A Review of The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century

[1] There is no more timely book than The Paradoxical Vision. Given issues like war, peace, sexuality, and how the “public” voice of the Christian community ought to be expressed, this book provides a theological and ethical framework that is vital. Its vitality lies in a clear articulation of Lutheran “public theology” or “social ethics.” Written by an elder among Lutheran ethicists, this book delivers on its title. How Benne does this is a matter worthy of discussion.

[2] One of the claims made by theologians and ethicists in the Liberation Theology movement has been the truthfulness of authors. Social location is critical to the development of any theology or ethics. The reader is entitled to know how the author’s social location informs and shapes one’s thinking.

[3] The Preface to The Paradoxical Vision certainly fulfills that need. Here Benne reveals those social, religious, and intellectual sources that nurtured his spirit, thinking, and understanding of the Lutheran concept of the relationship between the church and society. Thus, Benne writes that he wants to share his “thoughts on Christian social ethics, Lutheranly conceived” (pp. ix).

[4] What is the fundamental problem according to Benne? The organization of the book answers this question. Part I assesses the state of “public theology” in America. In a clear, yet highly nuanced argument, Chapter 1 presents an analysis of public theology in America. Public theology for Benne is “the engagement of a living religious tradition with its public environment-the economic, political, and cultural spheres of our common life” (pp. 4). This engagement involves knowledge; that is, interpretation of the world according to the tradition and action by institutions and individuals (7-10).

[5] The reader catches a glimpse of Benne’s latter argument; namely, that all living traditions (Benne sometimes uses the word religious) form and shape individuals, and institutions make corporate statements that the world receives. With the decline of the Enlightenment project, the rise of a form of “individualism” that grounds moral activity in the self, and a world that is increasingly fragmented, Benne concludes that “The older cultural coherence is gone. New interest groups practice their hermeneutic of suspicion on whatever is left of it” (pp. 25).

[6] Chapter 2 presents an interesting assessment of American public theology. Benne agrees with the argument of a religious historian, Mark Noll, who suggests that American public theology has been shaped by Calvinistic theology and could use “a Lutheran nudge.” Through its focus on the doctrine of sanctification, the religious impulse of the 1950s led to an assumption that individuals through their individual and collective actions could bring in the Kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit would transform the Christian who would transform the society in which they live. However, those who embraced a Marxist interpretation of the world (i.e., being on the side of poor and marginalized people), partially contributed to a reversal of all this.

[7] It is here that one can agree and disagree with Benne. On the one hand, mainstream Protestantism lost its voice in the public arena. No one really cared what the church thought because what Christians professed to believe lacked intelligibility and credibility. That is, since one’s salvation comes from God alone through Jesus Christ alone, one’s treatment of people created by God often was allowed to be inconsistent with that belief.

[8] On the other hand, one can disagree with Benne who attributes this reversal, in part, to “adversarial movements” emerging within America and mainline Protestantism (pp.35ff). Gender feminism, gay and lesbian liberation movements, multiculturalists, and ecological militants challenged the one-sided interpretation of the Bible and the Christian tradition. Rather than view these new public voices as adversarial, a more charitable view argues that these movements enhanced the public square. One can hardly forget the Civil Rights Movement and its religious and theological basis for both its indirect and direct nonviolent action. In fact, some Lutheran clergy and lay people, in some parts of the church and the country, found adequate theological justification in classic Christian and Lutheran documents for expressing Lutheran public theology.

[9] Chapter 2 ends with a description of the rise of the neo-conservative theological movement (Benne locates himself here). This movement, which includes theologians and ethicists from both the Jewish and Christian tradition, organized and published articles that publicly engaged those perceived to be more liberal and left wing progressives. Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus (who has since joined the Roman Catholic Church) figure prominently as Lutheran contributors to this new movement. The future of public theology in America resides not in those “adversarial groups,” but in “orthodox groups” who are “self-consciously connected to classic Christian sources” (pp. 55).

[10] Part II, then, is a commanding part of the book. In three chapters, Benne outlines the paradoxical vision, examples of “official Lutheranism,” and individual exemplars of the paradoxical vision. Chapter 3 argues that the core of the paradoxical vision is justification by grace through faith on account of Jesus Christ. God acts and human beings receive. Moreover, individual Christians are called says Benne, in our various “locations to exercise our Christian discipleship” (pp. 67). Two qualifications exist that shape our response to God’s grace: rare direct expressions of faith to institutions and the sinful nature of human beings (simul justus et peccator). What we do in our various locations (Benne later uses “places of responsibility,” (pp. 195) carry no salvific significance; yet, the Christian is motivated to love the neighbor.

