A Review of Let Christ be Christ: Theology, Ethics & World Religions in the Two Kingdoms. Essays in Honor of the Sixty-Fifth Birthday of Charles L. Manske

1] This volume, a Festschrift for Charles Louis Manske, a decades-long leader in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), reads as a veritable “Who’s Who” of LCMS theologians. However, the volume is, shall we say, “inter-synodical,” containing essays by ELCA theologians George Forell, Ben Johnson, William Russell, and Trygve Skarsten. Naturally, the collection of essays is something of a potpourri. However, of the 31 essays there is a strong showing of essays that directly deal with the fields of missions (3 essays), diversity (5 essays), and culture (6 essays) – reflecting Manske’s missional and cultural emphases. The rest of the essays broadly address historical, systematic, or literary themes and touch on issues of ethics in only a more indirect sense.

[2] Why should ELCA people be concerned with this book written by leaders of a church which has officially described the ELCA as not orthodox? Undoubtedly many in the ELCA feel that we share far more in common with other mainline Protestants or even Roman Catholics than we do with the LCMS. However, a close reading of this book indicates that while many ELCA theologians execute their confessional commitment in markedly different ways than that of the Missourians, we still share a common confessional tradition codified in the Book of Concord and accentuated in priceless teachings such as the proper distinction between law and gospel, the two regiments, the affirmation of creaturely existence, the church as a “creature of the word” which administers the means of grace, and the gospel as the promise of a merciful God for Jesus’ sake, despite the threats of Sinai or our insecurity in the face of the hidden God (deus absconditus). Surprisingly, the robust confessionalism testified in these essays will appear quite refreshing for many ELCA preachers or professors looking for a theology that accommodates little to wider cultural influences (particularly of the left, but at times even the right).

[3] Manske is the founding president of Concordia University Irvine, formerly Christ College. He has also taught at Concordia Seminary, Fort Wayne Indiana. His doctoral work focussed on the relevance of Luther’s two-regiment approach for contemporary cultural studies. His career has centered on Reformation studies, attempting to understand the role of non-Christian religions, and social ethics. Hence, essays in this volume are geared towards these interests.

[4] Given the diversity of essays and viewpoints presented in this volume it wouldn’t be desirable to summarize each one in this review. Rather, we will look at some of the more significant essays that bear upon either ethics or missions. In “Christ in the Midst of Cultural Diversity” Kenneth W. Behnken affirms that as Christians we are to love our neighbor regardless of his or her culture, color, or language because Christ first loved us (7). He is skeptical of the quest of many for equality and integration through human laws and humanitarian ideals since in reality these methods become “only adhesive bandages on the festering sore of original sin and human pride” (7). In other words, in neo-conservative fashion, the primary task of Christians is to diversify the church, but not especially to alter social structures of the wider society to secure the needs or rights of minorities. However, his hope for a diversified church seems quite sincere: the diversity of people each sharing gifts, culture, class, language, and identity should anticipate that great eschatological “cathedral” which, like the great cathedrals in Europe, will not be finished until the judgement day (10).

[5] Although usually seen in quietistic terms as un-missional, missiologist Eugene W. Bunkowske creates a different portrait of Luther and Lutheranism. Far from un-missional, Luther simply had a great confidence in the word as implicitly out-reaching and invitational. In “Luther the Missionary” he suggests that the missionary enterprise, if faithful to Luther’s vision, ought to be both consciously directed and spontaneous, scripture-based, prayerful, sacramental, people-centered, catechetical, dividing law and gospel, distinguishing between ordained pastors and the priesthood of all believers, and see students as fellow workers in Christ’s mission (25). Similarly, Robert A. Dargatz’s essay “The Kingdom of the Left and Salvation History” challenges the usual Troeltschian assumption that Lutheranism is inherently quietistic. He notes that Lutheranism is not blind to evil in the world. However, were God to chose to eliminate all evil there would be dead silence. He maintains that “God’s perfect justice will be maintained in that all evil will be dealt with decisively at the end of human history. In the meantime he is patient and forbearing. No matter how bad things might appear to be in this world, God guarantees ultimate victory” (39). There are circumstances in which the authorities and powers of this age must be challenged. “When human authority instructs people to disobey or disregard the expressed will of God it has overstepped it bounds and must not be obeyed. This is especially true when the prohibition, as is Acts 4:18, involves something that opposes the proclamation of the Gospel and would thus attempt to nullify Heilsgeschichte” (40). Again, if the gospel is threatened by political authorities, one should exercise a God-given right to resist them.

[6] In a remarkable essay “An Evangelical Stance on World Religions” Indian theologian James C. Gamaliel outlines the rise of the World Council of Churches and its quest for an utopian future as supplanting the missional zeal in churches that had been ignited during Pietism. He argues that concern for dialogue amongst religions, construction of a world community, economic and political liberation, humanization (including the stance that salvation can be found outside Christ) has increasingly threatened the evangelical and missional vision of the church (91). These transformations of the church’s outreach should concern Lutherans. He specifies: “All world religions teach active righteousness and justification through sanctification. The biblical message is God’s righteousness or passive righteousness received as a gift from a gracious God through faith in Christ” (101).

