An Interview with George Forell: September 6, 2001

[1] JLE: Why don’t you begin by telling us about your own involvement with Luther and Luther studies.

[2] Forell: I could start by saying that I wasn’t really aware that I was a Lutheran when I transferred from Germany to Austria, because I was “evangelisch.” “Evangelisch” meant Lutheran where I came from, because we didn’t have any significant Reformed Protestant churches. My father and grandfather and great-grandfather were evangelishe pastors in various parts of Silesia. In 1934 I started school in Vienna, Austria, and as we registered, I was asked “What’s your religion?” I said “Evangelisch,” and the teacher said, “A.B. or H.B.?” and I didn’t know what he was talking about. My Jewish friend, who sat next to me, said, “Augsburg Confession or Helvetic Confession?” And I said, “Of course, Augsburg Confession.” So that was the first time that I was a particular kind of Protestant, namely “A.B.”

[3] Of course, I had been raised on Luther’s Small Catechism, and I was confirmed in the Lutheran Church in Vienna, in a church very near St. Stephen’s Cathedral. But in those days Protestant churches were not allowed to have a tower or a bell, and only after Joseph II were they tolerated. I was raised in a very Catholic country. The government in 1934 thought it was developing the country according to the papal encyclicals. It was a form of Catholic fascism, I thought.

[4] In 1934, just before we came, there had been street battles between the Social Democrats and this Catholic party that was running the country. One of the chancellors was assassinated by the Nazis, and for a little while certain places in Austria were under Nazi control. But Mussolini didn’t approve of it, and Hitler at that time (in 1934) was still paying attention to what Mussolini wanted, so this Nazi revolt was suppressed, and Nazis didn’t come to power until 1938.

[5] But my life was lived in a very highly political atmosphere in which religion and politics were profoundly interactive, and the politics of Austria in these early years of my life were a distinctly Catholic politics – which meant that the country was run by a Concordat between the Austrian government and the Pope. This Concordat meant, for example, that there was no divorce. If you were Roman Catholic, you could get an annulment through the church, and then you could remarry, because you had been legally separated. But if you were Lutheran, you couldn’t get an annulment from the Pope. So it could happen that a man and a woman were married, the marriage broke up, the Catholic party got an annulment and remarried, and the Lutheran party was still married to the person who was now married to somebody else. That was part of the Concordat. Concordats are strange documents!

[6] It stayed this way until March of 1938. I was then a student at the University of Vienna where I studied philosophy and theology. In 1938, the Nazis marched into Austria, and my father immediately left, since he had a long record of anti-Nazi activity. He managed to get out almost immediately, just after the Gestapo had been at our place, but my dad wasn’t home. So he left, and I followed him the next day. We went to Czechoslovakia, to Prague. So my interest in politics, and religion and politics, is really part of my history.

[7] When I came to America in 1939, I went immediately to the seminary. My scholarship to America was given to me by the Board of American Missions of the United Lutheran Church. They invited me to come to America to preach in German. That was in 1939, and they still had a number of German-speaking churches and very few German-speaking pastors.

[8] I studied at the seminary, and the interesting thing for me was that my fellow students really were not interested in politics. There we were in 1939, the world was going to blow up, and they really did not notice. There was some “America First” activity, not wanting the United States to get involved. So I was in school at the time the war started in Europe until I graduated in 1941. But for my fellow students – lovely people as they were – politics was something that was not interesting; it wasn’t important.

[9] I moved to Minnesota in 1946, after being a pastor in New Jersey and New York in a bilingual congregation. In Minnesota, I started as an assistant professor of Philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College. And there I ran into a church that was really the Republican party at prayer, partly because the political leaders of the Republican party in Minnesota were very wonderful Lutherans, like Luther Youngdahl.

[10] I, on the other hand, became friends with Hubert Humphrey, Orval Freeman, and Fritz Mondale. I became very active in Democratic party politics in Minnesota and was a delegate to the convention – it must have been in 1952 – and there was a picture on the front page of the Minneapolis Tribune where I was shown blowing the trumpet when they had a procession for Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my heroines.

[11] I was embarrassingly active in Democratic politics. I had a big argument with Joe McCarthy on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus. He lied to me – as he usually did – about how a certain senate candidate had voted. The students, of course, believed that a senator wouldn’t lie in front of everybody, but that was how he operated. If you lie loud enough, then people will believe it.

[12] JLE: I would be interested in knowing how the connection was made between your Luther study and the kind of liberal politics with which you have been associated.

[13] Forell: I started my theological research with the thesis I submitted for my B.D. on “The Doctrine of the Church for the Apostle Paul,” which was later published in the Lutheran Quarterly. From Paul I picked up the notion of the church as the people of God. Then, when I went to Princeton in 1941 to get a master’s degree, I said, “I’m going to try to find out what the doctrine of the church is for Luther.” I really wanted to write a history of the doctrine of the church and was doing pieces of that. I did that for Joseph Hromadka and Otto Piper. It was published under the title, “The Reality of the Church as the Communion of Saints.”

[14] In order to write this dissertation, I read an awful lot about Luther, and the more I read of Luther the more I liked him. At that time I was still a Barthian, but my Barthianism was increasingly reduced by my study of Luther. It isn’t just that Barth didn’t like Luther, but it is also that Luther sees theology in a so much more ample way than Barth – in terms of Law and Gospel. There is really no Law in Barth. He has no ethics for non-Christians. Luther opened my understanding of how to deal with Christian responsibility in the world. The Law/Gospel approach to ethics, of course, I learned from Luther; and this Law/Gospel approach is how I’ve done ethics ever since.

[15] After Princeton, I went to Union Theological Seminary mainly because I wanted to study with Reinhold Niebuhr. What I liked about Niebuhr was his realization that Christians couldn’t stay out of politics. He was the American theologian who realized that the Christian church had the responsibility to engage the big political issues of the late ’30s and early ’40s. You know, he started a political party – the Liberal party in New York with the Garment Workers Union. The American Labor party had been taken over by the Communists, so Niebuhr and another person started the Liberal party in New York. I was very interested in Niebuhr’s attempt to relate Christian theology to political responsibility.

