Those Curious Lutherans
The Comforts of Northfield Theology
by S. M. Hutchens
It had been one of the failed intentions of the Touchstone editorial staff to send a representative to the yearly conference in Northfield, Minnesota, sponsored by the Center for Evangelical and Catholic Theology, publisher of the highly regarded journal Pro Ecclesia. The conference in June 1998 was “Sin, Death, and the Devil.” Since I am the editor who is supposed to “know Lutherans” and was available on the conference days, I was accordingly sent northwesterly, to somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Wobegon.
Despite the confidence of my fellow editors, I must confess I have always found the workings of the Lutheran theological mind rather foreign and uncongenial to my own. The best I am able to describe it, despite my years of training among Lutherans, is with the generalization that Lutheranism, for complex reasons having to do with its history, ethnic character, and the personality of its founder, is suspended between conceptions of the gospel as world-affirming freedom and world-resisting form, and in a peculiarly Lutheran way that is difficult for non-Lutherans to understand.
The Lutheran Tilt
It appears to me that Lutherans tend to see the fundamental polarity of Christian struggle not so much in terms of orthodoxy against heterodoxy or conservative against liberal as through an antithesis of law and gospel. This has worked itself out into something that looks, from the outside, very much like liberals versus conservatives—in the United States, the ELCA on the left, the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods prominent on the right—but the language and thought behind both schools or tendencies is decidedly Lutheran. On one side are those who hold to Lutheranism as defined in its confessions, sometimes with a rigor I have heard described as “Prussianism.” To these the gospel as rediscovered by Luther is principally a matter of dogmatic and sacramental recovery from Roman Catholicism and separation from Calvinism and the Protestant sects. It was the kind I first encountered in the writings of Franz Pieper and J. T. Mueller. On the other side are those who emphasize Luther’s rediscovery of evangelical freedom, but they vary rather widely in what they mean by the term. They range from disciplined Melancthonians to truly bizarre worldlings. Finding a place between these opposing, but still distinctively Lutheran groups is difficult, since each tends to define true Lutheranism or “evangelical Catholicism” in terms of being not like the other, or anybody else.
Justification sola fide serves as a rallying cry, but to the confessional Lutheran it tends to mean anti-works-righteousness, practiced within the inherited forms of Lutheranism, while to the liberal it stands for freedom from law as defined by progressivist canons. Each draws a strong dark line between law and gospel, but does not agree on where one leaves off and the other begins. Charges that the other is threatening to throw the faithful back under the law’s bondage, one by mistaking law for gospel and the other by indulging in sin and error, are frequent and plausible. The opposition, or at least apposition, of law and gospel is at the heart of the essential Lutheran dogmatic and ethical dilemma as I understand it. It is a problem inherited directly from Luther himself.
One is reminded of the movement of a ball bearing on a tilting board. The nature of the polarity of gospel-as-Lutheran-freedom (i.e., liberal Lutheranism) and gospel-as-Lutheran-form (i.e., conservative Lutheranism) is that although the tilt may be slight, it is enough to move the ball and keep it firmly on one side or the other. Those who manage the considerable feat of maintaining the gradient near zero degrees between freedom and form are, perhaps, the most balanced Lutherans, but are confronted on this plane with the question of exactly what criterion they are using to avoid slipping into dogmatism on the one hand or antinomianism on the other. It appears that many of these Northfield Lutherans are held on course by a vision of the Church with an other-than-Lutheran center that Lutherans are bound to seek, less to converse with as equals than to submit to.
An Ecumenical Seriousness
There was a sense here of emergence into something like a discovery that in the Church there is both freedom and form in abundance, and they do not contradict each other any more than law and gospel do. To those who are coming under this impression, ecumenical activity is not simply a Christian duty or a convivial summer pastime for academics and pastors, but chiefly a lifeline. One expects ecumenical gatherings such as that at Northfield to take the form of Lutherans telling other Christians “how they see it,” then listening to the responses in hopes of reaching an understanding that leaves the convictions of both intact—ecumenical dialogue as usually practiced, and not necessarily a bad thing. The Northfield conference did not, however, sound like that at all, but rather seemed to be based on a prior and fairly refined intuition among the participants of an existing ecumenical consensus, and willingness, in fact eagerness, to hear what other Christians with a reputation for orthodoxy and wisdom might have to say to the Lutherans—and the vast majority were Lutherans—who were gathered there.
