As someone who will celebrate his second year as a Lutheran on his first day of Divinity school, I find it hard to look towards the future of the Lutheran church when I am still grasping at its past. I can watch the Lutheran church divide over sexuality without the story of Seminex coming to mind, and when we ratify full-communion agreements with other denominations, I have to be reminded of how many different heritages formed the ELCA. My worship book has always been red (or is it cranberry?). In short, my knowledge of the history of the Lutheran church is like a path of stepping stones over a brook – I can see roughly how one gets from start to finish, but the narrative is mostly submerged.
The Perspectives of New Lutherans
Out of this naiveté comes a perspective which may be entirely off-base, but which is so vivid to me that I am inclined to offer it up for consideration. For there seems to me to be a great change in American Lutheranism which must be addressed by the coming generation, and that is the reality of the changing face of the body of the Lutheran church. Whereas my mentors come from traditional Lutheran heritages and identify strongly with those traditions, many of my peers do not. At the time that I joined the University of Chicago’s Lutheran Campus Ministry, the majority of students we served were not members of a Lutheran church, and yet we were (and still are!) a decidedly Lutheran group. We read Luther, discuss the Reformation and what it means to be a theologian of the cross, and we worship with Lutheran resources, singing Lutheran hymns of praise, even though our members come from backgrounds ranging from Salvation Army to Episcopalian. Our students, ranging in age from eighteen to fifty-plus, are not just visitors but members in LCM as well as associate members of Augustana, our supporting parish. At first I thought this may be unique to the University of Chicago, but I’ve now witnessed equally diverse Lutheran ministries emerging in Chicago’s South Loop as well as in my home town of Lexington, Kentucky. I suspect they are not alone.
So as people come from different denominations and destinations to fill our pews, we must ask ourselves more seriously than ever what it truly means to be a Lutheran. The task of the upcoming generation of Lutherans will be to welcome each other as well as new-comers and long-separated friends into the discussion and definition of what it means to share or (in a case such as mine) to adopt the heritage of being Lutheran. The scope of such an inquiry is necessarily broad, but it begins with a renewed engagement and discussion of Law and Gospel, if we are to believe Luther, who said that “This difference between the Law and the Gospel is the height of knowledge in Christendom. Every person and all persons who assume or glory in the name of Christian should know and be able to state this difference.”1 What is the Law? what is the Gospel? for the answer is one that defines our changing and evolving body, and it is therefore right and necessary to ask if the answers change when the body changes.
Discerning Law and Gospel
To prepare for this area of discernment without returning to the writings of St. Paul is to not prepare. “St. Paul so strongly insists on a clean-cut and proper differentiating of these two doctrines,”2 said Luther, preaching on Galatians, which is the natural starting place for an understanding of Law and Gospel in the traditional Lutheran sense. Paul tells us that Christ has freed us from the law and clothed us such that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”3 In preaching on this verse, Luther retells this gospel in terms which speak to his time, telling his congregation that “there is neither rich nor poor, neither handsome nor ugly, neither citizen nor farmer, neither Benedictine nor Carthusian, neither Minorite nor Augustinian.”4 We the church must ask of ourselves, “What Christ has freed us from in this generation? and what human divisions does the Gospel break down in this day? What does it mean to speak of the freedom brought by the Good News in each diverse life?” If the Gospel is to be preached rightly as the Augsburg Confession mandates, it must be preached through the presence of the Spirit and therefore be made aware of and relevant to our current situations and polemics.
We the church must ask of ourselves, “What Christ has freed us from in this generation? and what human divisions does the Gospel break down in this day?
Along with Galatians, there is another epistle where great insight can be gathered, especially for a church confronting issues of new identity and damaging schism, and that is I Corinthians. In this letter, St. Paul addresses a church with whom we in American Lutheranism share much in common. Those in Corinth lived in a large hub of trade and commerce with a variety of deeply rooted religions, as well as a strong Hellenistic tradition and culture which made for a diverse church and a need for strong leadership. Yet leadership had caused strife and the church risked schism as people claimed, “’I belong to Paul,’ or ’I belong to Apollos,’ or ’I belong to Cephas,’ or ’I belong to Christ.”5 What is found in St. Paul’s response is an electrifying charge that it was not human wisdom but rather the divine wisdom of Christ crucified which would guide us as a church, meant to shame the strong and the wise and force our reliance on the Spirit and bound conscience for our unity.