[16] So I went to Union and listened to Niebuhr and was convinced that he didn’t understand Luther at all. He was my senior advisor and I was going to write a dissertation for him about Luther’s social ethics. And yet, he really didn’t understand Luther. I had the suspicion that he had never read much Luther. He let me work for him and I wrote the dissertation, Faith Active in Love, and it was not favorable to Niebuhr’s interpretation of Luther. In fact, it is a critique of Niebuhr’s Luther interpretation. And for that I got a doctorate from Niebuhr! That gives you some idea of the kind of person Niebuhr was. He didn’t mind that I disagreed with him, and I don’t think that I convinced him, but he certainly didn’t convince me. I had John Bennett on my committee, and John T. McNeil, who knew more about Luther than all of us. McNeil was the Reformation historian of that day at Union Theological Seminary.

[17] My dissertation was an attempt to show that Luther, from beginning to end, had an interest in society. He wrote the 95 Theses as an act of social responsibility. It was the people who came to him in confession in Wittenberg who convinced him that they were being made morally irresponsible by this indulgence business. So Luther attacked the indulgence business as a form of ethical irresponsibility – the notion that one can appease God by buying indulgences. Of course, in Luther’s later life he got involved in all kinds of political questions. Niebuhr’s notion that Luther had no interest in politics just shows that he hadn’t read it. If you read Luther, if you read his sermons, you discover that he feels that Christianity implies political responsibility. But the point of Luther’s ethics is that political responsibility is a result of faith – you don’t become a Christian by doing these things. Luther said you do them because you are Christian; it is faith active in love.

[18] And now, if you want me to get really controversial, I think we are today getting to be a church that is back to “Fides Caritate Formata” – faith being formed by love. We believe again in salvation by good works. The good works are now social good works. The strange thing is that I, of course, am politically liberal, but I never thought that being politically liberal saves you. Or I never thought being politically conservative sends you to hell (It just shows very bad political judgment!). My claim is that now you again have people who go around suggesting that if you take a certain political position you’re going to be saved. The church is full of people who make your position on one social issue or another a litmus test of whether you are a Christian. I have always claimed that your political view should reflect your understanding of the faith. And what it should reflect particularly is gratitude, gratitude that God has saved you without good works. Christian ethics is an ethics of gratitude; it is not an ethics of achieving salvation. Salvation is achieved by grace alone. The Christian tries to express gratitude for what God has given in all the realms of life, including the realm of politics.

[19] JLE: May I press you just a little bit at that point? Does the nature of one’s faith commitment, however, help to give some form or substance to the political position you take?

[20] Forell: Well, I believe so, but this is not something you can read directly out of the scriptures. This is something where your reason is the tool that God has given you to work this out. You can’t just find proof texts. You have to find what is the most responsible way in which to express your gratitude to God. For example, to cut taxes for the rich and to take the money away from the poor is rationally irresponsible. My argument with Republicans at this point is not that they can’t be Christians; my argument is rather that they aren’t very reasonable in their political position at this point.

[21] JLE: Your disagreement with somebody politically has to do with their political judgment, their evaluation of the situation, and the consequences of their actions – that sort of thing?

[22] Forell: I judge politicians by whether they get the job done. Their job is quite simply to create prosperity for the people and to promote justice. I can get my politics as easily from the Declaration of Independence and from the second inaugural address of Lincoln as I can get it from anything else. I believe in the rationality of American politics.

[23] JLE: Could you say to someone, “As a Christian, you should be more concerned about the poor,” or would you say, “As a reasonable person, you should be more concerned about the plight of the poor?”

[24] Forell: As a Christian, you ought to be grateful to God. How do you express your gratitude to God in these situations. How can you say letting the poor starve is expressing your gratitude to God? That allows me to understand why, for example, a Jew may be closer to me in political decisions than a very devoted Christian. The Jew must also ask, “What is my responsibility to God?” A person once quoted scripture to me, “The poor will be with you always.” Used as a proof text, that suggests that we shouldn’t do anything about poverty, that God wants the poor to be with us always. That’s an incredible argument, but it’s an argument that uses scripture against Christ.

[25] JLE: What if one were to say, “Jesus made an option for the poor, therefore Christians should make an option for the poor. Therefore, we should be socialists or liberal Democrats and seek government. . . .”

[26] Forell: I would say that Jesus didn’t do anything about slavery or other typical first century sociological issues. Therefore, to use the sociology of the first century in which Jesus lived as the criterion for how I should do politics in the third millennium doesn’t make sense. I do not believe that you can get from the New Testament to a political party. Jesus asks, “Who is your neighbor?” and that you can learn. A neighbor is a person in need. But I don’t see in the New Testament a clear position even on slavery, which I consider a dramatic and drastic evil.

[27] JLE: You said you believe in the rationality of American politics. Isn’t the rationality in American politics influenced by the Bible, by scripture, by the preaching of the Old and New Testaments, the prophets? I mean, it isn’t a pure rationality. . . .

[28] Forell: It is influenced by Hobbes and Locke, the philosophers, as well. I think John Locke was as much an influence on Jefferson as any book in the Bible.

[29] JLE: But the people don’t read Locke. What about the rationality of American politics among the people?

[30] Forell: I trust that the people also have God-given reason.

[31] JLE: But that reason has been formed in a particular way. Is there some non-historical reason or is it always formed through many cultural influences, including religion?

