Challenges and the Challenge

[1] Please indulge me with a few opening propositions that could be merely a statement of the obvious – unless, of course, you disagree with what follows. Lutheran ethics is neither legalistic nor so liberal in spirit as to verge on the antinomian. Lutheran ethics is grounded in Scripture but is neither biblicistic nor so thoroughly critical in analyzing the historical texts as to erode biblical authority. Lutheran ethics is both idealistic and realistic. We Lutherans believe, on the one hand, that God has given us a vision and promise of the good for which to strive in Christ-like love and the grace and presence of the Holy Spirit that empowers us to do so. On the other hand, we realize that, while the vision and promise of the good is assured, it still awaits us in a world whose deliverance from evil is not yet fully realized. As we are simul justus et peccator, so, in a manner of speaking, is the world in which we live. Lutheran ethics therefore realizes that in many instances the decisions people face and make and the spirit in which they are made will be fraught with ambiguity. Coupled with this realization Lutheran ethics also appreciates that the complexity of events and circumstances often challenge people’s finite capacities to fully understand what is going on. While God’s commandments may be clear, our understanding of how to apply them is not always so. The distinctions expressed in these propositions and the tensions they often involve are not always a part of our conscious experience as we go about life and Lutherans are not the only ones to experience them. Moreover, at times these distinctions are not consistently maintained. For example, Lutherans sometimes appear to display the overly optimistic confidence characteristic of both legalism and the more permissive forms of liberalism. Further, we are sometimes eclectic in our appeals to the Bible, modifying or asserting its clarity and authority in ways that suit our prejudice. At times we may even secretly, if not openly, find comfort for the moral life in self-righteousness rather than divine promise. Nonetheless, the distinctions expressed and the tensions they may involve are at the heart of the integrity of Lutheran ethics. They are at the bottom of our commitment to the necessity of moral deliberation in the face of tough issues. Moreover, the distinctions involved in our ethical vision and practice as Lutherans are integrated with and founded upon basic theological convictions, which express our faith in God’s gracious presence with us in the Christian life.

[2] The integration of faith – the faith in which we place our trust and the trust that is our faith – ethical reflection, and the moral life is basic to all ethics that claim the name “Christian.” However, this integration is not to be taken for granted in Christian communities in general and in Lutheran communities, in particular. The challenge to pursue this integration in the Word and Sacrament ministries of our congregations is the challenge that underlies all other challenges Lutheran ethics will face in the days and years ahead. It is not that Lutheran ethicists have not done the work of integration in laying the foundations and taking up the issues. The Journal of Lutheran Ethics is one evidence that the work is being done and continues to expand impressively. The perennial challenge is to infuse this integration of faith and life into the mainstream of our congregational ministries.

[3] The study process of Journey Together Faithfully Part 2, The Church and Homosexuality taught us a great deal about this matter of integration, I believe. To state it all too briefly, the 28,000 plus responses to the study that the task force received, together with other forms of communication, showed that many people were able to take up the challenge of integration in connection with a complex and emotionally charged issue. We received a good deal of anecdotal feedback on how congregations who took the study seriously felt greatly rewarded by the process; it got them deeper into Scripture and the tenets of their faith. The responses to the study experience showed that doing this kind of work, not only in matters of sexuality, is both possible and very much needed. The study has raised with renewed vigor the question of how Lutherans interpret Scripture in matters of ethical discernment. Moreover, because the catholic faith, incorporated with Lutheran accents in our Confessions, is grounded in Scripture, we ask how this deposit also informs our moral vision. The ELCA will continue to work on these questions of integration in visible ways, thus providing an excellent opportunity to encourage and facilitate the conversation in our parishes.

[4] In the opening paragraph I touched upon a few of the theological convictions that inform our Lutheran orientation to the Christian life and ethic. Let me now briefly suggest other points of theological contact illustrating, I hope, how the general challenge of integration is related to some of the specific challenges we face.

[5] The August edition of JLE includes Ron Duty’s report from the January 2006 gathering of Lutheran ethicists entitled, “Lutherans in Public – Threads of a Conversation.” As the title suggests, the topic of the papers and discussion was a Lutheran perspective on what it means to be a public church. The diversity of theologically grounded viewpoints that came out in the discussion virtually represent a Lutheran version of what H.Richard Niebuhr termed “the enduring problem,” the constant struggle throughout Christian history to determine what is the appropriate and faithful way for the Christian community to be involved publicly in the issues of society. This challenge “endures” for Lutheran ethics. Clearly, Lutherans can disagree on what is appropriate, but the conversation for all its diversity demonstrates that we do have a genuine call to make a public witness in matters of the common good. How, then, might this point be established among us in our parishes, not as a sidebar issue, but as an integral part of faith active in love, a vocation embedded in Word and Sacrament?

