Thursday, December 25, 2008

On Law, Nature, and Homoerotic Acts

There is so much confusion about homosexual behavior within Lutheran circles, that I shall try again to explain what was once thought obvious by Christianity: Homoerotic behavior, like many other human behaviors, is sinful. That this is true ought not to be startling to Lutherans who know that human beings perpetually sin against God in thought, word and deed. Curiously, however, Lutherans have increasing difficulty confessing the sinfulness of such acts, and indeed, of many types of sexual behaviors and practices.

The Lutheran position on the rectitude of homosexual behavior should be straightforward. After all, the great theological tradition has always held that there is an order of creation. The order of creation is the direct artifact of God’s design; it instantiates God’s primary intentionality for existence as such. The Biblical tradition has affirmed that it is part of God’s primary intentionality that a man and woman should leave their parents and dwell in life-long relationships with each other. God is the author of creation so it bears an imprint of his “eternal law” that can be apprehended through conscience as “natural law.” The natural law tradition expresses what God has objectively ordered nature to be.

Under the conditions of existence, the order of creation has fallen into sin from which it cannot free itself. Things that are, are not what they ought to be. Accordingly, human beings by their own natures (fallen human natures) are not, and cannot be, what they are by nature, by that which has been ordered by God. Natural law expresses God’s universal objective ordering; natural human natures instantiate the particular subjective ordering of individuals after their own ends, ends that are not part of God’s primal intentionality.

Given that the Biblical record unambiguously places man and woman together in the paradisical state within the order of creation, the question becomes what can the redeemed church support and proclaim as consistent with this order of creation. Obviously, human beings naturally are not who they are to be by nature. As fallen human beings living the redeemed life, what ought they to think about nature and about their natural acts that are not natural?

There are two choices: One can say that the orders of creation must be adjusted or accommodated to what is naturally possible. Some individuals are obviously natured and nurtured not to desire sexual and romantic relationships with members of the other sex. This is obvious. Moreover, some individuals are obviously natured and nurtured not to be able easily to avoid sexual promiscuity, sexual objectification, masturbation, serial monogamy, premarital sexual activity, etc. This is obvious as well. One can thus say that that which is not attainable, must be not be regarded as sinful, or must be differently understood as sinful.

The other option, of course, is to follow the tradition and claim that what we are sexually not who we ought to be. This option identifies divorce as sin, and understands how humans can be divorced - - particularly in a society like ours. This option identifies the addictive masturbation, pornographic consumption, and sexual promiscuity (especially serial monogamy) as sinful, but still understands how humans could be engaged in these behaviors - - particularly in a society like ours. Finally, this option finally identifies homoerotic behavior as sinful, yet understands how humans can be engaged in these behaviors - - particularly in a society like ours.

The fundamental question is whether we want to regard homoerotic behavior as consistent with the order of creation or not. To my mind, groups like the WordAlone Network have never claimed that divorce is consistent with the order of creation. If they were to have said that, and claimed that homoerotic behavior was inconsistent with it, then the WordAlone Network would be guilty of unfairly picking a particular sin to scorn. Questions about sex and sexuality are driven by society. General cultural forces generate the question of the propriety of homoerotic behavior, and it is this question which confronts the churches now; it is this question that needs a response. I do not believe there are many at synodical and churchwide conventions who want to claim that divorce, masturbation, and sexual promiscuity ought to be blessed within a liturgical context. This point must be seen clearly.

Unfortunately, Lutherans have abandoned any effort to think ontologically about divine law. They squirm at words like 'eternal law' and any attempt to identify a teleologically-ordered creation with divine law. They want to talk about the law only in so far as it confronts us, thus confusing the experience of being curbed by the law with the ontological contour of the law itself. But acting merely in accordance with the law, or acting due to the law does not change the meaning or ontology of the law. The law is the universal objective will of God for His creation, an objective will that is almost wholly obscured under the conditions of existence, an objective will grounding the promulgation of particular divine laws.

The time has come for Lutherans to rescue the divine law from its security within the phenomenology of human existence, and make again the bold and risky claim that the divine law really is God's, and that human apprehension of that law does not that law make.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Lutheran Theology of Nature

Lutheran theology has suffered these last 200 years from a turning away from nature towards a single-minded concentration upon value. The work of the German Protestant theologian Abrecht Ritschl (1822-89) is characteristic of this turn. Ritschl held that God is knowable only through Christ, and that theology must therefore concentrate on ethics and repudiate metaphysics. Of course, by repudiating metaphysics, Ritschl found it difficult to situate divine reality into the reality of nature. Metaphysics is concerned with those most basic generalities presupposed by experience as such. If God’s reality is denied metaphysical reality, then God is not part of the “basic generality” of what is, and if this be so, then God clearly cannot connect to nature.

The disconnect between God and nature in Ritschl is just the working out of the trajectory set by Kant a hundred years before. God is, for Kant, clearly not the kind of being who can sustain causal relationships with natural entities, or that can be ingredient in natural states of affairs or events. By placing God within the Ideals of Pure Reason, Kant took Him out of nature entirely. Such a de-divinization of nature nicely left nature as a natural object to be studied and explored on its own. Following previous Enlightenment thinkers, Kant’s move gave nature autonomy over and against the divine. Though Kant struggled mightily in the Critique of Judgment to bring back teleology and the non-natural generally into the world, much of the subsequent philosophical, scientific, and theological trajectory did not buy it. Theologians in general had to find a place for God outside of nature; they had to find a place for God within human experience generally, within the ontological depths of the structure of human being itself.

Lutheran theology has drunk deeply from the trough of Kant. In so doing, it has paid precariously little attention to nature for the last two hundred years. Although it can claim one of the greatest of all scientists, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), it has for centuries been quite unconcerned with natural reality, preferring the safety of reflecting on human experience. In thinking about this, it now occurs to me that the general marginalization of Lutheran theology may have everything to do with this disconnect from natural science. If God cannot be found in nature, why think He can do much even - - if He is somehow found in the depths of the self?

I believe the time is right for Lutheran theology to retrieve the early Enlightenment idea of there being two books: the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. If the Book of Scripture can be reclaimed as something that has a particular internal clarity which places Christ as its center, why cannot the Book of Nature be read with an internal clarity that places the Creator God at its center? Of course, there are many reasons not to read either book in that way. My point is, however, that if Lutheran theology wants to retain a discourse that is to survive, it has to give its discourse robust truth conditions. These conditions are given when claims can be made about Christ that are finally not indexed to claims about communities reading a text in a certain way, or when claims are made about divine causality that themselves are not indexed to claims made about individuals interpreting things in a particular way.

What would happen if we began with the presupposition that the whole of Scripture interprets its parts, the parts support the whole, and that the whole is about Christ? What would happen if we began with the presupposition that the whole of nature interprets its parts, the parts support the whole, and that the whole is finally about a God who creates?

Now, of course, there are all kinds of wonderful arguments about how misguided these approaches would be. There is no slam-dunk evidence after all that God is required as a theoretical causal entity within a most basic scientific theory of nature. I readily concede this and add that, thinking in this way, there is no evidence as well that Christ is required as the central notion of all of Scriptures, and that such a Christ actually justifies the ungodly. Critical reflection seems to dislodge the centrality of Christ from Scripture just as it takes a creator God out of the universe.

But, of course, we should not be surprised that critical reflection does such a thing. The primal question of all of humanity is the question of the serpent, “Did God really say it?” Yes, indeed, did God really speak in Scripture, and does He say anything in nature? We have as Lutheran theologians assumed that he speaks only in the first book, and rather obscurely there at that. But what would happen if we started with the assumption that He does so speak? Why would it be any more difficult to find God the Creator working in and through nature than God the Redeemer working though and in Scripture? It all has to do with how we read things. Can we speak about the “internal clarity of nature” analogously with the “internal clarity of Scripture?” I see no reason ultimately to justify the assertion that the serpent’s question is more effective against the former rather than the latter. It is time to get serious about theology again, or simply to move onto other projects. I am not moving on.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Pre-understanding Scripture

Imagine how it must have once been. Imagine what it would have been like to have read Scripture thinking it clear, thinking that it gave perspicuous answers to questions. Imagine what it must have been like in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries during the development of Lutheran and Reformed orthodoxies. These theologians understood what the Biblical text meant within their cultural worlds and within the horizon of their experience; they knew that they could trust Scripture because it had authority.

Things are different now. Oh yes, we denizens of the early 21st century can still talk about the importance of Bible reading, of going to church, of participating in a community of faith. But things are different. We find the Bible today still to be a pretty important book to know something about; we think that reading it might help us. We might even think that if we read it enough, we might believe it. Yet for many, at least, there is a fissure between the text and our interpretation of it. We know that we have a wonderful text that has been handed down to us, but we are not at all sure how trustworthy at is - - well, at least on the details, and . . . well, even thought we can't agree exactly on what is a detail and what is not. It is obvious that Scripture no longer is trusted like it once was.

Every interpretation of something presupposes a pre-understanding of it. One cannot unpack the meaning of something if one does not already have some clue to what the thing is. This is true for books, for nature, and for people. I know, for instance, that Paul is in pain because I have experienced pain: I have a pre-understanding of what it is to be a person, to emit sounds, and to speak in certain ways. I, in fact, live my life pre-understanding what my life is all about. To use a famous example from Heidegger, I can tell what a hammer means in my life because I have a pre-understanding of how it connects to other things in life. There is a context of significances in which I live, and the hammer, its relation to nails, lumber, a roof, and to me, are all part of that context. Most of the time I do not think deeply about my dwelling pre-understandingly in my world.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries men and women pre-understood what the Bible meant. They knew it to be a text that one could trust, that had authority, that spoke the Word of God. Accordingly, one can speak about their ontological understanding of Scripture. It meant then, for many people, that upon which the ultimate signifincance for one's life was known. Thus, one was always already related to Scripture because Scripture always displayed itself as that upon which the proclamation of the meaning of our being depended. Given such a pre-understanding of being, it made sense lovingly to collect passages from the text which displayed truth. In those ages, truth came with a capital 'T' and Scripture was pre-understood as that which could proclaim this truth. It was within the pre-understanding of the be-ing of Scripture that the internal clarity of Scripture arose.

Things are quite different today. The pre-understanding of the text is not, for many, a pre-understanding that regards the text as authoritive, that allows that the text can judge the reader much more profoundly than the reader the text. Our pre-understanding regards the text within the context of texts arising from a particular region from which other texts emerged. The text is already known to be a document upon which the application of historical methods are fruitful. While there is a sense that the text has functional authority within certain religious traditions, it is not a document that can reach across these traditions and provide me with answers about my being and the meaning of my being. The text is therefore not understood as the kind of thing that could in principle give rise to the internal clarity of Scripture. There is no reason for the Scripture to be clear because it is not the kind of thing for which clarity is at issue.

The last five centuries have seen a fundamental shift in our pre-understandings of the Biblical text. These pre-understandings are not themselves the kind of thing that can be changed by evidence. In our day, as in former ones, pre-understandings are gifts to enjoy; they cannot be engineered; they cannot be worked up through our own piety or spirituality.

Luther said that we are ridden either by the devil or the Christ. Maybe this is true for pre-understandings. Of course, for Luther, the Word proclaimed brought the agency of the Holy Spirit into action. This agency, of course, could modify or transform the context of pre-understandings. Simply put, for the Reformers, there was always the sense that the Word of God could be spoken, that it could be found in the text, and that it was vouchsafed by the tradition. It is this pre-understanding that is no longer present in our day.

So how can we jump start an ontology of Scripture and Word when that ontology is no longer present? Does saying, "the Word is sufficient unto itself and unto its own interpretation" help us when there is no longer any pre-understanding of a Word that could be sufficient unto its own interpretation? Lutherans must always, of course, come back to the Word. This is true. But what happens when the lights go out on the context upon which the Word qua Word emerges? What happens then?

Here the answer must be firm and unwavering: the hermeneutical helplessness is itself a riding of the horse. No neutrality is possible here. The first question of the temptor, "did God say?" is also the last. We either find the Word or don't. The only thing that changes is where or where not we either find the Word or don't.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Staying Relevant - - Why What is Old is New Today.


There is a popular story that goes like this:

Once upon a time about 500 years ago there was a sincere, superstitious monk who was so overcome by guilt before God that he fell into extended bouts of despair. In the depths of his despair the young man glimpsed the mercy and forgiveness of God. He realized that righteousness is not a property that God has intrinsically, but rather a property God continually gives away to believers. Luther’s spiritual tussle in the monastery eventuated in his ultimate departure and decision to take a university position as a professor. Later this renegade monk married, had children, and led a movement that changed history.

Luther was very disappointed with the Catholic Church of his time, particularly its leadership. He was so dismayed about this that he referred to the pope as the “antichrist,” hardly a term of endearment. A group of people gathered around Luther and together they helped set the theological trajectory of the Reformation. While Luther was a tremendous religious genius, these people were less creative, less spiritual, and zealously interested in getting all the theological facts right. Theological squabbles erupted within Lutheranism, eventuating in the Formula of Agreement, a document putatively quelling the disputes between the “gnesio-Lutherans” and the “Phillipists.” The emergence of this Formula was the ground upon which later Lutheran thinkers attempted to “get it right.” Thinkers like Gerhard, Baier, Hutter, Quenstedt, and Hollazius codified the teachings of the Formula and advanced it in a series of books whose appearance was in profound tension with the new currents of Enlightenment thought emerging. These practitioners of “Lutheran Orthodoxy” became so concerned about the letter of doctrine, that they forgot the living reality of the spirit out of which the Reformation was born. These thinkers wrote books that were heavily read for some years, but then fell into disuse as Enlightenment thought reached dominance. While Lutheran emigrants fleeing Europe sought to read these books in North America, for the most part these books of Lutheran Orthodoxy were considered to be old, out-of-date, and definitely out-of-step with the times.


The first thing to realize about this story is how pervasive it is. Today these books are considered so out-of-date that most students at Lutheran seminaries have never heard of their writers, let alone ever read anything by them. Most Lutheran faculty don’t read them either. Why would anyone read them today? After all, they trifle about things that are quite disconnected from contemporary life and experience. Why would anyone seeking to be Lutheran in our postmodern age want to read those who slavishly wanted to get it right? Don’t Lutherans in the pews today know that there have been thousands of religions in the world, that the veracity of religious claims cannot be proved, and thus that they clearly cannot prove our own? Don’t they know that religious claims are not factual, but rather valuational, that they do not inform us about how the world is, but seek to express something about our self-understanding and religious practice within a community of faith? God-talk talks not about God, but about us. We are religious, this is true, but our religion is only our projected “map against time,” a map that is different for different peoples. We are religious cartographers, unsure of whether our maps are accurate or whether it even makes sense to talk of accuracy. So it is in our age. The voices of the old are irrelevant, while the voices of the new echo about without place.


The story above is how we Lutheran Christians are represented by others. It is the hand we are dealt. How do we with this hand tell again our story? How do we tell a story for today about God’s love for us in Christ when we suspect that the story we tell may be just that, a story? How can we who live on the other side of the Enlightenment and its criticism tell the story with the same vitality that animated those old Lutheran church fathers in their studies, cranking out there compendia and loci?

In addressing this tonight, I want to ask you to do an experiment. Ask yourself this: “What if this Christian stuff is true? What if it is true that there is a God who created the universe, and filled it with all types of living beings? (Set aside questions, for the moment, as to how it is true.) What if it is true that man and woman really are the apex of God’s creation, that they who were given so much have mysteriously, inexplicably, and somehow from their own freedom turned from God? What if it is true that God is just and must distribute justice according to merit? What if it is true that human beings deserve nothing but eternal abandonment from God, an abandonment that is horrible and loveless? What if it is true that the only way for humans to be saved from what they deserve is for God to rescue them? What if it is true that God is so merciful that he abandoned part of Himself, his Son to death so that we might live abundantly now and forever? What if all of this is true?”

I hear the answer: “We believe that already. We already believe these things. Although we have no certain knowledge; we have faith. We believe these things even though others believe other things.”

But I want again to challenge: Do you really believe these things? Socrates taught that a person will do what is right if she knows what is right. Writing five centuries before the western world knew anything of original sin, Plato claims that human beings do bad things because of ignorance: they just do not viscerally know what they sometimes say they know. Analogously, are we sometimes guilty of thinking we believe when we don’t? Do we sometimes just give lip service to believing?

Imagine, if you will, the days of the early church when there were persecutions and martyrs. Or think about the Reformers, about how they spirited Luther about in disguise to avoid detection and death. Or think about those dusty old men in their old studies writing page upon page, documenting the truth of the faith. Do we do anything similar? Would we? Or are we playing a different game? Do we really believe that the story is more than story; do we believe that it denotes events that God has done as well as donates to us a new understanding, a new way of looking at the world, a new sense of what is possible for us?


There are many who talk these days about the virtues of faith without claiming that faith supposes that something is so. They claim that one can have faith in God the creator, redeemer and sustainer without necessarily believing that God creates, redeems or sustains. In other words, many no longer think that ‘believing in’ entails ‘believing that’. They no longer think that trusting in something presupposes a definite ontological contour of that which is to be trusted. But think of how odd it would be to trust in a friend without believing anything definite upon which that trust is based. To trust in a friend clearly presupposes that the friend has certain properties, characteristics on the basis of which the friend is worthy of trust. How could one trust in God if God had no definite contour, if one thought that God possessed no properties on the basis of which He is worthy of trust?

The reason why many want to allow trust without definite belief is that our theological and religious language has been given an interpretation that is noncausal in character. We want to trust in God’s creativity without saying that God actually creates, without saying that things would not have been the way they were without divine causal input. This hits home with the intelligent design issue. While folks in very conservative traditions want to hold on to six day creation, many mainline Protestant folks (including Lutherans) want to allow that assertions about God’s existence and presence are somehow consistent with a denial of intelligent design generally. They want to claim that the universe is not teleological in its constitution, that is, that neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory does describe the causal mechanism of the universe, and that no divine input is necessary to bring the universe into the state it is. But what is meant by ‘creates’ if there is no being having a teleological connection to his artifacts?


Those claiming the demise of religion are continually disappointed because it does not seem like religion goes away. The reason for this, I believe, is that there are certain fundamental structures of human existence which call for religion, in whatever guise. I have always liked the phrase of Mircea Eliade: “Religion is a factor within the structure of consciousness, not a stage in the history of consciousness.” Religion does not go away because humans are who they are: anxious beings struggling within the field of time. Religion does not go away because the fundamental anxieties of human existence do not go away: We are anxious in the face of death, in the face of guilt, and in the face of meaninglessness. The fifth century theologian Augustine summed up this basic human deficiency: “My heart is not at rest until it finds its rest in you, O Lord.”

Now the problem over the last two centuries is that our old story of Jesus and his love for creation has been given an interpretation that no longer fully addresses these anxieties. By saying that the divine story is only a story, we have found ourselves stuck. The anxieties remain and are factual, but the response to these anxieties is not: While Jesus’ resurrection did not bring his corpse back to life, proclaiming his resurrection supposedly quickens us in the face of death. Although God has no a wrathful intent towards human beings on the basis of which He would ever abandon them, proclaiming divine forgiveness somehow still makes life better when we feel guilty. While God really does not exist as a being in the world creating and sustaining the universe, proclaiming God’s continuing love supposedly make us feel less empty, less not-at-home in a lonely and foreign universe.

But consider this: What if the factuality of the existential question were answered by the factuality of a Christian response? What if we claimed that the profound existential problems with life could only be adequately addressed by a historically-based response, that is, a response asserting that there was once a God who took on the nature of human being in order to transform human beings into new creatures?


And so we come full circle. What is the relevance of Christ for us today? Christ has the same relevance He always has had because human beings have the same structure of existence they always have had. Admittedly, somehow over the years the relevance of Christ has seemed to abate. I believe that this abatement has been, and is, inversely proportional to the degree that we think the Jesus story true, that is, to the degree that we think it more than a story.

Now you might wonder at this point how early 21st century people could believe in the old, old story when they live in a world that has come of age? Did not even Bultmann ask how contemporary man and woman could believe in Christianity now that there was the wireless? (He asked this about 80 years ago.) The answer is simple: This is how it always has been. When Christianity burst upon the ancient world, it had to establish its plausibility on an intellectual horizon where many thought it preposterous and crude. Christianity found few supporters in the five great schools of philosophical antiquity: The Academy founded by Plato, the Lyceum founded by Aristotle, the school of Stoicism, the Epicurean school, and the skeptical school of Sextus Empiricus. Yet Christianity has always made proselytes out of its critics. From the early days of intellectual rejection, there ensued a long development of intellectual acceptance, an acceptance that gave rise to the universities of Europe.

And how was it that this scandal of a religion could have done such a thing? This answer Lutherans know very well: “I believe by my own reason or strength, I cannot believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by his gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified me in the one true life, even as he calls, gathers, and enlightens the whole Christian church on earth.”

The good news is that we don’t have to believe in things that are incredible or work up faith for things we can’t regard as true. This is God’s work. Our belief is His gift; our faith is His work, and the truth of the gospel is His truth.



Thursday, November 06, 2008

Why the Lutheran Confessions must be read as Witnessing to a Vibrant Tradition


The Lutheran theological tradition began in the university. Some of the fruits of the Lutheran Reformation are the ten confessional documents collected in the Book of Concord: The Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed, Augsburg Confession, Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Small Catechism, Large Catechism, The Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, the Schmalkald Articles, and the Formula of Concord.

These documents, carved out in the heat of battle, are clearly situational documents. One must know something of the context of their origination in order fully to understand them. Like all documents, these confessions are products of history. Written in the German and Latin of the day, the documents oftentimes argue subtle positions demanding that one have a scholar’s knowledge of the meaning of the technical terms, and a philosopher’s sense of what is ontologically possible.

But, it might be fairly asked, what have these documents to do with us today? Why would we slavishly praise documents emerging in the sixteenth century as somehow getting right scripture and giving us the truth for all time? After all, had not scripture been around for some 15 centuries already when these documents were written? Had it not already sustained countless interpretations, and had not Christendom broken into various traditions of its interpretation? How can we say that Luther, Melanchthon, Chemnitz et al got it right where all others failed? Is it not a major cultural imperialistic move to claim that one’s take on things is right and everyone else is wrong? Do we really want to be so unmitigatedly ethnocentric?


We know that scripture has sustained multivalent interpretations. Luther and his colleagues knew this as well. But we today seem far more sophisticated than Luther and friends because we realize that the problem of the polyvalency of the text cannot be solved by making one historically-conditioned reading of the text normative (the interpretation that all ought to adopt). We are seemingly jaded in a far deeper way than Luther and friends. They looked at how history had delivered different meanings to scripture, and tried to rectify that problem by fixing an interpretation of scripture that showed that these and only these doctrinal truths were taught by scripture. We seem to have given up on the project altogether.

The result of fixing the interpretation of the text was predictable: others objected and controversy ensued. The Formula of Agreement, the last and longest confessional document, is itself the result of controversy. In steering between warring camps the Formula set the standard for Lutheran subtlety. Calvinists, Catholics, and Anabaptists all clearly disagreed that the Lutherans had the proper interpretation of scripture and the proper view of God and God’s relationship with human beings - - especially as God deals with man and woman in the Church and with the sacraments.

Lutherans did not back down, of course. Armed with the classic distinction between quatenus and quia, Lutherans held that their documents were not simply true in so far as the rightly explicated the Bible, but were true because they so explicated it. On the quatenus reading some parts of the Confessions elucidate biblical truth, but it is possible others do not. However, on the quia interpretation, all of the Confessions are true, for all elucidate biblical truth. So Lutherans were pretty certain they had the right read on scripture. All of their confessional documents were true because they unpacked what was taught in scripture.

So the seventeenth century basically closed with a conflict of interpretations among the reforming traditions and the Catholic Church from which they had emerged. Each thought they were right; each believed that their disagreements with each other were serious, factual, and so important as to threaten salvation itself.


The breeze of the Enlightenment seemingly thawed the frozen interpretations of the disparate traditions. The Enlightenment sought reason as a guide through the unsafe waters of religious superstition, bigotry, and ignorance. It championed tolerance as the highest virtue and sought, in many ways, to undercut the absolute and exclusionary claims of the various religious traditions. For a while the strategy worked. Open-minded and educated people were less likely to cross swords over issues that they could not adjudicate on the basis of reason, or at least, on the basis of a reasonable interpretation of scripture. The result was that committed religious people could disagree with other committed religious people while still remaining respectful of the others’ dignity and right to proclaim contrary views.

But this honeymoon was short-lived. It is but a small step from openness of others’ views on the basis of the underdetermination of the theological theory by the evidence, to a claim that the dispute between rival religious groups really does not constitute a real dispute at all. Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion seemed to undermine any religious claim to knowledge, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason placed religious objects, events, properties, and states of affairs outside of the domain of existing things entirely. Kant famously argued that God could not be a substance that could be in principle causally related to other substances, that is, that God could not exist as a being existing apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language. God was rather “a regulative ideal of human reason.”

After Kant, theologians struggled to find ways of understanding the claims of theology antimetaphysically. Whatever was going on with theological and doctrinal claims, it is not like the traditions assumed. God was not a special supreme being among other beings that had supernatural powers to affect the distribution of natural properties. Religious and theological language more and more pointed to the depth of human existence itself. In the heady 19th century academic theology environment of the German university, it was natural to think that something profound was being found, or at least pointed to, by theological language. In this environment, the specificity of contrary confessions began even to lose their ability to conflict. Various confessional traditions were thought to talk in different ways about an ultimate dimension at the depth of human existence.

This was, of course, the ultimate triumph in Enlightenment tolerance. Two confessional traditions did not make conflicting claims, but rather gave different interpretations, interpretations that were not in the business of making truth-claims about God at all. Such tolerance spread into the 20th century, where theological claims were put safely on the side of values and thus inoculated from the whole question of truth.

The Lutheran tradition in North America struggled in its “pre-Enlightenment” and “post-Enlightenment” interpretations of theological claims. For those committed to the “old way” the claims of theology were still in principle true of an extra-linguistic domain in which God was a member. Many of those emigrants from 19th century Europe carried the old ways with them.
Others, however, were committed to the “new way” of thinking, a way that understood that theological language was not making the kinds of claims people assumed it did. These “new ways” of thinking did not establish themselves academically in North America as early as did their counterparts in the other Protestant traditions. While practitioners of the old found conflict between their confessional documents, those assuming the new realized that their confessional documents no longer were true - - at least not in the sense that their traditions had always understood. To be a Lutheran was no longer to be a Lutheran because Lutheran theology was true, but rather being Lutheran was simply something given, where one found oneself. Given this, the only option available for those wanting to retain confessional allegiance was simply to adopt the confessional theology as decorative of that Lutheran identity.


We Lutherans have not reflected deeply enough on our plight. If the “new way” is right, then we have the following picture of things: Each of us has, for whatever reasons, found ourselves in Lutheran churches. We are curious as to what has historically defined Lutherans, and we read some Lutheran history and maybe some of our founding texts. We realize the treasury of our tradition and seek to know more. Of course, we realize at the same time that the confessions are the Lutheran “take” on scripture, and that scripture’s sense cannot be discerned once and for all. Some of us even suppose that scripture itself is merely a set of texts to which we are accidentally related by birth. In moments of openness, we might even claim that other foundational religious texts are no more true or false in an absolute sense than are ours.

I think this picture of things is one that resonates with vast numbers of people within ELCA and ELCIC churches. Most attending services are clearly not concerned with the truth-claims of the confessions and whether or not these claims exclude other truth-claims. (Of course, logically to claim that something obtains is to claim simultaneously that many other things do not obtain.) The lamentable thing about this picture is this: It suggests that Lutheran theology only mostly engages people that already just happen to self-identify as Lutheran. The theology thus for them is decorative of their identity as Lutherans. To learn the tradition is simply to learn more about being a Lutheran, it is to learn how one can decorate herself with a Lutheran ethos. Being Lutheran becomes then a possible role that one adopts in the world, a role adopted in the effort of finding meaning and purpose and identity in the universe. The confessions thus become all about “belongingness” to a group; they are important only for diachronic community.

It is this picture of things, friends, that we Lutherans must now reject. We must reject this picture because ultimately it is incoherent, in other words, “this horse don’t run.” Theological language that does not make truth claims, a language that is merely descriptive and ornamental is not a language that the churches can or will long speak. We don’t know how to speak this language for the long term, for we don’t know what difference is made ultimately by speaking it or not speaking it.

I believe the time has come for we Lutherans again to embrace their confessions, not as decorative to our being-as-Lutherans, but as truth-claims about the world in which we find ourselves. Our postmodern situation gives us opportunity directly again to claim that there is a loving God, and that this loving God has justified the lost - - all of us - - even though there is no merit or goodness within us. We can and must go even further. We must assert again that our confessions make truth claims on the basis of a biblical text that is perspicuous. Scripture is clear, and our confessions clearly declare its clarity.

Now some will say that this is repristination; they will say that we just want to bring back the good old days. My response is, “yes, we do want to bring back the good old days when theology was taken as having a subject matter, making truth claims, and being in principle relatable to other kinds of discourse.” It is true that we do want to treat theological claims again in ways more like the “old ways” of the pre-Enlightenment. But while we wish to do this, we want to use all of the tools at our disposal today to recover the old.


It has been said that “tradition is the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” We do not want to be traditionalistic but traditionalist. We want to treat the confessions of Lutheranism fairly again; we want to read these texts from a standpoint not ultimately foreign to the standpoint from which they were written. It is for this reason that the Institute of Lutheran Theology talks about recovering theological realism, semantic realism, and theophysical causation.

Luther and many of the Reformers were university professors trained deeply in logic and semantics. They were acutely aware of the meaning of terms, and the importance of specificity and clarity in their theological utterances. They were men aware that theological language was a language that made truth claims and that one had to understand both the significance and the supposition of terms before one understood what the claims were. They were men who believed that there was a divine realm and that it was connected to the earthly order in various ways.
They believed that if God had not acted certain things would not have been, and if God were to act certain things would come to be. The horizon of the confessions is a horizon of the old way.

However, all must realize that the days of the Kantian hegemony are over within philosophy. All must realize that the days of the verificationist criterion of meaning lie behind us. In many ways philosophers at work now, because of their deep sensitivity to logical and semantic issues, are much closer to the horizon of the confessions than philosophers have been for centuries. Analytic methods of philosophy are useful for studying the confessions because they emphasize truth conditions: a statement’s meaning is to be found in how the world would have to be if the statement were true. Accordingly, “God established the office of preaching” is true if and only if God established the office of preaching.

So how are the confessions normative today? If “God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” is true if and only if God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself, then the claims of the confessions come alive again. After all, what difference would it make to give quia subscription to the confessions if we no longer believed that they said what the Reformers clearly meant them to say? Perhaps the new way was no way at all.