[32] Forell: Well, do you call the Golden Rule “non-historical reason”? This has been fairly universalized. Quakers understand that what applies to your family ought to apply to the whole human race. I think that there is, in all human beings, an access to God-given rationality. I think, for example, that it’s very important to find out what we have in common with Islam in understanding justice. We need to discover what we have in common with Buddhism. I consider Buddhism to be one of the outstanding presentations of Law. Kharma is law with a vengeance. Kharma means that everything you do will be written into your record and for all eternity you have to make up for all the things you have done. You could translate Kharma into the statement by the Apostle Paul, “Be not deceived, God is not mocked. What a person sows, he shall also reap.” Kharma means that everything you do will be held against you forever.

[33] JLE: Before I forget, I want to ask you to explain what you think is the difference between the Catholic fascism you described earlier and the political action to which you think Christians are called. Obviously, you think there is a difference, but what is it?

[34] Forell: Well, partly it has to do with the use of reason. My claim, for example, is that if you object to abortion then you should not object to contraception. To prohibit both contraception and abortion is not a rational position, at least not if you want to reduce abortions. I do not think that the Roman Catholic position, as expressed by the encyclicals, is really a rational position in this sense. You see, I think ethics is somehow an attempt to create a situation that makes doing the right thing easier. Whether it be using contraceptives or putting speed bumps in the road to slow people down in a school zone, I’m in favor of everything that makes it easier for people to do the right thing. Some people think it is morally uplifting if it’s very hard to do the right thing; I think it should be easy for you to do the right thing. That is a rational approach.

[35] JLE: In terms of reason, one of the criticisms of Lutheran ethics, at least in certain historical moments, has been that it has given so much autonomy to reason that there has developed an ethical dualism, so that just about anything can be approved by reason.

[36] Forell: Reason, like all human gifts, is subject to sin. Luther, of course, is more colorful in his description of what is wrong with reason than anyone I know. But all the negative things Luther says about reason are in the context of when somebody thinks he can find God with his reason – the proof for the existence of God. Luther knows that you cannot find God; God has to find you and he will find you. But reason is a gift that God has given to all people – not to reach him, but to treat each other better than they would otherwise do.

[37] This is the place of the Law. It’s my claim that what you read on Monday in the newspaper about all the things that went wrong over the weekend is the result of disobedience of the Law. And you see, if you think about what aspect of Luther is not taken seriously by Lutherans today, it is often the Law. We don’t preach about the Law. We never speak about the Law as being a divine gift. We want to talk about the Gospel without ever talking about the Law. But the Gospel doesn’t mean very much if you don’t talk about the Law.

[38] JLE: We live, according to many, in a post-modern era, and among other things, that means there is no common notion of what reason is.

[39] Forell: Well, I think this is nonsense. These people don’t want to live by that. It’s like the person who says that everything you do is controlled by your environment so you can’t really help yourself. And if you kick him in the pants he gets terribly mad at you, and says you didn’t have to do that. These people take irrational positions. The people who say we cannot hold anybody responsible, they can’t live by that. We must hold people responsible and we do hold people responsible. These people could never say that somebody could murder his pregnant wife and his children and that there is nothing wrong with that.

[40] JLE: Our culture seems to suggest that a person can do whatever he or she wants as long as it doesn’t hurt somebody else.

[41] Forell: It isn’t right if what we do is destructive of the community. For example, suppose we tell people that we don’t have to take care of the hopelessly sick; let them die or kill them. All kinds of people have spent years taking care of sick family members, and by doing so have become better people. To take this away is to take away from people the possibility of living up to the highest possibility of humanity – to help the helpless and protect the weak. If we take this away, we make human beings inhuman.

[42] JLE: As you know, some form of Social Darwinism is a sort of pervasive political philosophy or outlook. Does or can one argue against that on the basis of faith commitments or on the basis simply of reason?

[43] Forell: Too often it’s a matter of accommodation. If you have read Darwin, you know that he believed black people are inferior to white people, and that evolution produced the white people who should subject the people of color to them. This is Darwinism, but nobody quotes that part of Darwin. I believe Darwin in wrong about this because I believe that God created all human beings equal, and I think it took an awful long time for Christians to realize that’s what it says in the Bible. But I think the equality of human beings is also reasonable. See, I do not really believe that this notion that Christianity is in some way unreason against reason should be accepted.

[44] JLE: Whether one believes that we are created in God’s image, and therefore with dignity, or holds some other concept of human beings which depends on a person’s usefulness for society, it is finally a theological question about who we are as human beings.

[45] Forell: Of course, it’s a theological question. But even the notion that we have a God-given reason that we are obligated to follow is a theological assertion.

[46] JLE: You say that one should make decisions on the basis of whether an action can be universalized, and whether it is for the good of the community.

[47] Forell: Yes, although we are very poor prophets and we don’t always know what is for the good of the community in the long run. All kinds of people have done terrible things because they think the end justifies the means, you know. This is why I was so much opposed to situation ethics. I thought this was a totally irresponsible way to get at it because, as Fletcher wrote, “Certainly the end justifies the means.” You always assume then that you know what the end is, but you don’t; you know what the means are. And using bad means may, in your judgment, produce a good end. But you really don’t know. It is a form of vanity to believe that you can predict what your bad means will result in. All kinds of people fell for situation ethics, as if it were an improved form of Christianity. Everybody was talking about that for a while.

[48] JLE: Another issue that some folks have raised is the matter of how you currently understand or evaluate the whole notion of natural law. And if there is such a thing as natural law, how do we use reason to get at that?

[49] Forell: Natural law is an attempt to apply reason to the rules we discover among all human beings. My claim is that the Ten Commandments are part of Jewish religion, part of Islamic religion, and part of Christian religion. There must be something there since these are found in all these large religions. And I have found in discussions with Buddhists and Hindus that the Ten Commandments are something they can accept and find useful. And they have Dharma, they have rules that are very similar to the Ten Commandments. In fact, what you find in the Ten Commandments are rules that you find in some form in most religions. And I think, obviously that they have to be translated. Coveting your neighbor’s ox and ass doesn’t make much sense now, but covetousness as a problem in our society, in all societies, is certainly as obvious now as it was in the first century.

[50] JLE: Does the notion of natural law refer to the so-called “second table” of the commandments, or to all of the commandments?

[51] Forell: The “second table.” Of course, I accept all of the commandments, but it’s the “second table” that becomes very easy to interpret in such a way that most people find it helpful and constructive.

[52] JLE: It seems to me that the issues become a little more problematic for us than they were for Luther precisely because Luther did not live in a very pluralistic culture, and we live in a very pluralistic culture. And what has always impressed me is that Luther’s emphasis on Law enables us or gives us a way to deal with pluralism beyond anything he could have imagined, given his historical situation. Is this a place to begin?

[53] Forell: I think it is a place to begin in any conversation. If I have a conversation with a Muslim, for example, I will talk about law. But I believe Christianity is really plausible to people who have confronted the Law. Then one can talk about forgiveness. Everybody feels guilt. The notion that guilt is a Christian invention is simply wrong. It’s a most universal human experience. If someone you know commits suicide, you feel guilty because you should have recognized his problem and talked with him about it. And, of course, Christianity addresses particularly this matter of guilt. The reason I am a Christian is because of justification by grace through faith. It isn’t because Christianity provides a unique moral standard. There are people of other faiths who are better at maintaining their moral standards than I am.

[54] JLE: Let’s talk a little then about justification and sanctification, and does the Gospel come as a power that changes one or not, as well as a declaration of forgiveness. If we are united with Christ in faith and with the neighbor in love, does that make a difference in how we live?

[55] Forell: Yes. When I am aware that God loves me in spite of the fact that I am a sinner – that He loves me unconditionally and has saved me – I have to express my gratitude. It is almost essential that I can discover how to express my gratitude to God for what He has done for me, and that is because of His grace and love in Jesus Christ. And so gratitude is really a way in which we respond to grace.

[56] JLE: I want to push that from a little different side. If God’s grace is present for everyone, the believer and the non-believer, and it is accepted in faith, what difference does that acceptance make?

[57] Forell: I accept the grace, and I am now obligated to thank God.

[58] JLE: So, it provides a new or renewed sense of obligation, of gratitude.

[59] Forell: Right. That means that the great Christians whom we admire are people who have expressed this grace through gratitude.

[60] JLE: And the unbeliever who feels a sense of obligation to the neighbor may simply have, to use another term, a hang-up in terms of his or her cognitive. . . .

[61] Forell: The unbeliever will believe in something. It may be a sense of justice. I know all kinds of people who dedicate their entire life to other people, although they are not Christians. And it’s very largely a profound sense of justice. They feel obligated because of their sense of justice. Of course, there are also people who are motivated essentially by revenge – the worst thing in the world and the opposite of forgiveness. The opposite of forgiveness is revenge. And if you ask me how diabolic power expresses itself in the world today, it’s revenge. Wherever you look in the world – in Yugoslavia, in Ireland – this is all revenge, to get even. You want to do unto others before they do unto you. I think people have a very inadequate realization of this fantastic power of revenge as it expresses itself. For example, what we call “road rage,” that’s revenge. If somebody cuts you off at an intersection or something like that, you feel that you have to pay him back. The opposite of revenge is forgiveness. But, you see, I wish our preaching of forgiveness would be a little more specific – “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” – so that we would learn to overcome revenge, but we haven’t. Whatever I see about evil in the world usually goes back to revenge.

[62] JLE: What distinguishes revenge from punishment and deterrence?

[63] Forell: Revenge is an attempt to play God and to take care of what we believe is wrong. Of course, it’s very Christian to believe that God is the judge and God will take care of it. Punishment ought to protect society. Revenge doesn’t protect society. We put somebody in jail hoping that he will not be able to do what he did before. I don’t know if this works; there may be better ways of doing this, and so I think reason should be applied to this problem. But to put somebody in jail for revenge, I think, doesn’t make any sense at all. Punishment is protection of society against somebody who will offend again. This business of putting people who sell marijuana in jail for a long period of time, that doesn’t break their marijuana habit. I think our application of reason in this war against drugs is pitiful. I don’t think reason is used at all. I have the suspicion that a lot of this stuff is revenge again, rather than reason.

[64] JLE: Punishment is based on what?

[65] Forell: Just punishment is trying to protect society.

[66] JLE: It is not based on any sense that the moral order has been violated?

[67] Forell: Of course, the moral order has been violated. But you want to correct it by preventing that person from doing it again. And if you put them away, you hope that violence can be put away. But if you do it right, then that person might be educated in this setting. I know a young man from a totally dysfunctional family who ended up in jail. And in jail they taught him discipline. And he’s come out as a responsible man. You always hear terrible stories about that, but this guy did what he was told he had to do. If he didn’t do it, they made him do it. And in the course of two years they created a sense that what you do has consequences, which he had never learned. And after he came out, he acts like a responsible human being. He might have actually been helped by this punishment.

[68] JLE: Rehabilitation. . . .

[69] Forell: Rehabilitation as a protection of society. Of course, rehabilitation means to restore somebody. But now we don’t talk about rehabilitation because we think people are in jail only because they are unlucky.

[70] JLE: I would like to get back to this general theme of sanctification, and the question of formation. How are we formed to be persons who live in gratitude, persons who care? Is this entirely the work of the Holy Spirit? Is it things that we do? How did Luther look upon the whole question of being formed, being shaped as Christians?

[71] Forell: Of course, we understand God the Holy Spirit as being the power that enables us to serve God and others. But I have to say that I see around me people who do what is right and what is just, and I would think that God the Holy Spirit, whether they know it or not, is the power behind their doing. I don’t think the Holy Spirit only acts in Christians.

[72] JLE: But how in the Christian community does formation take place? How is the faith passed on? We’re having real trouble with that.