[11] Benne moves forward by outlining four themes that constitute the “Lutheran attitude” in public theology. These themes constitute the theological framework for public theology. Christian public theology can be nudged in a Lutheran direction by recognizing, first, the distinction between God’s act of salvation and human activity. The gospel is radical and universal because it presents salvation as a gift. God’s people no longer have to be preoccupied with their salvation. The Christian response is faith, followed by love directed to the neighbor.

[12] Closely connected with this core vision is a moral vision. The moral vision includes the “Ten Commandments,” “faith active in love and justice,” “preciousness of all created life,” “and the covenantal structure of God’s creation.” As with the religious vision, the moral vision must be interpreted and “applied creatively to each new historical situation” (pp. 73). The mission of the church is clear. It is to proclaim the radical nature of the gospel and its universality.

[13] The second theme of the framework is the paradoxical nature of human beings. God’s people are both justified and sinner. As God’s people, we are prone to idolize and worship self. One wonders how the argument presented by Benne would look if there had been a naming of a sin. While one can agree that all people sin, there are specific sins that reside within specific communities for which repentance and God’s forgiveness is called for. Sin prevails; yet, Christians are (Benne says) “capable of ‘civil righteousness’ (pp. 77). Christians have the capacity of doing “the right thing,” but in the end, God saves.

[14] The third theme of the framework is the paradoxical rule of God. The linchpin of Lutheran social ethics, the Two-Kingdom doctrine or the twofold rule of God, is discussed. God rules through the law (the kingdom on the left) and the gospel (the kingdom on the right). Here the reader encounters traditional Lutheran theology. God creates and sustains the world. God’s law, therefore, rules through orders of creation; that is, through the state, economy, family, and church. All people and all of existence encounter the dynamic nature of the law which is non-redemptive (pp. 83-85).

[15] God rules the kingdom on the right through the gospel. Word and Sacrament address the world, the task of the church. The individual who receives Word and Sacrament through the Holy Spirit lives in both kingdoms simultaneously. God’s twofold rule of the world, then, “comes together creatively in this world” (pp. 86-87). Christians creatively enter the world through their calling by exercising one’s vocation. The church is the place where God’s twofold rule comes together. Word and Sacrament have indirect influence in the world through judgment and lure, and there is confession of “the conjoining of the two kingdoms” (87-89).

[16] The final theme Benne articulates is the paradoxical nature of history. God’s kingdom is here; yet, it is not here. While there is judgment of human sin, on the other side is hope. Christians can expect that there will be changes, but those changes in history are not guaranteed says Benne (pp. 89-90).

[17] Benne provides a helpful correlation between the Lutheran attitude and the views of the Reformed tradition. The tendencies of Reformed theology include the law becoming the gospel, turning the gospel into law, and an emphasis on a third use of the law (moral guides). The Lutheran attitude, with its understanding that human beings are both justified and sinner contributes a healthy skepticism about our knowledge about issues people face in the world (90-98).

[18] These views lead to a more direct encounter with the world. The goal is transformation of the world. Benne identifies two organizations that exemplify these tendencies, the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. Through their statements and actions, these two church organizations have accepted social ethics as their primary task. The Lutheran attitude suggests attending to its task: “forming persons in its central religious and moral vision”. Lutherans, therefore, prefer an indirect mode (persuasion) of engaging society rather than power or coercion associated with the direct mode of engaging society (98-103).

[19] Chapter 4 is wonderful analysis of how the paradoxical vision is embodied in “official Lutheranism.” Benne provides a review of the development of social statements developed by predecessor bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the ELCA, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Readers may benefit from Benne’s discussion of how social statements develop. Moreover, Benne, while not wanting to focus on all the social statements of the predecessor church bodies of the ELCA, does assess several documents to show how they reflect the four principles of Lutheran public theology.

[20] Given the aftermath of September 11 and the war with Iraq, Benne’s assessment of the “Peace and Politics” social statement may be of interest to readers. In a meticulous manner, Benne shows how “Peace and Politics” reflects the four themes of the paradoxical theological framework. There comes a time when the state may engage in violence and this can be supported through the just war theory (112-119).

[21] What is Benne’s assessment of official Lutheranism? While there is a critical assessment of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s public theology, Benne thinks it “is of high quality” (pp. 141). What makes it so? They have limited statements. Moreover, they closely adhere to their theological and ethical core vision.

