Russian Lutheranism: Between Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism
Sergei B. Filatov and Aleksandra Styopina
The restoration of confessions destroyed or repressed during the Soviet era has often led to the emergence of religious and ideological phenomena that do not have any analogs in prerevolutionary Russia. To a degree this is true about any confession, for it is impossible to enter the same river twice. Even post-Soviet Orthodoxy is far from being the same as prerevolutionary Orthodoxy. However, the metamorphosis of Russian Lutheranism has perhaps been much greater than that experienced by other confessions in Russia.
The Emergence of Ethnic Russian Lutheranism
Until the 1980s Lutheranism in Russia was represented by congregations of Germans who were mostly resettled in Stalin's time from the European part of Russia to the Urals and Siberia. They consisted mostly of older believers who were not well educated. These Lutheran congregations were quickly decreasing because of growing emigration. In the 1960s and '70s Lutheranism experienced less persecution [than it had under Stalin], but was dying, nevertheless, for lack of young people and intelligentsia. However, the 1980s saw radical changes in this situation. The most important was the conversion to Lutheranism of a great number of Russians. Lutheran churches have now emerged in almost all large cities of our country with a majority of members being Russian. Lutheran parishes in some cities, for example in Izhevsk, Vladivostok, Krasnoyarsk, and Novosibirsk, can count many hundreds of believers. The social composition of the congregations has changed as well: youth, university students, and persons with higher education play major roles. These people, who by their own life deny the famous slogan of Fyodor Dostoevsky, "Russian equals Orthodox," consider themselves Russian patriots and at the same time followers of Lutheran teaching (even more faithful followers than contemporary Germans or Swedes).
Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, Lutheranism has developed a religious niche acceptable to a great extent by many Russians searching for God but unable to find Him either in Orthodoxy or the more radical forms of Protestantism.
Lutheran Theological distinctives
What are the fundamental features of Lutheran religiosity that have become so attractive to Russian people? Lutherans, representing the first successful Protestant movement, have kept much of their Catholic heritage and, unlike Baptists, Methodists, and Adventists, do not espouse extreme theological positions. Lutheranism does not take a position on the predestination of some to election and others to damnation, but they do acknowledge God's omnipotence and salvation by grace alone. In contrast to other Protestant confessions, Lutheranism places great emphasis upon liturgical life. Lutheran worship services are more solemn and mystical than worship in most Protestant confessions. In their conversations with other people, Russian Lutherans stress their close affinity to the Orthodox Church, its mysteries, and their adherence to common Christian beliefs. Lutherans believe God requires a free and conscious response to His love, more than the observance of formal rules in everyday life. The Bible is the source of truth for Lutherans, but rather than concrete answers, it provides a foundation for thoughts and conclusions.
Lutheranism makes a clear distinction between the sphere of the gospel (religious life proper) and the sphere of the law (regulated by the government). That is why Lutherans have been comfortable with both monarchies (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Germany before 1914) and republics (U.S., Weimar Germany, Finland, and Iceland). The sphere of politics and social life is recognized as autonomous, but a believer is expected to fulfill civil duties because this is God's will.
Lutheranism combines faith and reason, is liturgical and intellectual at the same time, has deep connections with European culture, and easily establishes connections with Russian culture. Lutherans are oriented towards Western political values, but are not connected to them as directly as are Baptists or Pentecostals. Lutherans can be conservative or liberal. In addition, it is inherent in their nature to have a strong emphasis upon community life and social outreach.
Conservative and Liberal Theology
The regeneration of Finnish Ingrian and German Lutheran churches led to support from Finland and Germany. At times very conservative Russian Lutheran congregations have been in conflict with more liberal Lutherans from the West. Today the Lutheran Church of Ingria has two major overseas strategic allies in the Church of Finland and the conservative American Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, whose ideology is close to that of conservative Russian Lutherans.
The reconstruction of German Lutheranism began after perestroika under the direction of the German Lutheran Church. However, this cooperation brought some challenges to German Lutherans: emigration and fundamentalism. When German leadership tried to make Lutheran Brethren congregations more open, such congregations joined Evangelical Christians-Baptists. The conflict became very sharp at the General Synod of 1994. Fundamentalist Lutheran Brethren congregations wanted to choose a Russian to lead the Lutheran Church in Russia, but Germans pressed for the election of someone from Germany. At the same time, Russian Lutheran churches began growing rapidly due to the Russian urban intelligentsia's interest in German Lutheran culture and language.