[73] Forell: I think partly we’re having trouble because we don’t preach it. It isn’t being proclaimed. And we often do things in Sunday School that have nothing to do with formation. I don’t know that much about education, but the little I know is that example and truth can be taught by doing certain things. We need to give Sunday School children opportunities to serve in ways that would be useful, rather than just talking. For example, maybe they could even just wash dishes for people who have no help. And, of course, they ought to learn that God loves them. And they are perhaps told that God loves them. But I think it’s really interesting that our little kids are more convinced that God loves them than they are when they get older. Where does it get lost that six and seven-year-olds are quite convinced that God loves them, and by the time they are twelve they aren’t so sure.

[74] JLE: In The Promise of Lutheran Ethics Martha Stortz has an article on formation and Luther in which she talks about practices like prayer, using the catechism, and worship. Sometimes we hear people speak as though from a Lutheran perspective one simply hears the Gospel and one is automatically changed, and one becomes this person that freely and actively loves.

[75] Forell: I think Stortz’s article is very good in using this notion that we have to practice. And, you see, prayer is really something we do not practice. Lutherans are not good at praying. But Luther himself was very good at praying. Of course, he was brought up in this discipline of prayer that he learned as a Catholic priest. I attended a church in California where the pastor has a service in the church every morning of the week – and people participate. It’s an amazing achievement. Somebody has to show the way in these things.

[76] JLE: There is considerable talk in Christian ethics today, in the last ten years or more, about character, about virtue. What’s a Lutheran approach?

[77] Forell: I think this matter of virtue is obviously important. Only, it shouldn’t be trivialized. The basic Greek virtues – with faith, hope and love added to them – are things people ought to think about and see how they can express them. That would contribute to the earthly welfare of human beings. The trouble with all this is that nobody is saved by virtue. But we have been neglecting the notion of virtue to the point where it has been destructive of community. My claim is always that the Law has very positive consequences, not in terms of salvation, but in terms of order and justice and peace among human beings. Virtues should be advocated to help create a society which is just, and which contributes to human happiness.

[78] JLE: What is the relationship of justice to salvation?

[79] Forell: Well, we believe that if we are saved and express our gratitude, it will contribute to justice. Salvation will give us strength to become advocates of justice. I’ll tell you how I experienced that. During the time of campus unrest about the war in Vietnam, I was the only senior professor who went to jail for protesting the war. Unfortunately, many of the protesters had no real motive for their shouting and hollering, except that it seemed the thing to do at that particular time. It was a momentary fad; justice was a fad, and that’s not enough to make justice. You have to have resources when people disappoint you. And if your advocacy of justice doesn’t change the world, you keep going even if things don’t work out as you expect. The notion that working for justice is only worth doing if it’s successful is a very dangerous notion. You can’t predict that if you do this or that things will work out the way you want. You have to have resources that keep you going even when the immediate results are much less than you expected. Of course, that’s true for all of us in our work. I was a teacher, and my teaching never was as successful as I wish it had been. But you have to do it. You think it’s the right thing to do, you do it, and you hope God will bless it.

[80] JLE: Lutherans tend to make a distinction between justice and love. What is this distinction, and what is the connection?

[81] Forell: Well, justice, it has often been said, is love distributed. If you love two children and you have one apple, you will cut the apple in half and give each child half an apple. And that’s justice, and that’s love distributed.

[82] JLE: So both love and justice are really caring for the neighbor.

[83] Forell: And justice is an attempt to distribute love in a fair and just manner. In one’s family relationships, for example, you love them, but you also have to be just, and often that becomes a problem. Justice is a way to order love in relationship to more than one person.

[84] [At this point, Forell picked up a question that had been proposed in writing: “If I remember correctly, (George) was influential in developing the LCA’s theology of higher education . . . (which) argued for a First Article approach to education wherein Lutheran College education was given over to secular reason. Honest rational inquiry had real autonomy. It was held that this was consistent with Luther’s view of the two kingdoms. Does George have second thoughts about this approach, if indeed it is an accurate depiction of that approach? What theological themes does he think should shape Lutheran higher education today?]

[85] Forell: In a lecture I gave when I retired from the University of Iowa, I argued for the importance of having a School of Religion as part of the university. I said the university is a poorer university if the issues that we deal with are not dealt with. That meant, at least for me, dealing with things from a Christian point of view. But for others it means, for example, dealing with things from a Buddhist point of view. But religion belongs in a university because it is subject to rationality. That does not mean that I can prove everything I say. When I lecture on the Protestant faith, I say “This is what the Protestant faith is.” I don’t say, “This is the truth.” I hope I give the correct interpretation of what the Protestant faith is. I hope that my Buddhist colleague will do the same thing for Buddhism and that my Jewish colleague will do the same thing for Judaism. That’s how the students get an open understanding of the world that is enriched by the religious dimension which is usually missing.

[86] JLE: Would you then say that a Lutheran College shouldn’t function all that differently from a state university, but that it should make sure that the Lutheran element is. . . .

[87] Forell: . . . presented. I don’t argue that other positions shouldn’t be presented. But a Lutheran College should make sure that the classic Lutheran position is presented.

[88] JLE: I was in your class on the history of Christian ethics, and it was quite clear what you thought was the truth. It wasn’t only descriptive. You were a theologian, presenting things from the inside. It wasn’t only “this is what so and so says.”

[89] Forell: At the University of Iowa, you had a chance to hear it from a variety of points of view. I think this is the important thing, that people have access to the genuine argument. If you were in one of my classes, you always knew what my position was. But the university never took that position. The university has always allowed me to be who I am.

[90] JLE: There has been a discussion about religion departments at some church colleges moving from being a “theology” department to a department for the “scientific study of religion”.

