Monday, January 21, 2008

The Deconstruction of 20th Century Lutheranism

One of Thursday's lectures at the Sem was entitled
Which is a very fancy title, really. It was given by an ELCA invitee, Dr. Michael J. Root, who has been active on the Lutheran side of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, that LWF/Roman Catholic dialogue. Dr. Root appeared to have the respect of several of the faculty at the seminary.

Dr. Root set up his talk by describing a class in the Confessions he gives for first year seminarians at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in North Carolina, where he teaches. He asks them this question AT THE BEGINNING of the course:
"List what you consider to be the central doctrines of Lutheranism."
He mentioned that while the usual suspects--justification, liturgy, etc--are always listed, there are also three unique items that stand out that he argues somewhat skew Lutheranism but that most of the seminarians consider essential, core doctrine. These are:

  • Simul iustus et peccator "At the same time saint and sinner"
  • The theology of the cross
  • Ambiguity or paradox
Now, I have to admit: when I heard this the floor started moving just a bit. I felt myself diving into the fetal position, metaphorically speaking. I LOVE these doctrines, and have spent many an hour trying to get a grasp of their meanings and their places in Lutheran theology. Now you're telling me they aren't really a part of core Lutheran doctrine???

Root claims that the doctrine of Simul , for example, was lost to Lutheranism from the time of Luther until the 1920's, when Luther's commentary on Romans was discovered in, of all placed, the Vatican library. Prior to 1920, not only was the phrase missing but also the concept. Obviously, it's presence or absence will have a big impact on the doctrines of justification, vocation; the doctrine of man, of sin, of grace.

Root argues that there is not a lot of the theology of the cross in Luther, Gerhard Forde notwithstanding. In fact, I think he blames Forde for bad theology in general and for promoting this theology in particular. He finds it only in early Luther--specifically the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518, which for Lutherans is really early Luther indeed.

As for ambiguity, Root claims Luther always used it negatively. As for paradox, when Luther explains apparent paradoxes, they aren't really paradoxes. They are what Root calls "Rhetorical Paradoxes".

So how did standard Lutheran theology of the late 20th century come to be dominated by these three? Root pointed out a couple of things. The first is the ideas were often expressed as sort of catchy phrases ("Simul..."), which then became legend, which then became myth (I borrow from Tolkien). They became slogans but their core meanings became obscure, or even changed. The second reason is that Root sees the major theological arguments of Lutheranism of this period were being made against Rome, whose "theology of glory" needed tempering. Roman Catholicism's plague of concern for certainty was also in play. You could of course say the same for the tendencies of the Reformed or of neo-evangelicalism, but these Root didn't mention.

The problem with all of this? Holiness and sanctification became hard to articulate in an environment where peccator, ambiguity, and tentatio were the defining characteristics of the Christian life. There developed a deep suspicion of sanctification because the Christian opponents of Lutheranism had a skewed view of sanctification. Root sees Lutherans over-reacting to teaching about holy living by many willingly embracing sloth.

Ouch. Ow. Ow.

I was never able to get a good clean response from anyone who listened to the lecture. I think the pastors were mulling his words. Lunch preceded his talk, and after, off we went onto another lecture. Late in the day, however, there was a panel discussion, and I noticed most of the questions were directed at Dr. Root.

Root wasn't the only one who made mention this past week that maybe we ought to allow ourselves to discuss and appreciate our sanctification. I remember a pastor many years ago telling me that "Sanctification is our Achille's Heel". I've heard lectures in law and gospel where it was stated emphatically that we can't know who is a Christian by any outward action or fruit. We won't know till we reach heaven. I don't think there is any doubt that this kind of teaching tends to proscribe discussions about signs and wonders in our lives that actually might encourage us along the path.

I know. I know. This holiness sort of thing sounds good in the morning, but by evening we find ourselves with a prescribed set of rules of behavior. The fruits of the gospel become in our meaty hands law. I know the risks. Start down this path and before you know it you're slipping down that slope toward W'ks R'teousness. And it is really hard to scramble back up again.

By the end of Dr. Root's lecture, what I really wanted him to tell me was: If at the beginning of the course on the Confessions these young seminarians' list consisted of three items that skewed true Lutheran theology: then by the end of the course, WHAT DID LUTHERAN THEOLOGY ACTUALLY LOOK LIKE????

But he never told us.

Jesus Christ, Emperor Constantine IX and Empress Zoe


Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce,
It was good to see you at symposia. I agree that Dr. Root's paper was provocative. What was disappointing was all his suggestions put forth without any evidence -- which, in all fairness, he said he was going to do at the beginning! Now it is up to us to investigate and see whether or not his claims have any credibility. He got me thinking (which is good!) and I look forward to reading "Against Latomus" and whether or not modern Lutherans have indeed skewed Luther's simul. That's where I will start.

Bruce Gee said...

It was a pleasure to see you again too, pastor.

If you come to any conclusions whatsoever in this business; that is to say, if you get to the Root of it all, (apologies, yeah) please let me know!