Allen Brill recommended that to learn more about Lutheranism I should read the Augsburg Confession, and kindly unearthed an online version. It's only 18 pages long, including the introduction, but it's quite an action-packed 18 pages.
The Confession was written by Luther's friend Philip Melanchthon, to spell out the movement's positions at the request of the Holy Roman Emperor. I mentioned before that I tend to see Lutheranism as a "via media," and they seemed to see themselves that way at the beginning also. The Confession affirms a lot of basic Catholic creeds and takes care to reject ancient heresies such as Pelagianism and Donatism, and also rejects some splinter groups around at the time, especially the Anabaptists.
I don't know a lot about the Anabaptists; apparently their only surviving descendants are the Mennonites, but spiritually they sound like the great-grandparents of evangelicals, as well as other unorthodox groups like the Quakers. They rejected infant baptism and institutionalized churches; they thought churches should be voluntary associations of believers. They had their wingnuts too: my encyclopedia says one guy, John of Leiden, took over a German town and proclaimed himself King David.
The picture that the Confession draws of them in the negative adds some more details. Melanchthon says Lutherans believe one needs to hear the Word, whereas Anabaptists "think that the Holy Ghost comes to men without the external Word, through their own preparations and works." I'm not sure what this means; maybe in an era when literacy largely belonged to the clergy, the Anabaptists denied the need for deep knowledge of the Bible, and relied on "inspiration." We are also told that Anabaptists deny that one can lose the Holy Ghost once justified; this sounds like the Calvinist "once saved, always saved" position. (There's no mention of Calvinists in this document; I'm assuming they hadn't split off yet.) The Anabaptists also believed that "there will be an end to the punishments of condemned men and devils." I don't know if that means they're universalists, or annihilationists.
Melanchthon dispatches the disputes with the Anabaptists fairly quickly, but the disputes with Catholicism, not surprisingly, he describes in more detail. In particular he explains the idea of "justification by faith" vs. "justification by works", something I was never that clear on myself.
Lutherans are not opposed to good works, Melanchthon says. Rather, they oppose the idea that doing certain things to expiate or prevent sins are what set you right with God. Along the way, he makes an argument actually very similar to Kynn's point a while ago, that faith entails a trust in God, rather than a belief in certain factual events. Or as Melanchthon puts it:
Men are also admonished that here the term "faith" does not signify merely the knowledge of the history, such as is in the ungodly and in the devil, but signifies a faith which believes, not merely the history, but also the effect of the history—namely, this article: the forgiveness of sins, to wit, that we have grace, righteousness, and forgiveness of sins through Christ.
Now, I think Melanchthon is too harsh in calling these "childish and needless," but I see the point he's getting at. When I think of Christian "good works" I think of loving one's neighbor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked etc. What Lutherans objected to was ritualistic and self-punishing actions undertaken out of fear of hell. Time and again, Melanchthon invokes the "terrified conscience," to which Christ is supposed to bring comfort, not new burdens. Good works should not spring from fear, says Melanchthon, but from faith:
And because through faith the Holy Ghost is received, hearts are renewed and endowed with new affections, so as to be able to bring forth good works. For Ambrose says: Faith is the mother of a good will and right doing.
I don't actually know what the Catholic side of all this is. Neil Dhingra recently mentioned the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that Catholics and Lutherans agreed on not long ago, which I haven't read yet. And Melanchthon doesn't actually accuse the church of teaching works justification so much as watching these ideas take over popular opinion, and not correcting them.
Melanchthon also spends a long time ripping into clerical celibacy and monasticism. Luther was himself a disaffected monk, so I guess the ire here is not surprising, and he particularly objected to people being sent to convents and monasteries against their will or when they were too young to know what they were doing. I've admired monastic life since I was a teenager studying Buddhism, so I can't go along with the wholesale rejection of the concept. Also, the scriptural arguments are less than totally compelling. He uses Matthew 19 ("For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven") to argue that not everyone is intended for the single life, which is true enough, but somehow that seems to morph into nobody being suited to the single life. Also, in the course of arguing that forced celibacy invites abuses, he makes the bizarre claim: "...as the world is aging, man's nature is gradually growing weaker, it is well to guard that no more vices steal into Germany."
I suspect some sort of medieval metaphysics are at work there, but anyway. He kind of sidesteps the question of who makes himself a eunuch because of the kingdom, if anybody. He presumes that being called to ministry is not necessarily hitched to being called to celibacy, but never explains why. I don't have a strong opinion about this one way or the other, but this didn't help clear it up.
He also mentions communion. From my sketchy knowledge of religious history at this time, communion was a weirdly contentious issue. For all their doctrinal difference, what apparently ultimately split the Lutherans and the Calvinists was whether Christ's body and blood were physically or just spiritually present in the bread and wine. Lutherans, meanwhile, differed from the Catholics on whether the body actually replaced the food or whether they were both present. It seems strange to make such a fuss about the exact physics of communion, though I understand its importance as a sacrament. But actually, the Confession doesn't really talk about that much. It mainly criticizes Catholic churches for not actually sharing communion with the congregation (instead having priests take it on their behalf) or sharing it only partially. Apparently to this day most Catholic churches only give bread and not wine for the Eucharist, and I don't know why.
Another hot topic that's not exactly discussed here is sola scriptura. It's something Catholics criticize Protestants for a lot, and with some reason, because it can lead to ridiculous abuses. Melanchthon often bolsters his objections to certain practices by saying they aren't Biblical, but it's clear that the main impetus for the objections was the practical effects of those practices at the time. If the Anabaptists really were discounting the importance of the Word, sola scriptura seems like another via media: a way of staying grounded in the Church's past and basic beliefs while providing a scythe to clear away later practices that Lutherans saw as cluttering up the message.
Anyway, my overall impression of the document is that it should be viewed through a historical lens, but it's striking how many of the conflicts are still with us in various ways. The basic configuration of Catholics, mainline Protestants and the radically unchurchy is still with us, as are the questions over the importance of faith vs. actions, the role of sexuality in spiritual life, and the power of the clergy. I was afraid when I started it that the Confession might seem dusty and ancient, but it actually feels quite alive.