Too many meetings of this type cancel their ecumenical quality at the outset by requiring participants to put up with the offense of female clergy, the church-dividing and chilling effect of which on ecumenical relations cannot be overestimated. Although some women pastors were present, I saw none in clerical garb. The prayers were led by a male chaplain who followed traditional forms. Despite the conviction of many of those present that women may be properly ordained to pastoral ministry, women as pastors were not forced upon the gathering—a sign of ecumenical seriousness. It would also appear that over the years this conference has developed a reputation for being a less than satisfying venue for people who wish to re-imagine Lutheranism—which may be simply to say that its organizers insist on remaining serious about Christian theology.
Stuck with the Devil & Tradition
Misjudging the time needed to get to Northfield, I missed Gilbert Meilaender’s keynote address “I Denounce the Devil and All His Ways,” but was present for Carl Braaten’s “Like a Roaring Lion, Seeking Whom He May Devour.” Braaten, whom I am honored to have had as my doctoral advisor, wasted no time equivocating on the existence of the devil. He made it plain that true Christianity, bound by the terms of Scripture, is stuck with him whether it likes it or not—that any theology that does not take the devil seriously cannot be taken seriously itself. A decision for the existence of the devil is a decision for the integrity of Christianity, for belief in his existence is an inescapable part of the Christian understanding of reality. The devil is a personal agent with consciousness, intelligence, and will, the “majestic center of evil in all persons and institutions.” The churches—with due caution—should recover and use the office of exorcist, and must take strong, unified public stands against demonic activity. This cannot be done well, however, without reconciliation among Christians, and a respectful return to the wellsprings of Christian authority.
I would note that none of these observations about the devil would have been remarkable or necessary in other parts of the Church as they are in mainline Protestantism, for things that have been retained elsewhere have been lost here. This is a place in need of reformation involving a return, as Braaten noted, ad fontes—to the sources of the tradition as both informing and defining authority. Some re-reforming Lutherans I have met think they have gained a more fully developed and critical appreciation of their faith by taking the byway through the theological haunts of the Spirit of the Age. Perhaps so, but this is very much like saying that one appreciates a faithful marriage more by having been promiscuous beforehand. They have paid for their knowledge more dearly, I think, than they know. Among ELCA Lutherans in particular, even those with a conservative bent, I have noticed a tendency to assume that the essential Christianity that they still hold deep in their souls will not be seriously harmed by prolonged dalliance with ideas that bring traditional doctrinal forms or critical historical verities into question. When the questioning attitude is allowed to persist, the church that makes this allowance begins to form itself around the questions rather than the answers, and to the degree it does becomes unevangelical, for the gospel is not a question, but an Answer.
Illness & Purity
Stanley Hauerwas, speaking of sickness and sin, began by noting that sickness is a manifestation of sin, but to say that without drawing false theological inferences is difficult. We have adopted the vocabulary of sickness and abandoned that of sin because we have become atheists who don’t wish to draw any theological inferences at all. Christians used to fear sudden death more than mortal illness. [One thinks of the elder Hamlet’s ghost, “sent to my account with all my imperfections on my head.”] But now, in a rather horrible inversion, we prefer to die suddenly because we fear the pain of sickness more than the God to whom death shall deliver us. The medical profession, unlike the ministry, still has moral status because while hardly anyone believes that an inadequately trained priest might endanger his salvation, there is no question that an incompetent physician is a danger to life. Outside the context of the Church, medicine becomes the most important thing.
St. Thomas Aquinas, of whom Hauerwas spoke at some length, taught that at the Fall the lower powers of man were severed from their subjection to the soul, and that sickness, death, and all defects are due to this lack of subjugation. Bodily illness, because it serves the purification of the soul, is part of the remedy for the malaise of the human condition, since it looks forward to death and the resurrection in which the body will at last be subject to the soul.
We don’t like to speak of sin, Hauerwas noted, as pollution, not only of the person but also of the community. When a Christian takes his body to a prostitute, he pollutes the Church, of which he is a member. (Presumably, then, the Church is justified in treating this and similar transgressions not as merely private affairs.) Helping people die well, an important fraternal duty, includes warning them about their sin and the necessity of repentance and holiness of life.
Respecting Truth & Charity
The most intensely theological address at the conference, and for me the most satisfying, was given by Anna Williams, a patristics scholar not only informed but also deeply influenced by the subject of her studies. I must here mention an exchange that took place in the question-and-answer period following her address, centering on the Eucharist as participation in the Hypostatic Union. The gravamen of the question was, “Given what we know about thus and such, how should we go about changing the views and practices of the Church to make them fit?” This, I suppose, was asked in all innocence, since the breathtaking arrogance behind such questions is the common coin and parlance of the theological mind that dominates the mainline churches, and in that context not the slightest bit unusual or arresting. It is just the kind of question speakers at many conferences are there to answer, for changing the Church to fit the advance of their science is precisely what they are about. Dr. Williams, however, seemed genuinely taken aback by it, and quite pointedly disclaimed her right or will to change the mind of the Church on anything. At that point I believe I saw several Orthodox and Catholic conferees being physically restrained, lest they run to the podium to kiss her.
