Conversation at the Crossroads: On the Editorial Vision of Lutheran Forum

[1] Toward the end of my first editorial at the helm of Lutheran Forum,[1] I tried my hand at casting a vision for our quarterly journal in these politically fraught times. I found encouragement in the fact that Glenn Stone, the first editor of the Forum, launched the journal, then a monthly, in the turbulent late-1960s. Stone provided clear-headed editorial direction as the journal got off the ground during that difficult season. Acknowledging that an independent Lutheran periodical would succeed only by positioning itself as an authentic forum where Lutherans of all persuasions could meet to discuss the issues of the day, Stone invited authors and readers to form a fragile but vibrant partnership, to join a conversation that would dare to tackle controversies head on. “This magazine recognizes the variety within Lutheranism and seeks to reflect that richness of life,” Stone remarked. “It recognizes also the uniting foundations, the common ground which makes discussion possible and the existence of tensions fruitful.”[2] It is astonishing to see the roster of articles he published in those early years; contributions from across the landscape and on topics of debate ranging from political, social, and cultural concerns (racism, abortion, teenage homelessness, Vietnam, antisemitism, the 60s counterculture, to name but a few) to the ecclesial and theological challenges presenting themselves just after mid-century (ecumenism, church and state, doctrinal controversy, the future of Lutheranism, the meaning of the reformation, and so on).

[2]  In my inaugural editorial, I tried to capture the spirit of Stone’s original vision for the Forum. “I consider it my mandate to continue this tradition of risky but joyful theological journalism,” I wrote in 2019, “inviting authors and readers to meet each quarter for genuine and lively conversation about the challenges before us.” After decades of intramural squabbles, denominational splits, and other manifestations of deep discord, the time seemed ripe to rally our readers and contributors. “The stakes are high,” I urged. “North American Lutheranism is divided and diminished and needs this sort of forum now more than it ever has before.” We need to find our way out of the trenches and back into the debate chamber. “If even some of us can agree to come together each issue,” I envisioned, “crossing what divides us in order to find common ground for discussion, our forum just might be used by God to do a work in and between our Lutheran churches.”[3]

[3] I once heard someone say the Forum represents the center of Lutheranism in North America. While I understand the spatial analogy, I bristled at the comment. For our aim is not to strike a posture of editorial neutrality, but to create a gathering place for those who believe it’s ok for us to agree to disagree, so long as we’re willing to talk to each other rather than at or past each other. Our editorial team is increasingly aware that a quarterly print periodical may not be the best medium for the kind of dialogue we wish to facilitate, and we are actively considering options for expanding our digital presence through social media and our website. But the vision Glenn Stone articulated so well in 1967 remains our banner.

[4] Hosting a conversation in an age of ideological extremes isn’t easy. Looking back over the slate of issues I have published, I think we are heading in the right direction, but have plenty of work to do. Also in my first issue as editor, we published a gutsy article on abortion by Amy Carr and Christine Helmer.[4] Earlier in the year, several state legislatures passed so-called “heartbeat bills” prohibiting abortions after the fetal heartbeat is detectable, or about six to eight weeks following conception. While the authors of the article sought to defend “legal access to safe abortions” on biblical, theological, and ethical grounds,[5] the bulk of the piece was devoted to establishing the principle that, for Lutherans, disagreement over hot button issues needn’t be the end of discussion, but rather the beginning. “It is only through patient discussion with each other,” Carr and Helmer proposed, “that we both can come to better understand what we believe and think and become aware of different perspectives.”[6] To my delight and—frankly!—relief, I soon received several contributions written in response to our invitation to continue the discussion. The next few issues included articles written in patient dialogue with “Claiming Christian Freedom.”[7]

[5] Other were not impressed by our coverage of such a controversial topic. I received but did not publish several emails to the editorial team suggesting we had crossed a line by running the article. In a short review of that piece in a denominational periodical, David P. Scaer argued that we had “abdicated [the] role of a mediator in letting all sides of an argument be heard”; a position, he opined, we once held reliably.[8] I remain unsure what to make of the negative feedback we received. Over the span of a year’s worth of issues, we published four articles on abortion, one articulating a pro-choice position, the other three pro-life. But some of our critics questioned whether we should have published the article by Carr and Helmer in the first place. I detect in such appraisals a pining for a one-sided discussion, for an echo chamber where only certain views go public. There are plenty of Lutheran periodicals out there designed to promulgate the principles of this or that platform. As an independent journal, Lutheran Forum will continue to run the gamut as best we can.

[6] In addition to the early round of articles on abortion, we have published on controversial topics in politics and culture (e.g., gun control, nationalism, and socialism), and in theology and church (communion, ecumenism, universalism, and so on). On the whole, responses to coverage we’ve given during the past year to the theme of “The Church in an Age of Pandemic” have been positive, though some readers wish we would do more to resist the spirit of fear they believe to be animating public health responses on the local, national, and even global levels. Aside from a brief editorial comment I wrote in support of face masks,[9] we have tried to limit our focus to pastoral and congregational responses to the crisis. Two editorials in the Summer 2020 issue addressed racism, considering the legacy of theologian James H. Cone[10] and the controversial topic of reparations.[11] While our intention is to continue to host a forum on such matters, we will handle submissions on race and racism with editorial delicacy.

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[7] I write this reflection in late summer of 2021, just months following the 500th anniversary of Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms. In the popular imagination, that event has been passed down to us as the scene of the Reformer’s famous refusal to recant his views in the face of enormous pressure from pope and emperor. “Here I stand,” Luther allegedly exclaimed, but probably didn’t. “I can do no other!” For good and oftentimes for ill, Lutherans have turned to the icon of the unwavering Luther, finding in his erect pose and severe expression timeless inspiration for standing firm on any number of theological and political positions. Never mind that proceedings in Worms were far more complex and bureaucratically constrained than legends have it. Luther remains fixed in our minds as an emblem of dogged steadfastness, of an unwillingness to budge.

[8] I am all for holding strong opinions in the spirit of the Luther carried forward in our collective memory; the Great Reformer, the icon of theological courage, the man bound by conscience and the Word of God. But I do wonder whether, in this hyper-partisan age, we’d do well to remind ourselves of the virtues and vulnerabilities we can only discover in the tussle of conversational give and take. Lutheran Forum will continue to provide a space where that discovery can happen.



[1] R. David Nelson, “A Leap in the Dark,” LF 53, no 2 (2019): 2-5.

[2] Glenn Stone, “To Serve the Present, To Seek the Future,” LF 1, no 1 (1967)  reprinted in LF 51, no. 1 (2017): 63-64.

[3] Nelson, “A Leap in the Dark,” 5

[4] Amy Carr and Christine Helmer, “Claiming Christian Freedom to Discuss Abortion Together,” LF 53, no 2 (2019): 48-51.

[5] Carr and Helmer, “Claiming Christian Freedom,” 49.

[6] