While the disputes are many, I believe they have to do today primarily with hermeneutics, the locus of authority, and the ontology of the divine, justification and ecclesiology. I believe that the deepest issues confronting (and sometimes separating Lutherans) are oftentimes not how the issues present themselves at the congregational level. Issues of women's ordination, the blessing of same sex relationships and marrying of same sex couples, human rights and social justice proclamations, closed communion, infant baptism, contemporary worship and use of early church liturgies, Biblical reliability concerning scientific and historical fact, etc., all do divide rank and file Lutherans and Lutheran congregations. Some of the issues still remain quite venomous, notably differences on closed/open communion, women's ordination and LBGT issues. Some issues of disagreement seem no longer rancorous. (The truth of young earth creationism seems not to inculcate much disagreement these days in the lives of most Lutheran congregations.)
In this brief article, my concern is neither to do a careful historical reading of Lutheran traditions to uncover salient differences among them, nor to construct a typology which would list the necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of any of these terms: "Evangelical Catholic," "midwestern pietist" or "Lutheran pietism," "radical Lutheranism," "Lutheran repristination," "Lutheran renewal," "Lutheran fundamentalism," "Lutheran high church movement," etc. All could be precisely defined, but any prescription of proper application will likely nonetheless be violated in practice. (Lutheran theologians have not always been charitable in the application of such terms to their Lutheran brothers and sisters.)
What I want to do is to go to the deeper level and explore the presuppositions that make it possible for Lutherans often simply to talk past one another. Acceptance of presuppositions as fact or "just the way things are" produce theological "spins" making it difficult for Lutherans of one persuasion to ascribe rationality, good intentions or sometimes basic comity to those with whom they disagree. The problem is that the discussion of the issues remains unsatisfying and superficial when the contour of deeper presuppositions is ignored.
In what follows, I am sacrificing scholarly precision and sourcing for boldness. (I figure that at some point in life, one must get bolder and I have endeavored to do so in recent years.) Part of being bold, is leaving the safe harbor of proper theological speaking in order to make broader points. Perhaps what I am doing here is "proto-theological."
Below is my list of the profound presuppositions or "pictures" (Wittgenstein) that do divide Lutherans. While each of these have theological ramifications, often the presupposition itself has little to do with theology. At the end of this reflection, I want to tie these presuppositions together somewhat. So what is my list of presupposition within early 21st century Lutheran theology?
- The Relationship of the Meaningful Content of Scripture and the Historical Conditions from which it Arose. Lutherans of all persuasions declare that the Scriptures are the norm and source of faith, life (and theology). They differ markedly, however, on what exactly constitutes the meaningful content of Scripture. Is the meaning of Scripture found in the Biblical text itself, in the interaction of the Biblical text with the reader (informed by the Holy Spirit), or in the Biblical text as it is understood in the context of its formation, original audience, and transmission? Simply put, to what degree does historical criticism (textual, source, form, redaction, etc.) and literary criticism help uncover the proper meaning of the text? Differences of opinion about putative Biblical injunctions against homoerotic behavior, the role of women in leading worship, and the practice of closed communion pertain to the issue of how knowledge of the wider religio-historical context (both diachronic and synchronic), and knowledge of textual formation and intentionality affect the actual meaning of the text. Lutherans in the pews saying "their Bible says this" have often been astounded to find their theologians saying that it really says something quite different if one has the requisite ability to penetrate back beyond the text into the horizon of its formation and original reception.
