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Living Theology in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod

Evangelical Lutheran Church In America
Volume 1, Number 4
September 1996
The Church and Salvation


How is the Church Necessary for Salvation?

The Church as God’s Well of Possibility

Philip Hefner


(These remarks were delivered as part of Dr. Hefner’s contributions to the 1996 Hein-Fry Lectures.)


The theme of these three lectures is described by A.R. Ammons in his poem, “Politics”:

   I look for the way

   things will turn

   out spiralling from a center,

   the shape

   things will take to come forth in:

   I look for the forms

   things want to come as

   from what black wells of possibility,

   how a thing will unfold:

   not so much looking for the shape

   as being available

   to any shape that may be

   summoning itself

   through me

   from the self not mine but ours.


My response to the question about the Church and salvation takes the form of a reflection upon the Church as a community of availability to God’s possibilities for the future of the creation. It makes no sense to talk about the Church and salvation apart from the Church’s life as such a community—the two go hand-in-hand. If the church is not this community, then talk about God’s salvation borders on blasphemy. To the extent that the church is this community, its necessity for salvation requires no argumentation.

 have a deep confidence in the Church, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and my confidence rests on the conviction that by the grace of God the Holy Spirit, the Church is a well of possibility. It is appropriate within a well of possibility, as Ammons tells us, to attend to “the shape things will take to come forth in, the forms things want to come as.” Finally, our obedience consists in being available to any shape that may be summoning itself through us, from a self that comprehends us all: God’s self.

Being available to any shape that may be summoning itself from the well of God’s possibility through us—that, I propose, is what the Church of the 21st century must never lose sight of. This is how the Church is necessary for salvation—in its life as the community of God’s possibilities.

Whether it is an institution or a community, conventicle or societal construct, ethnic enclave or transcultural communion, in our day the Church is called to be not so much an intentional strategizing agent or a repository of truths to be applied, as it is a well of the possibility that can image the hopes of God for the world and the hopes of the peoples of the world for God. What emerges from the well of possibility is that which governs our strategies and also that which reveals the meaning of our truths.

This may be a difficult message for us to hear. We may be so utterly focused on the traditional treasure of faith to be preserved that our gaze is mainly a backward one; we may be so accountable to maintaining the institution that  survival dominates our horizon; ethnic or other particular identity may seem to be our sole priority; a liberal or traditional agenda, growing out of our own vision for the church, may consume our efforts. In all of these cases, because we are so dedicated to agendas that seem important to us, we may well remain insensitive to the surprising and even uncomfortable possibilities that God would bring forth in our midst.

My reflections elaborate three dimensions of the theme: (1) The Source of Possibility: God’s Transforming Work; (2) The Community of Possibility: Belonging without Conditions; and (3) The Demographics of Possibility: The People’s Church.

Transformation: Has it occurred to us that beyond solutions, interpretations, and faithfulness, God also asks us to submit to transformation? If the witness of the New Testament is to be trusted, transformation is central to God’s work in Christ, and it is what the Holy Spirit is really about. Transformation is also a gutsy, unpredictable, often painful prospect. It involves submitting ourselves to a Power and a Self that is beyond us and our control and our powers of prediction. Trans­formation is a process that reveals our vulnerability and asks us to accept it. Is there any way at all that we can solve our problems, interpret our situation theologically, or remain faithful to our identity unless we are transformed by God in some very fundamental ways?

Belonging without Conditions: Belonging is a critical issue in our North American life today. Belonging within the social fabric to persons and groups who are strange to us, belonging to the natural environment in which we exist, belonging across the lines of economic and social class where rich and poor live out their lives, belonging to the world. The way of Christ is a rigorous path of risk-taking and obedience, and that path leads through a network of belonging in which we cannot set up prior conditions—the Church must be available to and insist upon belonging that knows no boundaries, just as Jesus did.