[91] Forell: The assumption there may be that you mustn’t believe anything. At the University of Iowa, I thought it was important that a Buddhist should teach about Buddhism, and a Jew about Judaism, and so on. When I was director of the School of Religion I always tried very hard to get people who really represented a position with integrity from within because I consider that to be like teaching art history if you can see. If you’re blind, I think you may be a bad art historian. How are you going to speak about art history if you can’t see the stuff? Some people think that in order to be a good student of religion, you shouldn’t be religious. I think this business of teaching religion without being religious is madness. The person who teaches religion ought to be serious about it. It ought to be important to him and he ought to be a representative of this position.

[92] JLE: There are a few things that we haven’t really touched on yet. One is this sort of checkered evaluation of the notion of the Two Kingdoms, and where you see that as still useful today. What is the usefulness of Luther’s Two Kingdoms work in contemporary ethical reflection?

[93] Forell: It avoids the glorification of one way of solving problems. It means that “Christian” modifies only something that you can baptize. It is a mistake to speak of a “Christian” university or a “Christian” book. The concept of the Two Kingdoms points to the importance of letting Christian be Christian and secular be secular. Of course, they are God’s kingdoms; the secular kingdom is God’s kingdom too. The Two Kingdoms never meant that there was a divine kingdom and a secular kingdom in the sense that God was not in control. I think it was a big mistake when people took the position that the “left hand” kingdom is not God’s. They are both God’s kingdoms, in Luther, but the access to the left hand kingdom is universal. Luther sometimes said that the Turks did a better job of carrying out their responsibilities in the left hand kingdom than did the German princes… The kingdom of the left does not have the job of forcing people to become Christians. Luther always objected to that.

[94] JLE: Nor even to impose a Christian morality. . . .

[95] Forell: Right.

[96] JLE: But Luther functioned within Christendom, and he thought that government did have a role in making sure people went to church. He was paid by the church council at Wittenberg and had some obligations.

[97] Forell: But he didn’t want to force people to go to church. And he didn’t believe that government should determine what people can preach. “Let the spirits fight it out,” he said, against Karlstadt and Münzer and these people. Only when these people involved themselves in the left hand kingdom by trying to create a revolt did Luther believe that the government had a right to fight against sin, but not for his theology, not for his preaching.

[98] Confusion about what is involved in the Two Kingdoms happens when people want the government to establish a Christian nation. I think this is very, very dubious. If the government worked harder on creating a just nation – getting justice enforced in our nation – that I could understand, but not that we become a “Christian” nation.

[99] JLE: So in our context you might use the notion of the Two Kingdoms as a way of approaching the whole matter of the so-called Christian right.

[100] Forell: Right. The intent of some nice people is to force people to practice religion in the public schools, for example. The public schools should talk about justice and law, but these people want to establish Christianity in the schools. They want prayer to Jesus Christ in the schools.

[101] JLE: But sometimes it seems like the Two Kingdoms notion becomes “private” vs. “public,” instead of “sacred” vs. “secular.” What’s wrong with that? People say that religion is private, the rest is public. You can believe what you want, since it doesn’t make any difference in society.

[102] Forell: Because what you believe does make a difference, you see. If we deny the law in private, then we’re in trouble. “Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not commit adultery” – if you deny that in private, it’s destructive of the whole community. So, I think in private we also have to have the law, and that’s really what Luther was interested in. He didn’t want to insist that people should simply believe in private the way he did – in justification by grace.

[103] JLE: I think one of the values of the Two Kingdoms understanding is that we can understand that God is at work in the world apart from the presence of Christians. But I think one concern is that the Christian faith has become acculturated to the American culture and has become indistinguishable from the American way of life.

[104] Forell: There is a development in America which goes with the disestablishment of the church, which means that we have all these denominations and then we produce a civil religion. Of course, the greatest scholar of the civil religion was my late friend, Sidney Mead. And we argued about that. But he approved of this civil religion. We shared our admiration for Abraham Lincoln, but he believed all that was part of a civil religion; although, you know, the religion that Lincoln expressed in the second inaugural address was profoundly Christian.

[105] JLE: Isn’t there a real sense, though, in which Lutherans, on the basis of law, can give a positive affirmation to the notion of civil religion?

[106] Forell: Civil religion is an ideology which may contribute to the stability of the society. It may contribute to the ideology of the “left hand,” but it has great limits. Salvation by civil religion is heresy. Civil religion often identifies America with “God’s people.” Bush speaks as though America is the chosen people.

[107] I think the notion of the Two Kingdoms still has great value, although we should probably talk about two “realms.” You know, the German word is “Reich,” and “Reich” is translated better as “realm” than “kingdom.”

[108] JLE: Another theme that I know has been central to your thinking, but which we have not explicitly spoken of today, is the whole “simul justus et peccator” business.

[109] Forell: There are certain Lutheran notions which are central to Lutheran theology. And these notions are terribly important in ethics. One of these is “simul justus et peccator,” where you get away from the notion of perfection, that Christians are perfect people. “Simul justus et peccator” insists that Christians and non-Christians are all sinners. When people suggest that once people are really Christians they are no longer sinners, I say: “Do you pray the Lord’s Prayer? ‘And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ You must still have trespasses, otherwise, why did Jesus tell you to ask for forgiveness for your trespasses?”

[110] JLE: Contrary to some adult Christian education books that I’ve seen, that means that Christians are also subject to law then.

[111] Forell: Right, because they’re sinners. And so, “simul justus et peccator” is one of the basic Lutheran notions. Another is the tension between freedom and bondage. All Christians are free because Christ has freed us, and yet we remain bound to sin; he doesn’t abolish that. In the first paragraph of On Christian Freedom, Luther talks about that. That is another of those tensions – sinner and saint, free and slave.

[112] Another basic Lutheran notion is the theology of the cross, that talks about suffering, rather than the theology of triumph. Luther rejects the whole notion of Christian triumphalism that some people get.