[6] One point of contact for getting at that question seems to me to be the Sacrament of the Altar. The Eucharist is an eschatological meal in which the Christian community anticipates the heavenly banquet. It is at the core of our identity as a people of anticipation, seeking in public ways to express our active concern for wholeness, life, peace, and justice as a witness to the hope within us for the promise of God’s coming future when these values will be realized in all their fullness. From a somewhat different but complementary angle Carter Lindberg has reminded us of how Luther based his admonition to be concerned for the needy, and his work with local government to that end, on participation in the Lord’s Supper. Fellowship with one another in the sacrament implies fellowship with others. As we receive love and support in the sacrament, so we are called upon to give the same to others. On the basis of the sacrament, says Lindberg quoting Luther, the Christian “must fight, work, and pray” for the needy.

[7] Following up on the significance of the sacrament, we can note that the Lutheran understanding of the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper and its historical connections to Christology (a story we haven’t the space to tell) puts us on a path that leads us directly into the heart of Trinitarian theology. The term “perichoresis,” introduced by John of Damascus (655-750 CE) to describe the interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity, has also been used to describe the interpenetration (or communication of attributes) between the divine and human natures of the Christ. For Lutheran theology this perichoretic unity of divine and human in the Christ, coupled with the perichoretic unity of the Son with the Father and the Spirit, has meant the strongest possible stress of God’s real presence in our reality. Indeed, Luther is quoted in the Formula of Concord (Solid Declaration, VIII, 44) “…if it cannot be said that God dies for us, but only a man, we are lost.” This understanding God’s intimate relation to our lives in which our suffering and death is, through the Christ, taken into the experience of the divine life already suggests that God’s relation to the world is analogous in some way to the perichoretic relationality of the two natures of the Christ and the three persons of the Trinity. Now, ever since Karl Rahner’s famous “rule” that the economic and imminent Trinity are identical, Trinitarian discourse has revolved around considerations of whether or how we may speak of the perichoretic relationship of the Trinity and the world. What, then, does all this have to do with the challenge of integration for Lutheran ethics and the particular challenges that must be faced?

[8] Succinctly put, theology’s heightened sense of relationality as characterizing the divine life of the Trinity and the Trinity’s intimate involvement in the world is foundational in the approach to two additional challenges confronting Lutheran ethics in the North American context.

[9] The first of these is the constant challenge to make ethical commitment of concern for the environment and essential part of who we are as a Christian community. The ELCA has a fine social statement, Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice, that does an excellent job of showing how environmental concerns are part and parcel of a host of other concerns for justice and the common good. It provides solid biblical foundations for the care of the earth and important theological clues. It calls upon congregations to be centers for environmental awareness and speaks of God’s “profound involvement with the world” in the incarnation. In short, it is a great resource for a much needed emphasis on Christian practices and advocacy that witness to the care of the earth as an integral part of our Christian hope. The faith in the Trinity that we confess in our worship, then, tells us even more about God’s profound involvement with the world. Moreover, the unity of the divine persons in their relationality reminds us that the works of the one are involved with the works of the others. Creation and new creation go together; our future and the future of creation are united in the creating, redeeming and sanctifying work of the Trinity. Our embrace of a conscious environmental ethic is driven by this promise.

[10] A further challenge – again, not new, but ongoing – is the culture of individualism that has operated in our cultural history for most of its existence. To foster a greater sense of community and responsibility for one another’s well being seems so important at a time when individual aspirations too often trump concern for the needs of others. Addressing issues of the growing disparity between haves and have-nots and the need for a more just distribution of health care are illustrative. Developing a national mindset more sensitive to the need for a healthy and peaceful global community is another related concern. How can Christian congregations be centers for the growth of a counter-cultural community minded ethic?

[11] God the Trinity, in whose image we have been created (Gen. 1:26-27), in whose image we are being transformed (2Cor. 3:17) and in whose image (in Christ) we shall be fully at the resurrection (1Cor. 15: 49) is an image of a community of persons in the bond of love so profound that the three are truly one as the Creed declares. To quote Jurgen Moltmann, “The perichoretic at-oneness of the triune God corresponds to the experience of the community of Christ, the community which the Spirit unites through respect, affection, and love. The more open-mindedly people live with one another, for one another, and in one another in the fellowship of the Spirit, the more they will become one with the Son and the Father, and one in the Son and the Father (John 17: 21).”

[12] As by grace we build community in Christ reflective of the divine life itself, we enter ever more deeply into the reality of our faith and become thereby a potential leaven for cultural change.

End Notes

[1] Carter Lindberg, Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 102-103.

[2] Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, trans. Margaret Kohl (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981),158.

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.

James M. Childs

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.