The People’s Church: The Lutheran Church in the United States has emerged from a bundle of well-defined cultural traditions—traditions of worship, music, biblical interpretation, preaching, church organization, and social class. These traditions have become “official” marks of our church and are cultivated by various groups that can be called “elite.” Even though these official and elite cultural traditions are to be cherished, because they are life-sustaining for many of us, they are not nourishing for others in the ELCA, and they can stifle the spiralling forth of possibilities—they can render us unavailable for God’s new future.

Our Lutheran traditions are challenged as never before to be available to God’s possibilities. Those traditions do have resources for the challenge, chiefly in our conviction that since we are justified freely by God’s grace, we can risk whatever God’s future requires. By grace, we can follow the thread of possibility into that future. The pathway of God’s possibilities in our time will, however, require discernment, obedience, and courage such as we have not experienced in our generation.

Summary of ELCA Situations, Challenges, and Resources

Transformation:  The situation is plurality past and present, which means that our future will be a constellation of futures. Transformation happens in the concrete diversity of our church, and this means that there is no single trajectory of possibilities that God brings to transformation, but rather many such trajectories.

The challenge lies in our traditional insistence that plurality is the raw material for unification. We tend to believe that our diversity is accidental to our essential Lutheran identity. In fact, diversity is the only form in which our Lutheran identity is real.

The chief resources for meeting this challenge lie in two places: the seventh article of the Augsburg Confession, the famous “it is enough” for the unity of the church that the Gospel be rightly preached and the sacraments administered accordingly; and in our confidence that since we are justified by grace, we are free to be diverse, and to honor God’s actualizing all of the possibilities that are carried in that diversity.

Belonging without Conditions: What the world wants and needs most just now is unconditional belongingthat is our situation as church. Culturally homogeneous groupings, while good in themselves, have proven to be demonic in our current situation.

The challenge is found in our checkered Lutheran history of ambivalence toward conditions for belonging. Although we have considered justification by grace to be the authorization of our own right to belong, we have often tended to use that same doctrine as the basis for excluding others. Furthermore, in our earlier history, we relied on societal and cultural structures of belong­ing—ethnic groupings, the rule of the prince, etc. Today in the US, we find no such structures, so we have to fashion our own.

ur resource for meeting these challenges is once again our conviction that the Gospel invites us without conditions to enter upon the path that Christ has opened up for us. We can be free to invite all sorts and conditions of people (even those like us!), because our invitation is grounded in God’s grace.

The People’s Church: Our situation is marked by our 1988 ELCA commitment to become a church that is woven into the fabric of the life that is the United States today, and by the fact that that commitment is indeed bearing fruit.

The challenge to us lies in our Lutheran character of being very much an “official” church that relies upon “elites” for its life. In a real sense, we identify ourselves as a church with official and elite cultures that do not welcome the many ccultures, particularly the popular cultures, in which men, women, and children live out their daily lives in the United States. We tend to articulate one official and elite “story,” and we expect all other “stories” to conform to it. This traditional character is an obstacle to the stated mission goals of the ELCA, and it is the source of much of the controversy that marks our life. But people’s cultures have taken hold in the ELCA, so this controversy is not an academic issue, it is a real fact of our daily life as the church.

We have resources to meet this challenge. (1) We recognize that the church must always be reformed, so we can reform our own culture as Lutherans. (2) We know that Lutherans began their historical existence in the sixteenth century as outsiders to the official and elite church of their time. We were not born official and elite, we became official and elite. (3) Luther identified with the people’s culture in many respects; the laity and their daily vocations are central to our understanding of the church and its faith. (4) We are rooted deeply in St. Paul’s insistence that culture cannot hold Christ in bonds, that all believers share in the priesthood, and we believe that the Lutheran church can be a worldwide community that can enter into as many cultures as the human community offers.

Philip Hefner

Professor of Systematic Theology

Director of the Chicago Center for Religion and


Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

Member, Augustana, Chicago