[22] The assessment of the ELCA effort at public theology receives affirmation; yet, it is highly criticized. Benne identifies four problems in the ELCA approach to public theology. Benne writes, “The most threatening has to do with the processes of representation so indebted to the ‘interest group liberalism’ begun in the predecessor bodies.” Furthermore, Benne believes this, along with other problems, leads to “the gradual erosion” and a lack of “theological continuity in everything the ELCA does” (pp.142). Those who are included at the table simply do not bring the same commitment to the core religious and moral vision of the Lutheranism.

[23] I could not more disagree with Benne. One example that comes to mind is the deep commitment to the core Lutheran vision by so many rostered leaders, lay people, and teaching theologians from communities of color. Why else would members of these diverse communities of color remain in the ELCA? Moreover, to lay a problem of the ELCA onto those communities now being included is somewhat disingenuous. It seems to me that the problem is far deeper theologically; namely, how can the ELCA through its members, congregations, and church wide expressions be disciples of Jesus Christ and witness in its contextual reality? The issue, it seems to me, is can the ELCA, as Benne says earlier in the book, fulfill its task of interpreting and applying creatively its core vision in this historical situation?

[24] Chapter 5 identifies three persons (all white males) who represent the paradoxical vision, Reinhold Niebuhr, Glenn Tinder, and Richard John Neuhaus. Each was selected because each “had a significant effect on public theology of this Reformed-shaped nation,” they “were or are devotees of the paradoxical vision as individuals, not as communicants of Lutheran churches,” and each goes “in somewhat different political directions from within the framework of the paradoxical vision” (pp. 148-150). Lutheran public theology, in the final analysis, has had witnesses in the public square.

[25] Part III suggests how public theology, with its Lutheran nudge, connects with the world. While the reader received some early indications of the direction of Benne’s thinking, he now provides a typology of how the paradoxical vision connects with the world. The typology includes indirect unintentional, indirect intentional, direct unintentional and direct intentional action.

[26] Chapter 6 focuses on the first two modes of the indirect connection. The indirect unintentional focuses on forming individuals in the core living tradition. These individuals communicate this core through their various callings. Thus, the church has no direct intention of affecting the world. Among Lutherans, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod does this well (pp. 184-190). The second type of this mode is indirect intentional which relies on persuasion. The church does not control the actions of the laity, but rather seeks to bring its core vision into conversation with the world. The church, therefore, can “play a mediating role,” provide space as it were, for discussion of issues similar to what the Evangelical Academies in Germany or the American version, the Lutheran Academy did along with independent voluntary associations. Accordingly, the church is better equipped to engage the world because it is not of the world (pp. 191-200).

[27] Chapter 7 brings the reader, finally, to the direct mode of public theology. The difference between this mode and the indirect mode lies in the church being an actor in the public square. Through its public statements, the church seeks to affect the world in which we live. The church has a responsibility to address, corporately, the world but with some guidelines. These include credibility, distinguishing levels of authority, and intelligibility (pp. 206-214).

[28] The final mode, direct and intentional action, Benne considers the most controversial. This mode differs from the others because the church uses power to enact its intentions. The church marshals its members, its finances, and political status to move public policy makers in a particular direction the church thinks the world should go (215-218).

[29] It may come as a surprise to some readers, but Benne would support a “soft” form of advocacy. He concedes that there is a biblical basis for speaking to policy makers on behalf of the poor. However, advocacy is limited by two principles: “calling attention” rather than “calling the shots” and by “focusing on extremes and living the middle ground alone.” Fewer efforts by the church will be better; that is, the church should exercise restraint (221-224).

[30] At times, Benne laments the situation within the ELCA. Yet, he is hopeful. The paradoxical vision will survive through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

[31] Since the arrival of The Paradoxical Vision, I have required this book in my courses on Christian ethics and church and society. I do so, not so much because I agree with everything Benne writes. I do not. However, since I am an ethicist of the church, I want students fully prepared to critically engage and articulate that living tradition. It has formed and continues to form many of the members of the ELCA. Maybe then we can have communities of moral deliberation fully informed as to what exactly is the core of the paradoxical vision.

Richard J. Perry

Richard J. Perry, Jr. is Associate Professor of Church and Society and Urban Ministry at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Dr. Perry is a member of the Advisory Council for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, represents the Lutheran Ethicists Network on the Theological Roundtable, and serves as convener of the Conference of International Black Lutherans (CIBL, USA).