But as it is written, what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has in store for those who love him” — these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.6
These words are both uplifting and frightening, especially now as the ELCA faces a painful schism: as I revised this essay today, in Columbus the Lutheran CORE officially led a break with the ELCA to form the North American Lutheran Church (NALC), despite the recent reassurance of their field director Erma Wolf that “Lutheran CORE is not, and will not become, a church body or denomination.”7 Former Presiding Bishop Chilstrom described the situation best when he asked of the departing congregations in an open letter, “Why are you forming a new church? […] Why go to all the unnecessary expense of setting up an entirely new structure with officers, boards, committees and institutions?”8 The move is indicative of a disturbing trend in American Lutheranism to seek our foundation and unity through Law and not through Gospel. If we seek to unify over a common understanding of what is sin, then we will find ourselves where we are today, the birthday of a new Lutheran church which exists for only “because none of them [churches who agree with their views on sex] ordain women.”9 The Law is meant to break us, to show us our sinfulness, so why then seek it as the source of our unity when we have the Gospel? Yet both sides have heard the bound conscience narrative, and NALC/Lutheran CORE still claim that the Spirit has moved them to found a new group that will be true to the scriptures. Rev. Chilstrom too spoke of the direction of the Spirit in his letter, saying, “[I am sad] because this [the schism] was not what we hoped for when the ELCA was formed some 22 years ago. We believed we could be a church where we held to the essentials and allowed for differences on non-essentials.” Rudolf Bultmann, a noted Biblical scholar and Lutheran theologian in Germany, wrote the following in a sermon reflecting upon I Corinthians 2:9-10 and the divide caused by war in his time:
The depths of God! We too gaze into a depth and are seized with horror. Do we want to say then that we gaze into the depths of God? Indeed, what is God, if not the infinite fullness of all the powers of life that rage around us and take our breath away, filling us with awe and wonder? […] What kind of depth are we looking into? Is it really the depth of the forces of life, of the forces of God? Or is it rather an abyss of death, a grappling of devilish powers that we see?10
God hidden yet revealed, a God from whom we seek mercy yet approach in fear and trembling. The wisdom found in St. Paul’s address is the wisdom for a church in turmoil and transition, yearning not only for wisdom but the ability to discern it properly. It offers much for us to reflect upon in anticipation of and preparation for our coming challenge to hold onto a Gospel message that comes from the Spirit.
Heeding the Voices of Experience
Along with the traditional canon of scriptures, we have new texts and experiences which have earned a place in our discussion of Law and Gospel if we are going to be a truly changed body. Identity theology, wherein the theologian engages their own experiences as norms for theology, has taken a strong hold in the connected and global Christian communion, and for just reasons. There has always been a need to recognize the experience of the church in theology, and now that we recognize that need we are beholden to address it. The “black experience” of American liberation theologians11 deserves a place at the table when discussing what it means for the law to oppress us. As the Lutheran tradition has spread across the globe, we must also recognize that it is no longer limited to the Western perspective: Kazoh Kitamori of the Japanese Lutheran tradition speaks of God’s love as God’s pain12, and we cannot help but wonder with renewed humility at the price of God’s grace. Luther preached obedience to the civil law unless the Gospel was withheld from the people, and yet the experience of injustice felt by many immigrants in America must cause us to question whether or not the Gospel is truly shared between brothers and sisters when their ability to remain in communion with us depends on a withheld legal status. The truth of discerning between Law and Gospel, if it is to be the essential element of Christian identity that we Lutherans have held it to be, must be a bond used to unite a diversifying and changing church.
The answers provided by each of these sources of insight will necessarily be different across the church, and such an outcome should be embraced rather than feared
The final source for preparation is for each of us to admit the unavoidable shortcoming of our individual perspectives which, while valuable, fail to encompass this changing face of Law and Gospel. I know that what I have witnessed are the challenges of strengthening a decidedly Lutheran ministry in the type of diverse yet insular environment common to a research university. Many others have witnessed just as valid moments in the church which show many different directions. The answers provided by each of these sources of insight will necessarily be different across the church, and such an outcome should be embraced rather than feared, as it speaks of the diversity that the call to Christ celebrates. The face of Law and Gospel is changing, for there is a wideness in God’s mercy, and God is far too deep for the revelation to cease its expansion.
Luther, Martin. Sermon on Galatians 1532.
Luther, Martin. Sermon on Galatians: 1532.
Luther, Martin. Collected Works of Martin Luther, vol. 27, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, MO. 1964. p.281
I Corinthians 1:12
I Corinthians 2:9-10
Wolf, Erma. “Lutheran CORE: A Free-Standing What???” Let’s Talk 15.1 [cited on August 30th, 2010]. Available from https://mcsletstalk.org/15.1/a-freestanding-what/
Chilstrom, Herbert. “My View: Questions For Those Leaving The ELCA.” The Mankato Free Press [updated 26 August 2010; cited August 30 2010]. Available from http://mankatofreepress.com/letters/x2014324643/My-View-Questions-for-those-leaving-ELCA
Bultmann, Rudolf. Rudolf Bultmann: Interpreting Faith for the Modern Era, ed. Roger A. Johnson. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, MN. 1987.
e.g. Cone, James. God of the Oppressed. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books. 1975.
Kitamori, Kazoh. The Theology of the Pain of God. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Press. 1965. p.20-1