[7] Taking a stance in the worship wars, Lowell Green in “The Distinction of Law and Gospel as the Criterion for Liturgical Forms and Hymnody” argues that much of our worship planning is so tied to our culture’s idolization of youth that “fear, trust, and love of God above all things” languishes or is altogether ignored. Doctrinal issues are sidelined and narcissism is fed. The integrity of the divine service needs to be reinstated in our churches. Similarly, Don Matzat argues that the most effective evangelism is one that doesn’t accommodate to postmodern culture by marginalizing doctrine and refraining from condemning error – otherwise “we should not at all be surprised if there are people at our communion tables who are also ‘into that karma thing'” (197). From Matzat’s perspective we can gain the insight that postmodern culture is neither free from superstition nor doctrineless. The Christian’s calling in this context is to discern these doctrines and test them in light of God’s intentions for the world.

[8] Well-known St. Louis theologian Robert Kolb in “The Devil and the Well-Born” examines preaching in the early post-Reformation period in order to test just how counter-cultural it was willing to be. He points out that many of the early Lutheran preachers were risky, non-accommodating orators who criticized not only the immorality of the peasantry, but also that of the lords, whose tastes in hunting or suggestive attire was tied to an economic system that often sacrificed the poor. His point is that early Lutheran preachers were not antinomian. Rather, they stressed the need to live a Christian life according to strict moral standards (170). Again, though often thought to be quietistic and passive, Kolb points out the potent socially critical, liberating forces latent, surprisingly, within Lutheran orthodoxy.

[9] In “Freedom under the Word of God: An Examination of Current Arguments for the Ordination of Women” Gregory J. Lockwood argues against women’s ordination, particularly by appealing – as is common at the Fort Wayne Seminary – that since, paradoxically, the Son is subordinate but not ontologically inferior to the Father, women can be equal but must be subordinate to men – particularly with respect to ordination (179). While traditionally the exclusion of women from the ministerial office in Missouri was tied to an interpretation of the orders of creation which prioritized male authority over the female (who are ontologically equal before God), Lockwood’s essay reflects a newer move afoot in Missouri that grounds the exclusion of women from the preaching office on the basis of this kind of speculation about the interior life of the trinity as such. His article will be, no doubt, offensive to most ELCA members. John Warwick Montgomery’s essay “A Critique of Chinese Religious Options” in which seemingly no merit is found in indigenous Chinese religions will likewise be offensive to many ELCA members (and possibly some LCMS readers). For Montgomery, the light no longer shines in the darkness in native Chinese religions.

[10] Many of the essays reviewed here represent a response to the theme of social activism. They reflect a great confidence in the preaching and teaching offices of the church to challenge social structures and offer an alternative to the advocacy measures that seem to predominate in the ELCA. They seem to express a confidence in the mission of the baptized to effectuate positive change in the world and that God, and not only the devil, is at work in the social order. An encounter with the ethics of LCMS thinkers leads this ELCA theologian to ponder a number of concerns, which will be presented in the next several paragraphs, relevant to the question of how faith should be active in love in the public realm. As mentioned earlier both the LCMS and the ELCA share the concern that a responsible social ethic must acknowledge the proper distinction between law and gospel. It is becoming clear that properly distinguishing law and gospel will fit neither into an existentialist ethic that accentuates an immediate “I-thou” relation between the believer and God, since God speaks to humans through creatures (“masks” of God), nor into an “ethicizing” that seeks to supplement the forgiveness and security proffered by the gospel by means of our attempts to create the perfectly just society since such praxis, like theory, must acknowledge its prior dependency on the pathos of faith. With regard to ethics, the gospel then is not only necessary but also sufficient. As a church we can trust the gospel’s empowerment of people to do their vocation in the world. We can trust the world as God’s – a faith that in no way makes us passive, but which would allow us to affirm that demonic power over the world will have its limits and that the vocation of the baptized can happen even in current social structures, institutions which are inescapably evil yet through which God works infinite good. This side of the eschaton power structures will remain and it becomes a question of seeking to establish justice within them rather than naively assuming that we could find power structures that would equalize any and every hierarchy. No doubt, the church will offer a counter-cultural stance (though not itself a counter-culture) in contrast to the prevailing power and greed that dominates wider society to the prevailing self-centeredness and greed of much of our current culture. Viewing the church as counterculture (like the Ecclesia Project) simply rearranges the tables of the law and finally provide no relief from the problem of law itself (which seemingly a Lutheran ethic ought to be able to do).

[11] This reviewer wishes that there would have been at least one essay that looks at our current economy in light of Luther – perhaps contrasting it to Luther’s “happy exchange.” In this regard, if we were to extend the lines of inquiry to expose the theological roots of the “Hidden Hand” of the market place (as Milbank has nicely done) we might equalize the field between economists and theologians in the academy. Any ethical thinking worth its salt in North America certainly is wrapped up in economic assumptions in one way or another. To what degree, then, is our economics, like our politics, the praxis of a theological – doctrinal – system (albeit not Christianity)?

[12] One thing is for sure, the matrix in which our ethical thinking has been accomplished for the last three to four decades – largely strategies of accommodation either to the political left or right is changing. Theologians are becoming more secure with their own voices and what they have to offer the wider public. It will be exciting to see how the questions raised above will be answered in the future. If we as Lutherans are to reclaim our voices we can’t ignore the import of the law-gospel distinction on our interpretation of God’s action in the wider public. They majority of essays in this volume can help contribute to this understanding and confidence.