[113] And “finitum capax infiniti” is another basic Lutheran notion – that the finite is always the bearer of the infinite. That is not only true about the sacrament and the person of Christ, but it is true about vocation. You and I are the finite bearers of the infinite. That is Luther’s notion that God works through us and in us and accomplishes his miracles through people who don’t even know that they are bearers of the infinite. So all kind of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers become saints – that is the finite being the bearer of the infinite. And that is also our understanding of scripture. Lutherans are always in the wrong place when they have a scripture that is only human words or a scripture that is only divine word. All scripture from Genesis to Revelation is totally human words, and all scripture from Genesis to Revelation is totally God’s word. This is Luther. And any kind of fundamentalism is really not Lutheran. I believe that Fundamentalists practice a “transubstantiation of the Word” just like Roman Catholics have transubstantiation of the elements. You see, God’s Word is in all of scripture, not just in the passages printed in red. And it is also all human words that we can study with the machinery of critical analysis. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think that the notion of the finite being the bearer of the infinite is the most important teaching that Luther gives us for dealing with all of life.

[114] JLE: One of the consequences of that, then, is that the so-called religious or spiritual life is not divorced from the nitty-gritty of everyday.

[115] Forell: God deals with us in our earthly everyday existence and doesn’t take us out of it. So this whole notion of creating a celibate, or non-meat-eating, or some other kind of group – that is all against Luther’s view. That’s why a husband and father can be a pastor, or a wife and mother can be a pastor. We don’t need to escape from the world in order to serve God.

[116] That brings us to this whole subject of vocation. Luther’s notion of vocation is still valuable – the notion that we are saved “in vocatione,” not “per vocatione.” The Reformed problem was the notion that you are saved by being a good butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. In Luther’s view you are saved as a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker; you may be a good one or a bad one. Being a Christian does not necessarily make you a good butcher, baker, or candlestick maker, but it is in your vocation that you are saved.

[117] Which, by the way, means that we have to deal with unemployment. For Luther, unemployment can be a vocation. I mean, if you are unemployed, you have to serve God “in vocatione.” Or the matter of retirement . . . nowadays we have people who are retired for 20 or 30 years, and to say they have no vocation doesn’t make sense because retirement is now their vocation, in which God wants them to serve “in vocatione,” not “per vocatione.” And this distinction (I’m using the Latin, because that’s what Luther uses at this point) is terribly important to get away from the notion that you can evaluate vocations as being closer or less close to God. The notion that a banker is closer to God than the beggar is ridiculous. You can have the vocation to be a beggar.

[118] JLE: Luther, of course, lived in a more static world. Nowadays we change “vocations” or occupations often. But sometimes people seem to think that the notion of vocation means that “I have been called to this position and I should stay there the rest of my life.”

[119] Forell: It’s true that Luther had a tendency to discourage people from moving around. But his theology says “in vocatione,” not “per vocatione.” That means you serve wherever you are. If you are a college teacher these days, you know that almost all of your students will have three different vocations before they really find one they want to stay with. That is no problem. You are not saved by your vocation; you are saved in your vocation. The trouble is that in the Protestant ethic there is a sort of tendency to say that you are saved by your vocation rather than saved in your vocation.

[120] JLE: And, of course, it has been suggested that some work seems pretty meaningless . . . like working on an assembly line. How do you understand serving God in that kind of situation?

[121] Forell: You have to ask the people who do it. I would say you can serve on the assembly line or after you work on the assembly line. You are called by God into the world. And wherever you are called, or wherever you experience this call, there you must serve. It is particularly important in our time to talk about all these millions of people who are retired. We have to find a theology of retirement, a theology that enables people to see retirement as a divine vocation.

[122] JLE: In our discussion this morning, we have quite a number of times said something like “Works are good, but we’re not saved by works,”, or “We’re saved in vocation, not by vocation,” or “justice is something that everybody can get involved with, but we are not saved by it.” All of this sort of assumes an understanding of what “saved” or “salvation” means. What, for Luther, does that mean? Is it a matter of a right relationship?

[123] Forell: Right. Salvation means being Christ’s servant. Paul uses the word “doulos,” “slave.” He talks about what it means that our lives are “owned” by Christ.

[124] JLE: I think that this bears on the whole question of ethical reflection, not just formally in the ways we’ve been talking about, but also in terms of a fairly common understanding within the church that when you talk about salvation you’re simply talking about the hereafter.

[125] Forell: That certainly doesn’t make any sense if you read Paul. Paul says, “Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation.” I’m not making that up! This (present time) is where we are saved, and it’s a relationship that goes on from the day of our baptism. When someone asked me about infant baptism, I said that infant baptism marks our citizenship in God’s kingdom. Just as you were born in America and became a citizen when you were born, and not when you graduated from high school, so we are citizens of God’s kingdom from the day we were baptized and our entire life is learning what this means. It’s a matter of becoming what we are. Luther always talks about Christianity as “becoming,” becoming what we are. There are many places where he discusses this process, which is a lifelong process, and which is never complete, never finished. Even when he died, at the very end of his life, he realized that he was completely dependent on the grace of God.

[126] JLE: When I read Faith Active in Love, I felt let down in the last chapter. It felt like you were saying, “Well, Luther would have been a social activist except for his eschatology, but since he thought the world was coming to an end right away, there was just no point in doing anything anyway.”

[127] Forell: Luther said all kinds of things. He thought you couldn’t change the world. He really believed – ignorantly, but in the light of the great Christian tradition – that the world was going to end in his time. And he used the example of someone having a house that was going to be torn down in few days. He thought you should then simply stuff the cracks rather than doing a major repair. He thought we should do the best we can in a situation where an ultimate solution is not open to us. I claim that this was a limiting principle for Luther. Given his assumptions, it was a matter of trying to be rational about the situation.

[128] But Luther knew that he was theologian, not a politician. And he believed that the politicians ought to work on these problems, and he advocated that. But he felt that probably the best thing was to fix the drafty places, and not rebuild the whole structure. Luther was very skeptical about creating an ideal society, and I agree with that.