Williams’s address was too involved to summarize adequately here—and parts of it were missed due to difficulty in hearing her—but here are some paraphrases of observations that struck me as notable: Sacramental theology and the liturgical tradition are to be taken as interpretive aids to the faith. There is more agreement on the effects of the sacraments than one might think. St. Thomas downplays sacrifice in favor of sanctification and emphasizes unity and deification—participation in the divine nature—with regeneration consequent upon union. Calvin is close to Aquinas here. Theology is the working out of the implications of Christology: the Last Supper exists only because of the Hypostatic Union, in which distinction and unity are held in balance.
The opposition between truth and charity in the sharing of Communion is represented by schools each of which has a valid basis in patristic theology. Abiding charity, Dr. Williams noted, at least dictates that we not be satisfied with our separate Eucharists. Perhaps none of them are valid. Perhaps all of them are. Since the division involves the sins of Christians, the operative rule is that we don’t confess those of others, but our own. It is without question a scandal that the great sacrament of unity should be the greatest sign of our division, but neither is it right to ignore real and substantial differences for the sake of a fragile and theologically ambiguous communion. Truth and charity must be held together. There is no clever or simple answer that will rebind us. The fraction of the bread is the appropriate time to pray for unity, looking forward to what we will enjoy in the future, but remembering that the Eucharist is also for now.
The Gospel of Life & the Resurrection
It may be that the greatest evidence of the Northfield Lutherans’ ecumenical seriousness was their willingness to hear, cheerfully and with obvious appreciation, a good-natured but in places slightly astringent lecture on Evangelium Vitae from Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. One wonders just what Luther would have thought of a gathering of reformed pastors and professors listening eagerly to a Catholic priest—a former Lutheran no less!—hold forth on something called Evangelium Vitae as if Catholics knew anything about the gospel. The topic assigned Fr. Neuhaus—“The Culture of Death”—could, however, hardly fail to call for exposition of the latest and most carefully considered pastoral teaching of his Church on the gospel of life as the Christian answer to the culture of death.
Since the gospel of life is the gospel, the culture of death is the anti-gospel. There is no functional division between dogma and ethics, so the Church’s beliefs on issues such as abortion and euthanasia are part of the structure of the faith. Our bodily life in time is part of our eternal existence, a penultimate reality that participates in the ultimate, so every attack on human dignity and life strikes at the core of the gospel: Gloria Dei vivens homo (Irenaeus). The human life is, at every point along its way, a project of God’s. Disagreement on moral judgments is disagreement about the gospel of life, and the rejection of human life, whatever form that rejection takes, is a rejection of Christ. These conflicts are still at the center of our public life. The culture of death is the darkness of John 1:5. We must remember that it cannot and will not overcome the light. No objections to papal teaching were heard from the floor.
The most inspiring presentation at the conference was from Vigen Guroian, who held the hall rapt with a meditation on the resurrection through the eyes of a friend who had lost his children in an Armenian earthquake. The man’s joy on earth completely extinguished, the light came back into his eyes once again through something only the Christian faith could provide—St. Paul’s teaching on the resurrection of 1 Corinthians 15. Laboriously read through a Russian translation, the message came through, and the man was restored to Christian hope.
Guroian’s presentation was replete with references to and love for his own Eastern Orthodox faith, delivered in a natural and unassuming way. The question-and-answer period was taken up not so much with inquiries on the topic of his discourse, but with requests for more information about Orthodoxy from people who knew little about it. As little as I think Orthodoxy needs to borrow from certain branches of Protestantism, I think it could have profited from an altar call at the end of that session, for had one been given, my guess is that there might have been fifty Lutheran pastors in the next available inquirer’s class.
What I believe I detected at this conference was Lutheranism as I have known it struggling to get out of something and into something else. It is a most excruciatingly difficult thing for Lutherans to do, primarily because, in characteristically Lutheran fashion, they are compelled by temperament and tradition to examine and define at great length and with great precision the ground over which they are moving. Lutherans are a theological people. But a deeper and more interesting question is the identity of the light toward which and by which they are advancing. It looks churchly, but not terribly Lutheran. Fr. Neuhaus made a passing remark on the newly published first volume of Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology to the effect that it looked a bit more catholic than Lutheran to him. This seems to define much that I saw in Northfield.
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“Those Curious Lutherans” first appeared in the January/February 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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