In the West, liberal German Lutheran pastors do not insist on the priority of the Lutheran Church, but rather teach a common Christianity. This is very appealing to many Russian intelligentsia who are religious, but do not want to be in a church. A good example is Pastor Manfred Brokmann in Vladivostok, who is a very talented musician and poet and a strong charismatic leader. Although he is perhaps the most liberal German pastor, many others share similar views and similar successes. Lutheran churches in St. Petersburg, Kazan, Yaroslavl, Omsk, and Khabarovsk, led by pastors from Germany, have become very influential.
One of the reasons for Lutheranism's success is that it fills the empty niche of liberal Christianity in Russia. The Orthodox Church and almost all Protestants and Catholics (even more so Old Believers) hold traditional views on the literal validity of the Scriptures' text and moral principles. The paradox of the situation is that, in contrast to the ideology of the existing churches in Russia, the rest of the population is more secularized than in the West. People not only attend church less often, but they do not hold to the traditional Christian beliefs and morals of people in the West.
Probably the most successful attempt in creating a Russian Lutheran Church is connected with Vsovolod Lytkin, a theater director in Novosibirsk. At the end of the 1980s Lytkin was baptized in a church in Estonia, studied in a pastor's school, and became a spiritual disciple of Jaan Kiivit, Archbishop of Tallinn. In 1993 he organized a Lutheran congregation in Novosibirsk under the jurisdiction of the Lutheran Church of Estonia. By 2000, his church grew into the Bible Lutheran Church, with parishes in many Siberian cities. Lytkin believes his church satisfies the interest of Russian people in Lutheranism without requiring them to identify with a foreign national culture (German or Finnish). He is convinced that Western Protestant and Russian Orthodox religiosity are two extremes: the former, too rational and secularized; the latter, too mystical and emotional. He is especially severe in his criticism of the contemporary German Lutheran Church which, he argues,"is penetrated by the ideas of Calvinism, Baptism, feminism, moral relativism, and secularism and is an example of spiritual degradation." Many scientists in Akademgorodok near Novosibirsk who attend his church say that only the Lutheran Church allows them to organically combine "reason and faith, the rationality of science and the irrationality of religious experience."
Lutheran Russian Roots
Russian Lutherans sense a belonging and cultural rootedness to the Russian soil that is not diminished by belonging to the Lutheran Church. Viacheslav Pliaskin, pastor of Bible Lutheran Church in Irkutsk, said: "There are two major religions in Russia, Orthodoxy and Lutheranism. Since the sixteenth century Lutheranism together with Orthodoxy has formed a part of Russian culture, science, and politics. Without the Lutheran tradition in Russia, only half of Russia would be left and the Lutheran part is not the worst half. You will become tired if you start counting everything that Lutherans have given to Russia. The regeneration of Russian Lutheranism is the restoration of the natural order of things."
One uneducated Russian lady from Saratov expressed it best, explaining the appeal of "Lutheran culture" for Russians: "The Lutheran Church respects people and people here respect each other. Our pastor tells us that whoever misbehaves at the table does not have the true faith. You can laugh, but I am convinced that these words are true. I am surrounded by rudeness, boorishness, obscene language, constant drinking, deception, and violence. After this, when I come to church, I feel like I am in paradise, I am already saved here."
C. S. Lewis-Style "Mere Christianity"
In spite of all the conflicts among different Russian Lutheran factions, including mutual accusations of heresy and absence of grace, Russian Lutherans not only have a conscious understanding of belonging to the same confession, but they also maintain fellowship, hold discussions, and engage in theological debates. In Russian Lutheranism Christian tradition and reason coexist in what one could call a C.S. Lewis-style "mere Christianity." The resulting atmosphere of freedom generates ongoing reflection over major problems of Christian theology. Because of the presence of educated professional theologians and studious, young clergy among Russian Lutherans, no other confession in Russia today has so favorable a condition for the emergence of serious and original religious thinkers. Russian Lutheranism is becoming a serious spiritual and intellectual challenge to Russian Orthodoxy, which the latter will have to soon recognize. Let us hope it will be able to give a truly creative response to such a challenge.
Sergei B. Filatov is an Orthodox layman who holds a doctorate (candidate) degree in history. He is a senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and head of a Keston Institute research team investigating religion throughout Russia. Aleksandra Styopina is a student research assistant for Professor Filatov.
Edited excerpt published with permission from Druzhba narodov, No. 9 (2002). The unabridged article in Russian may be accessed at http://magazines.russ.ru/druzhba/2002/9.html. Translated by Vitaliy Bak.
Sergei B. Filatov and Aleksandra Styopina, "Russian Lutheranism," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Spring 2003), 7.
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