “We have no dogmatic teaching which differs from that of the Roman Church: … we are prepared to obey the Roman Church if only, with that kindness which she has consistently shown to each and every people, she will withdraw a few points or lighten their burden. . . . Furthermore, we acknowledge with the deepest respect the authority of the Pope of Rome and of the whole ecclesiastical constitution, provided that the Pope does not reject us. This loyalty to Christ and the Church of Rome we will maintain unto our last breath.” The wish and desire of the Confessors of Augsburg “that the schism may come to an end, and a true and united Religion be restored,” were not destined to be fulfilled. The projects of Reunion came to nothing, chiefly because the Roman Church doubted the sincerity of the wishes in that direction expressed by the Lutheran theologians and princes. The separation between Lutheranism and Rome became fixed and final. But the remarkable fact is, that in spite of the finality of the schism, the very project of union which contained the great confession of Catholicity became the credal groundwork of Lutheranism, defining its normative dogmatic position. It was to the Confession of Augsburg, which Melanchthon in his Apologia calls “pia et catholica confessio,” that the Lutheran pastors and theologians were required to pledge their faith; and even to-day this Confession finds a place in the ordination vows of many German Churches.2

In accordance with the principles of the Augustana, Lutheranism retained in dogma, in constitution, and in worship, its connection with the old Church. The “ecumenical Creeds,” that is the Apostles’ Creed, the Creed of Nicsea, and the Athanasian Creed, retained their place as normative. Episcopacy was preserved in all the northern Churches, in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland. In Sweden and in Finland the apostolic succession through bishops was continued. It was lost in Finland only a few decades ago. In the matter of liturgy, the old forms were purged of only a few “unevangelical” elements. The normal Lutheran Communion Service is nothing but a reformed Roman Mass. Matins and Vespers of the Roman Daily Office continued in use in like manner. Private confession and absolution remained in use in the Lutheran Church until well into the eighteenth century. Vestments, such as the alb and the chasuble, the use of incense, the sign of the cross, the singing of Latin anthems and hymns were to be found in the German Lutheran Churches up to within that same century also. In contrast to what happened in Calvinist and Zwinglian lands, mediaeval churches were not despoiled of their pictures by the Lutherans, but were preserved in all their richness and beauty. Even tabernacles were retained, though no longer put to any use. The schools of Lutheran theology took care to emphasise the Catholic character of Lutheran teaching. Johann Gerhard expressly entitled his Defence of Lutheranism a “Confessio Catholica.” Molanus and the philosopher Leibniz vigorously championed the principle of Tradition, and laboured for restoration of union with the Church of Rome. Thus the Lutheranism of the seventeenth century was marked by a strong impulse towards Catholicism.

It was in the eighteenth century that the great change in Lutheranism took place, especially in Germany, the land of its birth. Consciousness of any connection with the Church Catholic faded : the rationalism of the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) became supreme in theology, in worship, and in the spiritual life. In the Churches of Germany many a pre-Reformation usage in divine worship died out, or else, as in Prussia, was forcibly suppressed. The fusion of Lutheranism with the system of the “Reformed” Church in the so-called “Union” in Prussia accelerated the process of de-catholicisation. In the nineteenth century, however, a powerful reaction against the Protestant Christianity of the Enlightenment took place. About the same time when in England the Oxford Movement began to breathe new life into the Anglican Church, there began in Germany a re-birth of Lutheranism. The jurist F. J. Stahl, who led the protest against the Prussian “Union”; the Hessian theologian A. F. C. Vilmar; W. Lohe, the great pastor and liturgiologist; Wackernagel, the hymn-writer; the liturgiologists Kliefoth and Schoberlein; and lastly Rocholl, the champion of the Lutheran Free Church of Prussia—these were the Lutheran personalities who endeavoured to restore to currency and esteem in the life and thought of German Lutheranism the Catholic fundamentals of the Confession of Augsburg. Their efforts did not indeed win results equal to those achieved by the Anglo-Catholic leaders, such as Keble and Hurrell Froude, Pusey and Newman. The ever-growing “Liberalism” in theology, the individualistic and pietistic form taken by the spiritual life of simple bible-loving Christians, together with the ever-increasing bitterness of the conflict between Protestantism and the Roman Church—these were the principal causes which prevented the leavening of the whole of German Protestantism through this “neo-Lutheran” Movement.

The end of the Great War was followed by a fresh movement towards the Catholicity proclaimed in the Confession of Augsburg. In the year 1917, the Jubilee year of the Reformation, Pastor Lowentraut of Lausitz published a new eirenicon under the title ” One Holy Catholic (allgemeine) Church,”in which he showed that between the teaching of Lutheranism in its classical form, and official Roman Catholic dogma, no essential difference was to be discerned. This work was ordered to be suppressed by the ecclesiastical authorities of Berlin— a modern Protestant auto-da-fe! In the same year Pastor Hansen of Schleswig set forth 95 theses, modelled on the 95 theses of Luther, wherein in outspoken terms he criticised with the utmost severity the declension of faith and life in German Protestantism, and preached a penitential return to the Church Catholic; but, in contrast to Lowentraut, he drew a clear distinction between “Catholic” and “Roman.”3 These theses provided the occasion for the foundation of the “High Church Union” (Hochkirchliche Vereinigung) which became the vehicle of the Evangelical-catholic Movement in Germany, and found its organ of publicity in the periodical Die Hochkirche, begun in 1919.4 This Union demanded the restoration of episcopacy on the basis of the apostolical succession; the celebration of the Holy Supper as the central act of Divine Worship; the revival of private confession; richer and more beautiful liturgical forms; and lastly, the foundation of religious brotherhoods. In 1924 the Movement divided into a denominational Church group which championed a more sectarian type of Lutheranism, and an oecumenical group which set itself to establish relations with Catholic Christians (Orthodox, Anglican, and Roman) and had its organ in the periodical Una Sancta. After this journal had been banned by the Roman Church, it took a new form and a new name, Religious Thought (Religiose Besinnung) 5 In this form it remains to-day an organ for mutual discussion between Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians in Germany.

After the reunion of the two groups in 1927, the High Church Movement exhibited new forms of activity. Until this date its programme had dealt almost entirely with matters of theoretical interest only, but now, with greater boldness, it began to undertake practical schemes as well. The Eucharist began to be celebrated in the rich forms of the Catholic rite; retreats were held; the practice of private confession grew; a breviary for the Daily “Hours” (Stundengebet) was published.6 Out of the bosom of the High Church Union arose an Order on Franciscan lines, the Brotherhood of the Evangelical Franciscan Tertiaries. This Order set forth the Franciscan ideal in the spirit of Evangelical Christianity.7 The most important creation of the High Church Movement is the Evangelical Catholic Eucharistic Society, founded in 1930 as a religious fraternity or brotherhood for Germany and Switzerland. Although its operations are confined to German Protestant local Churches, and its members are priests, theologians, and pastors of those local Churches, nevertheless, it accepts Catholic dogrn^. practises Catholic worship, and possesses the Catholic system of ecclesiastical order. The seven Catholic Sacraments are dispensed, the Eucharist in the Catholic sense and with Catholic belief in its nature is regularly celebrated with an elaborate eucharistic liturgy.8 Reservation of the Sacred Species is practised, and venerable Catholic rites, such as those of Holy Week, are in use. Entry into this brotherhood is accomplished by the reception of Confirmation at the hands of a Bishop. This Sacrament is administered by laying on of hands accompanied by anointing with Holy Chrism. The brotherhood dispenses all the old traditional Orders of the Ministry (the minor orders, the sub-diaconate, the diaconate, the priesthood, and the episcopate). Apostolical succession was received from the Galilean Church of the south of France, a Church which, though strictly Catholic, is independent of Rome, and whose Episcopate goes back to the Syrian Jacobite Church of Antioch, and is therefore reckoned valid even by Roman theologians.9

With these High Church practices, the Movement combines a deep devotion towards Lutheranism. It uses in divine worship Luther’s translation of the Bible, and the German Protestant hymns. Luther and the works of Lutheran theologians are eagerly read and used. All the prayers which are taken from the Roman or other ancient Western Liturgies are subjected, so far as is necessary, to adjustment in order to bring them into harmony with the Evangelical doctrine of Grace. For what the High Church Movement seeks is no mere outward and capricious blending of Catholic and Protestant usages and traditions, but an inner synthesis between Catholic dogma and worship and the Protestant faith in Justification and Grace, as these were preached by the Reformers, and above all by Martin Luther. For an “Evangelical Catholic” the terms “Catholic” and “Evangelical” are not contradictions, but blend harmoniously together. The “comprehensiveness” which is the very essence of Catholicity, the effort to achieve completeness, and the fullness and variety which are characteristic of catholic devotion, must be combined with concentration upon the one thing needful, viz. the will for purity and sincerity which it is the aim of Evangelical preaching to evoke.

