A Radical Lutheran Response to My Reviewers

[1] Allow me first to express my gratitude to the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and particularly the efforts of Book Review Editor, Michael Shahan, for assembling these courteous and thoughtful responses to The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology. I am honored that the Journal of Lutheran Ethics would find this book important enough to merit this attention.

[2] The ecumenical reviewers are especially to be commended for their willingness to take on what can only appear to be a sectarian perspective in a confessional tradition other than their own. In their generous estimations of the book, they have been able to find threads of continuity with their own traditions, for which I am grateful.

[3] They are right to note that my work subordinates the overall enterprise of theology to the specific doctrine of justification and not vice versa. That move, by its very nature, raises the question of why one should do theology at all. My work holds itself accountable to the conviction that theological wisdom must foster and be fostered by the foolishness of preaching the cross. The cross alone is our theology. As Oswald Bayer notes, theology arises from the worship service-centered as it is on the efficacy of the cross-and likewise returns to it.

[4] With that in mind, three implications of The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology need further elaboration if it is to continue to have an impact on our theological work together. First, in light of this work, contemporary theology underestimates the universality of the claims of the doctrine of justification. We overlook what the older dogmaticians termed “objective justification,” the view that the entire world is justified independently of its reception of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Were we with the doctrine of justification to focus on the world, and not merely on internal polemics within the faith, we would recognize that the doctrine of justification deals not merely with disagreements amongst Christians, but with the fundamental situation of all humans, regardless of where they claim to stand with respect to religion. Second, in light of this work, contemporary theology undermines the specificity of the preaching office that actually delivers the goods indicated in the doctrine of justification. The gift-word of the promise is delivered through actual proclamation in the here and now. If we are to take the doctrine more seriously, we must take preaching far more seriously. This applies not just to preaching styles but to its content. Justification as an abstract doctrine, apart from granting the goods in the proclamation, means little. Finally, we need to ask ourselves: what would the mission of our church look like if we let the proper distinction between law and gospel, the doing of the doctrine of justification, govern our work? Would we be willing to take that risk at a time of membership decline in the ELCA?

[5] First, with the doctrine of justification, we are not dealing solely with a polemic within Christian teaching, but with all human attempts at self-righteousness, whether Christian or non-Christian, religious or secular. Perhaps no one has alluded to this phenomenon better than the social scientist Ernest Becker. As Becker noted, once the basic necessities of life are provided, humans will inevitably (unfortunately?) have theologians in the making. Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning. Every society thus is a ‘religion’ whether it thinks so or not: Soviet ‘religion’ and Maoist ‘religion’ are as truly religious as are scientific and consumer ‘religion’, no matter how much they may try to disguise themselves by omitting religious and spiritual ideas from their lives (The Denial of Death, 7).

[6] From Becker’s insight, we might infer that the educational implications of this claim are that all college majors are, either overtly or covertly, knowingly or unknowingly, religion majors. That is, they are all serving, at the present time, an ideological-political system that claims ultimacy over people’s lives, providing meaning for, and guiding people, a standard by which people can defend themselves against whatever threats they perceive. Hence, business, law, medicine, and other disciplines swarm, metaphorically speaking, with their own hierarchies of bishops, priests, and deacons (their professors and practitioners), all offering proposals for how to save the world, i. e., provide heaven on earth, whether by economics, various therapies, or the rectification of injustices. Such self-justification is manifested concretely when we erect those monuments (such as skyscrapers) that symbolize our worth, when we exercise our military or political prowess, when we establish efficient economic and educational systems (at the expense of others), and when we survey the speculative sublimity of our grand unified systems of physical and metaphysical cartographies. The doctrine of justification, as seen in the preamble to the Ten Commandments and the First Commandment, unmasks all such quests for the ultimate security of our worth and abiding stature as bogus. It would, if taken seriously, allow disciplines within the academy to nurture and be nurtured by creation, and thus lose any soteriological pretension.

[7] With respect to the question of such pervasive self-justification, Becker also notes that the human “has to build and earn inner value and security. He must repress his smallness in the adult world, his failures to live up to adult commands and codes (52).” Feminist critiques of Becker’s work, at least at this point, miss the mark. Indeed, contemporary feminism has failed to offer a genuine alternative to the white, male system. It has, rather, duplicated it from the inside out-replacing women with men, whether through merit or quota, in a system which itself stays in tact-making Becker’s assessment from the early 1970s quite accurate even today.