[130] JLE: If you agree with that and see eschatology as in some sense setting limits – meaning that we can’t really change the big thing, but we can do something about it – does that take away a passionate commitment to the things of the world or not?

[131] Forell: Well, I have to go by my record. I went to jail in the Vietnam war situation, whereas some of the “passionate” people just stayed and talked. I believe that you must be engaged. I have not been as active in politics in recent years as I was 20 or 30 years ago, but I was always active in local politics here and have been vocal in my support for national candidates.

[132] JLE: The danger, I suppose, is to get into a James Watt position: “Since the world is coming to an end, why bother?”

[133] Forell: But Luther didn’t say that. That is, of course, the danger. The danger is to say that since the world is coming to an end, we have no responsibility. Luther said our vocation is to fill up the cracks. I believe we have created some improvements. Even the fact that people in wheelchairs have access up and down the streets is a real improvement. There are things that have happened in my lifetime that are significant. The whole feminist development – that women are treated equally – is important. I don’t deny that there have been improvements. And we should work for further improvements. But the notion that we can create heaven on earth is naive and against scripture and against Luther’s teaching.

[134] JLE: How would you express the Lutheran understanding of human agency?

[135] Forell: That God has called us to serve Him in the world.

[136] JLE: If God has given us abilities, are we created co-creators?

[137] Forell: I think that’s a pretty strong expression. God uses us to assist Him, but not in the sense that God has no other hands than ours – that’s terrible theology.

[138] JLE: I would like to hear about your understanding of the role of the theologian in the church, and how the Lutheran participation in society has changed.

[139] Forell: I think that in recent decades the theologian has not been very welcome in the organized church, that the church has not really made a place for him or her. All kinds of experts are welcome, but there’s no place for theologians. I think there was a time when theological professors at our seminaries had an almost automatic representation at the assemblies of our church, and this has really disappeared.

[140] I remember when the issue of selective conscientious objection was before the convention, and they had decided to vote it down. But Bill Lazareth and I changed the mind of the convention. We were the first non-pacifist church, before anybody else, that supported selective conscientious objection – on the basis of the Augsburg Confession, I’d claim. And I think that was because the old LCA and the ALC had a much more clearly defined presence of teaching theologians in their conventions. Now we don’t have that, and I think we have really become sort of a non-theological church.

[141] JLE: Part of the problem is that seminary professors are assigned to synods. They’re assigned to some distant place, where nobody knows them. The only time they go to that synod is for the assembly, and so they’re really cut out.

[142] Forell: That’s a terrible idea. We should really think about whether we can change that. You see, I preached in practically every congregation in the Iowa Synod. They all knew me, and so the question of getting to be a delegate to a national convention was very simple. They wanted a theologian among those who represented them. This is something that is now lacking. Teaching theologians are really not involved in the decision making process.

[143] JLE: If one looks back 50 years ago, the Lutheran church bodies in this country did not have too many statements. They were not accustomed to speaking out, and that has changed. Why was that?

[144] Forell: Partly because of people like Lazareth and myself. We encouraged social statements. We felt Lutherans had something to say from their particular Lutheran point of view. It was different from what the Fundamentalists said on one side and the liberals on the other side. We had a different position, a position that was more helpful to the community at large, the church at large, and the country. The ALC had people like [Walter] Quanbeck and Carl Reuss.

[145] JLE: One of your real gifts through the years has been your ability to communicate. Doesn’t that have something to do with your setting in a secular university, where you have been forced all your life to make theological reflection accessible?

[146] Forell: That, of course, was my daily job, to talk to people who really thought they knew all about religion because of one hour in Sunday School on Sunday. Some of my atheist friends were just furious because of the popularity of my religion courses. That really irritated them to tears!

[147] [At this point, Forell shared a previously taped interview, portions of which follow:]

[148] JLE: When did you start thinking about teaching as a career? Did that happen when you were in graduate school, or was it earlier?

[149] Forell: I think it was really in graduate school. I disagreed with my teachers on so many important issues that I felt this had to be clarified, and I thought I should get into this business myself. I did graduate work all the time, even when I was in a parish, and wrote a few articles and eventually this helped me to get a teaching position.

[150] JLE: Was it a difficult choice, leaving behind a career as a pastor?

[151] Forell: Well, at this point in my life, I see clearly what I gained and what I gave up. In a parish you are related to people of all ages, from babies to very old people, in quite a different way from how you relate to students. As a pastor you are with people in all the crucial moments of their lives – when they are born, when they get married, when they die. All these are crucial events, and people are attached to you usually for the rest of their lives. I still get Christmas cards and birthday cards from people who were my parishioners 45 years ago.

[152] But with students, the secret is to be close to them while they are your students and then help them grow up and get rid of you. If you allow them to develop a permanent dependence on you as a teacher then you don’t permit them to grow up. One’s purpose is not to develop disciples, but to enable people to do their own thing.

[153] JLE: With your history, was there ever any thought for you to go back to Europe?

[154] Forell: Well, in 1957 I went to Europe for a year and taught at the University of Hamburg on a Fulbright grant. At that time some people asked if I was interested in going back to Germany and teaching at a German university. One condition of teaching at a German university would be to become a German citizen. I didn’t want to become a German citizen. I was once, but not a second time. And so I wanted to stay in America. I’m really quite a committed American. I’m not full of nostalgia for living in Europe, except for a few weeks during the wine season.

John R. Stumme

Dr. John R. Stumme is a retired ELCA Pastor. When he wrote this piece, he was Professor of Systematic Theology at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos in Buenos Aires and Vice-President of the Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Unida in Argentina. After ten years in Argentina, he worked for almost two decades with the ELCA's Church in Society unit as Associate Director and Director for its Department for Studies.

Kaari Reierson

Kaari Reierson is the founding editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and is the Chair of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics Advisory Council.