- The Question of Proper Authority in Theological Adjudication and Communal Practice. While all Lutherans speak of Scripture as properly norming faith, they disagree as to the authority of the norm. Traditional Catholic theology understood Scripture to be of sufficient complexity that it was unlikely that non-learned readings could successfully interpret Scripture correctly. A teaching magisterium was needed to guarantee proper interpretation of the text. Rejecting this, Lutherans argued that the Scripture alone was the proper norm and the sole authority for faith and life. But this works only if Scripture has external perspicuity, that it's meaning is sufficiently lucid that it can, in principle, work to adjudicate theological issues. An objectivity of the text is presupposed as the sine qua non of effective norming. However, if the very meaning of the text is at issue and its meaning oftentimes identified (discovered?, constructed?) on the basis of theological (or other) criteria, then the danger is that the real authority in textual meaning is the interpreter. But if the text's objectivity is determined by the subjectivity of the interpreter (and the interpretive community in which that interpreter stands), then the putative externality of the Word of God can become the mere documentation of the subject's hermeneutical virtuosity. (None of this would have surprised the Catholic theological faculty at Tuebingen in the mid-nineteenth century.) Adding the Holy Spirit to the mix does not seem to overcome this basic problem, for the activity of the Holy Spirit in making external clarity internal nonetheless presupposes the moment of external perspicuity.
- The Ontology of the Divine. Most Lutherans do not realize that their commitment to presuppositions of ontological and epistemological realism concerning the divine determine what they think is possible in theology. Does God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) exist apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language? Does human confrontation with divine determine the ontic contour of the divine? Does God bring about causally that which would not have happened were He not to have willed it? Simply put, is our language about God, His properties, and His causal relations with the universe and His children within it simply a language that clarifies human religious experience (feeling, willing, knowing, doing)? If it does nevertheless refer to God, does it refer to the divine realm symbolically, such that the affirmation of divine qualities and causal powers point to the depth of being, a region in principle incapable of sustaining causal relations with ontic reality? Clearly, if one believes that there is a God who exists on His own apart from human consciousness -- a God that has a primal intent upon creation -- then questions about "God changing His mind" will be understood in a far different way than if reference to God is conceived as a way of clarifying (or pointing to the limits of) human experience. If one regards theo-physical causality as possible, then one will find it difficult to move from the methodology of scientific naturalism to a full-fledge metaphysic of scientific naturalism and the concomitant causal closure of the physical. Moreover, if one believes God is not the kind of being who can in principle have causal power -- maybe God is like the set of all sets -- then one's views about the events of the early universe and macro neo-Darwinian evolution will likely be much different than one who does assert divine causality. Clearly, the clear contour of Scripture's meaningful content will likely be different for the one holding the causal closure of the physical and the one rejecting it.
- The Ontology of Justification. Does justification constitute an actual transformation of human life, or is it merely a change in divine judgment about the conditions of that life? (I don't want to engage the distinction between justification and sanctification, or weigh in here on whether "sanctification is merely getting used to justification.") If there exists divine causality -- if the Holy Spirit is causally involved in human life -- then God's just-making and sanctifying does bring about some state of affairs that would not have happened otherwise. (Some claim that religion at its depth is a path of transformation.) Forensic justification can be understood causally as well, of course, for if God really exists, and really does divinely impute sinlessness to the sinner, than some state of salvific affairs is brought about that would not have happened otherwise. However, if God does not exist apart from human awareness, perception, conception or language, and if God thereby has no causal powers, then justification seemingly must be construed finally subjectively; it pertains to the psychology of the "believer."
- The Ontology of the Church. What is the church? Is it an association of individuals receiving the gifts of God, or is it somehow the Body of Christ effective in bestowing these gifts upon its members and the world? One's views about the contour of ecclesial being will be determined in part by the one's views about divine reality itself. If one believes there is a divine being with divine properties and divine causal powers, then one's view of the Church will likely be far different than if one believes there is no such being. On the former, the Church can have a mystical, sacramental reality, but on the latter it must be finally understood on the basis of human community. On the former, the authority of Law is grounded in the reality of God, on the latter it emerges out of the life of the community itself, and can be changed as communal life changes. Obviously, one's views of LBGT issues will likely be quite different if one thinks there is an entity with divine properties and causal powers authorizing divine Law rather than the divine Law being an expression of, or somehow supervening upon, the life of the community.