[8] Theology, as a human phenomenon, is guaranteed because due those human insecurities, specified by Becker, all humans fall into the trap of self-justification – a true fall into sin. Justification, then, should not be seen merely as an ecumenical hurdle over which Protestants and Catholics need to jump. Nor should it be seen solely in terms of a dispute among Protestants over the relation between justification and sanctification. As important as the disagreements are between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism on the issue of salvation, or the prioritizing of sanctification with respect to justification among Protestants, the heart of the doctrine gets at how anyone justifies his or her life in the face of whatever or whoever is considered to be ultimate or should be considered ultimate.

[9] In this regard, an untapped insight from Luther’s view of justification is that the doctrine gets at the core of what it means to be human, a move with profound implications for how we think not only about the church but also about humans in general in their relationships with each other and the world. In the Disputation concerning Man (1536), Luther claims that justification by faith “briefly sums up the definition of man [thesis 32]…consigning all humanity to sin” [thesis 34], with the ultimate intent that the human be the “simple material of God for the form of his future life” [thesis 35] (AE 34:139). Luther’s insight is that the human cannot be truly understood unless the human is, at the core of one’s being, understood as receptive or passive (vita passiva). And, this truth is what other perspectives seem to fail to address. Even an atheist like Nietzsche will appeal to an ethic-albeit that of the ruthless übermensch-in order to accentuate human agency. Ah, but this is the question. Are we fundamentally and from the first agents and not recipients? To die or rise with Christ in baptism is simply the way God effectuates such receptivity in humans whose wills are bound on choosing themselves over God or their neighbor (including the non-human creation).

[10] It is because Jesus Christ has reconciled the entire world (objective justification) that the church has an agenda for the world – indeed, sets an agenda for the world. This is an agenda mandated from the preamble to the Ten Commandments, a promise: I am the Lord your God. In a world of competing, even violent, proposals for self-justification, the Church commends to the world the Creator as the final judge before whom all proposals for self-justification must be evaluated. We proclaim a word, authorized from God, claiming that for Jesus’ sake, the world is set free by forgiving sinners.

[11] Second, we tend to undermine the specificity of the actual proclamation of the Crucified, which delivers the goods of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Other agendas-establishing moral rectitude, helping those highly anxious to cope, or devising grand unified theories from big bang to big crunch-seem more relevant. To elaborate on that claim we need to reexamine the significance of the outline of the Augsburg Confession. It is customary to say that article IV (de iustificatione) of the Augsburg Confession deals with the doctrine by which the church stands or falls (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae). This hub, however, is of no effect apart from article V (de ministerio ecclesiastico).

[12] The gift requires its actual delivery. The election of sinners in Christ is not a teaching to be extracted from an abstract doctrine of God. The gift of forgiveness of sins, and with that, life and salvation, is granted in the here and now through a forensic declaration of mercy, for Jesus’ sake. This means that if we are to get at the heart of a true theology, in counter-distinction to all those theologies which are based on merit, as Becker indicates, we must get to that theology which does its work in light of the God who justifies and the sinner who is justified. Genuine theology, then, must be, as Gerhard Olaf Forde taught, for proclamation. In contrast to serving as a defense attorney for an abstract deity (the deus absconditus) with a theodicy, theology should also instruct us instead to deliver Christ and his benefits to sinners, wherever they may be found.

[13] The goal, then, is to provide a way for preachers to fit various conceptual schemes into the framework of law and gospel, not vice versa. If the discerning of the distinction between law and gospel, the doing of the doctrine of justification as an art, is placed within some pre-existing theoretical scheme, whether metaphysical, ethical, or psychological, then its pertinence is lost to this framework. The framework as totalizing seeks to neutralize the doctrine of its mortifying and vivifying potencies. The point of my book is to attempt just the opposite: let’s test the leading, indeed institutionalized, conceptual schemes by the standard of the doctrine of justification as interpreted through the lens of law and gospel. Thereby, the goal is to refuse to separate the doctrine of justification as a pastoral doctrine, helpful for the anxious conscience, from academic theology. Anxious consciences, as well as hardened consciences, are inseparable from intellects and vice versa, whether inside or outside the academy.

[14] Comforting the afflicted is done only in tandem with afflicting the comforted; the accusatory voice of the law is as crucial as the comforting voice of the promise. More to the point, it subordinates all thinking to a pastoral concern with this twofold agenda. Naturally that is disconcerting for those seeking an apologetic for academic theology in the university, where Provosts may allocate precious departmental funds to be siphoned into departments or venues deemed more economically sound than religious studies. For many systematic theologians, likewise, the catechetical instruction that I advocate, in opposition to various “God’s eye” agendas, must seem lean. Indeed, philosophical fragments implied in my work must appear to be meager fare for a hungry mind. But the mind-factory of idols that it is (as Calvin taught us)-must be careful that it not substitute poison for real food. Only proclamation of the law in the here and now exposes our idolatries and lack of charity. Only proclamation of the gospel in the here and now can rescue guilty sinners from their self-concocted (and divinely-imposed) hells.

[15] Finally, what if we took the risk-facing the shame of “irrelevancy”-to allow the doctrine of justification to be central to our mission? At one time, many of the predecessor churches of the ELCA could be pegged neither as mainline nor evangelical Protestant. Lutherans trod their own-sometimes lonely-path. That time is long over. Many ELCA congregations often successfully duplicate contemporary revivalism, making themselves de facto one with born-again Christianity. The denominational headquarters, as a whole, along with many of its educational institutions stands squarely in the mainstream of mainline Protestantism. The tendencies of mainline Protestantism-surprisingly not so dissimilar from “born-again” Christianity-is to enable a therapeutic Christ to rectify neuroses, with the goal of helping one work optimally in whatever current stage of late Capitalism in which one finds oneself enmeshed. This personal transformation should result in a political outcome, the liberation of the human to contribute a role within what Jean-François Lyotard calls the “metanarrative of emancipation.” Such a metanarrative, shared by both the contemporary right and left, is seen differently from either side of the political aisle.

[16] As important as the quest for an ideal and consistent ethical community is, ethics on either the left or the right will not raise the dead, give faith, or create within us clean hearts or upright spirits. If we are to move to article VI (de nova obedientia), then we must honor both articles IV and V. The problem with a theology that lends itself to moral exhortation, as we see on both the right and the left, is that we play to a will that misconstrues itself as unbound. Theology in this mode, as typified by either Charles Finney (revivalism) or Thomas Jefferson (rationalism), the two chief American religious gurus, results in giving people job descriptions from the pulpit or in synod assemblies. (Is it time for the ELCA to assess whether or not social and political resolutions at synod assemblies actually accomplish the social transformation or general good that they intend?) The moral scripts currently preached to us generate the “old obedience”-at best a first use of the law.

[17] No doubt, our metaphysical, ethical, and psychological agendas have their place, and we should work on them. However, the doctrine of justification shows that their place is never a salvific one, because they are not able to deliver the promise, the forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake.

[18] In those decades in which Lutheran synods were growing, we were not so concerned with what position we could play on the American religious team(s) or where we could fit in with the current religious landscape. If that attitude comes across as “conservative,” well let’s go back to that. But, let’s go back to that only for the sake of proclaiming a more radical gospel. If we could trust a word that creates what it proclaims, that raises the dead, that gives a clean heart and a right spirit, we might discover the renewal which the church today desperately needs and for which we all hunger. Theology that understands its limit (not understood in a Kantian sense, as Steven Paulson so helpful notes) would aid the Spirit’s work to bring about a new age, restore relations, and see creation renewed.

[19] It is my sincere hope that The Role of Justification in Theology can be one of many resources by which the church reclaims preaching as a word through which the world is renewed. Such preaching will not simply direct a program of social reform, or describe the world as it really is, or develop therapeutic options for fractured egos-as important as those agendas are. It will, rather, deliver Christ himself as the mercy which raises to life those divinely accursed-God against God! As opened from the inside out by a word far closer to us than we ever could be to ourselves, we may honor our Creator with our whole being and seek our neighbors’ welfare. As such our worldly vocations become venues for “little Christs” in action.

[20] We need a theology in which head and heart, the liturgical and the intellectual, are enlivened from the God who is ever at work recreating this world. We need to reclaim the more radical gospel, a word which does what it says and says what it does, and let it have its way with this church. When the church is the church, it is bound to have the most pertinent impact on the world.