A Review by Karen L. Bloomquist

[1] From the initial planning for this book, the intent was not to set forth one normative Lutheran approach, against which other approaches could summarily be dismissed as “inferior.” Nor was it to suggest that there are no distinctive commonalities and emphases among those whose moral life has been shaped by Lutheran theology, centered in the gospel. The project itself was inspired, in large part, by conversations at annual gatherings of Lutheran ethicists that began in the early 1990s, in which we have risked sharing our convictions about the distinctiveness of Lutheran ethics, and from which has emerged a growing and maturing sense of the “substance” or spirit (even the Holy Spirit) that connects us as Lutherans studying, teaching, and ministering in quite different contexts. This continues to draw us back together each January, in expanding numbers (if interested, contact the Department of Studies).

[2] I will not presume to respond to the reviewers’ specific critiques of what individual authors propose; they can speak for themselves. Instead, in light of the reviewers’ overall comments, I will reflect on the implications of this volume as a whole for a theological/ecclesial matter that continues to haunt us as Lutherans, as well as other denominations. Whereas George Forell and Gilbert Meilaender are wary of the “weakness” or “instabilities” of collections of authors with different perspectives, Elizabeth Purdum, Mary Solberg, and Franklin Sherman express appreciation for the diversity here, sensing this is not a disparate collection of individual voices but authors who are interactive and in communion, though not necessarily in agreement, with one another. I concur with the latter view, privileged as I was to work closely with the authors as a group and sense how much they learned from and grew to appreciate each other. They nuanced their writings differently because of their interactions with one another. This is evident, for example, in the closing section of the “Table Talk,” as well as their ongoing conversations with one another in the asterisked endnotes (which they corrected and reworked more than once).

[3] A common tendency, when differences arise among Lutherans, for example, has been to engage in what can amount to theological “warfare.” After all, theological matters are life and death matters for Lutherans! They often have been willing to “go to the mat,” whether the questions be over a third use of the law or recognition of an historic episcopate. Struggles over which interpretation or position will triumph have often erupted into power struggles that result in silencing some and/or forming a new Lutheran church. Unfortunately that has tended to be the Lutheran way of dealing with differences, infused also with a dominant northern European, patriarchal ethos.

[4] In contrast, as James Childs observes, for authors of this book it generally was not “a game of one-upmanship, of who can be more Lutheran or more clever or more learned. … When it came to identifying differences we were able to deal with them at a level of interchange that was never antagonistic but always in a quest for the truth. … As a result there was a kind of corrective that may not have eradicated the differences but eliminated those that are false and distorting among us” (174). Such a way of relating, with mutual respect and learning, is itself ethically significant. This also is undergirded by the realization that each of our perspectives are limited, not omniscient, and by Luther’s sacramental understanding that we are changed into one another. Through the activity of the Spirit, God indwells and empowers intersubjectivity.

[5] The matter is much more than being civil or tolerant toward others. It is not merely reflective of what Meilaender claims “academic culture teaches us to say about morality” in a postmodern age. The genius of Lutheran theology may cause us to look again at what is felt to be a tension between “moral substance” and “reforming dynamic”-a tension present among these authors and reviewers, as well as in many of the ethical debates of our day. The fears are that “moral substance” will be static and oppressive and that a “reforming dynamic” will be devoid of moral substance. This tension is evident, for example, in ongoing discussions about the place of the law in Lutheran ethics.

[6] If the living, dynamic word-as both promise and law-is at the heart of a Lutheran ethic, the moral “substance” will inevitably be intertwined with or borne by a reforming “dynamic.” The dynamic of how we relate to one another-including in the heat of theological disagreements-may convey moral substance more persuasively than do unchanging divine mandates or ethical principles. Who is present around the table, and whether their perspectives and realities make a difference, become matters of moral substance (justice). Moral substance emerges from how we have been shaped or formed, and the practices in which we partake. Together they constitute a way of life that is dynamic and goes against much of the “moral substance” of this society. The moral agency of African American Lutherans (see Richard Perry’s article) is but one example of this.

[7] At the recent Lutheran ethicists gathering, Pastor Lucy Kolin (Resurrection, Oakland, CA) captured well not only this tension between “sacred deposit and living Word,” but also the moral import of what this volume seeks to further:

I find hope here for the Church…that we as members of the Church might be drawn to trust that honest and faithful conversation, candid and concrete moral deliberation, wrapped in prayer and in the arms of the Word, might be the very sort of arena where the Holy Spirit can do her best work-the arena whose very messiness invites the Spirit to make connections, to disarm unhealthy and limiting assumptions, and to draw not just our thought but our very selves together, for the good of the Church and the well-being of creation.

Copyright © 1999 dialog. Used with permission.
From dialog, Volume 38, Number 2 (Spring 1999)

Karen L. Bloomquist

Karen Bloomquist, ordained in 1974, has served as pastor of Lutheran congregations in CA, NYC, WA, and after completing her PhD at Union in NY, has been on faculties in Chicago, Dubuque and Berkeley, as well as director of departments in the ELCA and the LWF.  She also has taught at seminaries throughout the world, and has authored or edited many publications. She currently is a theologian-at-large, and lives in  both WA and CA.