What the High Church Movement in its new form seeks to bring about is nothing else than what the Confessors of Augsburg in 1530 had in mind when they were vis-d-vis the Church of Rome.10 Of course the Movement seeks union not only with Rome, but also with the entire Catholic Church, above all with Rome’s elder Eastern sister, and with the Catholic Churches of the West separated from Rome. The Movement works for close relationship with the Orthodox Church of the East, with which it knows that on all dogmatic points it is at one. It works also for relations with Anglo-Catholic circles, and with High Church and oecumenical groups in the Protestant Churches of Europe ; for the High Church Movement in no way limits itself to German Lutheranism, but embraces Lutheranism all over Europe and, indeed, European Calvinism likewise. It is most interesting to observe how similar Movements are to be found in the Lutheran Churches of Scandinavian and Baltic lands, in Iceland, and in Finland. They are found also in German-speaking and French-speaking Switzerland among adherents of the Reformed (Calvinistic) Church ; among French Huguenots ; in Calvinistic Holland ; and in the Italian Waldensian Church to which the influence of Calvinism extends. In all these countries there are eminent and zealous champions of the Catholic Movement. Thus, in Latvia there is Bishop Irbe, who was consecrated by Archbishop Soderblom, and has now retired. In Sweden there are the Pastors Lysander and Erlandson, also Pastor Berggren who is the leader of a Brotherhood called the “Societas S. Brigittae.” In Denmark there is Pastor Waldemar Brenk;   in Norway the late Pastor Hertzberg; in France Professor Wilfred Monod, the founder of the Franciscan Brotherhood of the ” Veilleurs”; in Holland Pastor Oberman and Professor van der Leeuw; in Italy Pastor Ugo Janni, editor of the periodical Fede e Vita; in the west of Switzerland Pastor Paquier; in the east Pastor G. A. Glinz. Then again there is the “Berneuchen” Movement in Protestant Germany—so called from the place where its first meeting was held. This, in spite of the radical Protestantism of its starting-point, has grown steadily nearer to the High Church Movement.11 The opinion expressed years ago by Friedrich von Hiigel, namely, that in the most refined minds of Protestantism a renaissance of the Catholic principle was imminent, is truer than ever to-day. A new spirit, Catholic and (Ecumenical, is spreading through the world—a spirit essentially one, however varied in the different countries may be the forms in which it manifests itself.

Of course in every country militant Protestantism stands with sword drawn against any Catholic awakening. This war is waged most fiercely in Germany against the High Church Movement. We have here to speak of systematic attacks, less from the side of the Protestant Church authorities —which are in no position to take penal action against High Church clergymen, since they also acquiesce in the continued ministrations of pastors who deny the Godhead of Christ—than from the side of the “Evangelische Bund” as it is called, a militant Protestant organisation which is always at war with the Roman Church, and which now includes in its objects strong antagonism to the High Church Movement. More dangerous and more widely spread than this open warfare is quiet but systematic opposition. Generally speaking, a champion of High Church or Catholic ideas to-day is proscribed in German Protestantism: in the most favourable circumstances he will be regarded as a foolish enthusiast; not seldom, however, as a cunning emissary of Rome and as a dangerous enemy of Evangelical Christianity. Even the majority of the German adherents of the (Ecumenical “Life and Work” and “Faith and Order” Movements take up a negative attitude towards the High Church Movement. A very high degree of love of truth and of the spirit of sacrifice is therefore demanded from anyone who in Germany would openly profess High Church and Evangelical Catholic opinions. What gives us constant comfort and hope amid all opposition is the example of the Catholic Movement in England, which likewise decade after decade has had to go through the fire of opposition and affliction.

However, all the opposition which arises from narrowness of mind, ignorance, and often quite irreligious motives in addition, will not be able to stay the Catholic Movement. And it is just this very German Protestantism, in which to-day the enmity against all that is Catholic is so strong, which must be the future theatre of the Movement for Christian Reunion. More than seventy years ago the High Church Lutheran jurist Stahl wrote as follows: “Among the German people the schism in the Churches started, in that people and there alone lie the seeds of Reunion, if only they remain true to the spirit of their own, their German Reformation.” And no less a person than Archbishop Soderblom expressed his agreement with this utterance when he wrote to the Jesuit Pribilla: “More than once I have expressed my conviction that if in fact a union (with the Church of Rome) ever takes place, it will come about in G&rmany.” It is that hope to which the great High Church German theologian of the nineteenth century, A. F. C. Vilmar, gave expression in solemn words when he said : “The time is coming when it will no longer be as a pious but distant hope, but as a present blessed fact, that we can say ‘there is One Shepherd and one flock,’ bound close and fast together in one mind and one faith and one hymn of praise in an outward as well as an inward communion on this earth and in this present life.”


1. Translated by W. R. V. Brade.

2. See, further, Confessio Augustana, special number of the Die Hochkirche, published on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the Confession of Augsburg.    Ernst Reinhardt, Munich, 1930.

3. New edition, Munich, 1930. Ernst Reinhardt. “Stimuli et Clavi, i.e. Theses adversus huius temporis errores et abusus, quas publice sive disputando sive scribendo defendet H. Hansenius.” From these theses the following may be quoted:
2.  Protestantismus qui dicitur non habet causam jubilandi, sed poenitentiam agendi in cilicio et cinere.
3.  Motus ille reformatorius, qui initium coepit anno 1517, multa quidem bona, sed plura mala commovit, vel, ut ita dicam, unum expulit diabolum, septem nequiores admisit.
4.  Reformatio quae dicitur iure meritoque deformatio est dicenda, quia, quae enixe et bona fide expetebat, parum assecuta est.
5.  Ecclesia tunc reformanda prave vel non sine vitiis reformata est.
10. Coetus protestantium catholicitatis obliti a fide verae ecclesiae abducti sunt.
13.  Protestantism! nunc haec est indoles: massa perditionis et singuli fideles vel singuli coetus fidelium; infidelitas percrebescens et parvus grex credentium; mors communis omnium et scintillulae vitae in paucis.
14.  Protestantismus ut denuo valeat auctoritate aliqua in re publica, pristinae suae meminerit catholicitatis.

4. Since 1930 edited by the present writer; published by Ernst Reinhardt, Munich.

5.  Now edited by Professor K. Thieme; published by Frommann, Stuttgart.

6.  O. J. Mehl’s work Continue instant in Prayer (Haltet an am Gebet), an Evangelical Breviary. Two vols. Grimmen in Vorpommern, 1930. This work appeared as a private issue by the author. The authorised Breviary of the High Church Union bears the title Evangelical-Catholic Breviary (Evangelisch-katholisches Brevier). The First Part appeared in 1932 as a special issue of Die Hochkirche (Ernst Reinhardt, Munich).

7.  See further Heiler, Im Ringen um die Kirche (E. Reinhardt, Munich, 1931, p. 517 et seq.

8. See further in Hochkirche, 1931, pp. log et seq., 1932, pp. 162 et seq. The Evangelical Catholic Celebration of the Holy Eucharist appeared in Munich 1931, published by Ernest Reinhardt.

9. See further Hochkirche, 1931, pp. 285 et seq.

10. For statement and programme of the theological groundwork see Heiler, Im Ringen urn die Kirche, published by E. Reinhardt, Munich, 1931.

11. See further Hochkirche, 1930, pp. 116 et seq., 1932, pp. 77 et seq.

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6 Responses to The Catholic Movement in German Lutheranism

  1. William Tighe says:

    Of course, by the end of his life in ca. 1968 Dr Heiler was strongly in favour of the “ordination” of women.

    • He was known to be quite modernist in several aspects. Catherine Pickstock, known for her part in the Radical Orthodoxy movement, has wonderful ideas about the liturgy, but also favours women’s ordination.

      That being said, beware of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus!

  2. This was a very interesting time and period, but somehow the Gospel of Luther… Christ and the Kerygma, were left, or buried, or not the first place. Again, it simply must be ‘Word & Sacrament’! No doubt German and Protestant liberalism had a real hand in much of this! Sadly, this gets pushed to the background, and receives little mention!

  3. sargael says:

    All this is new to me- catholic movements in lutheranism.

    -Speaking of Nordic Catholicism- there was a time when exchanges between Norse christendom and the East were regular. I have the vague recollection of a Saxon princess marrying into the Kievan princely family.

    -The ‘Eastern’ or at least Slavic factor could perhaps be seen at work in Bohemia and neighbouring lands with the Utraquist movement.

    – Don’t the Ultrajectines exhibit something of a nordic streak?

    -Finally, Normandy and northern france as one of the hotbeds of Jansenism

    • Sargael: Indeed Luther’s Christology was always “Catholic”, as we can see in Luther’s Nicene “homoousios”. But I am baffled too how some so-called Lutheran people can move to “Catholicism” on the doctrine of Justification? And note here too Luther’s great doctrine and Theology of the Cross (theologia crucis), contra “theologia gloriae”.

  4. Pingback: Basilikon Doron | Anglican Rose

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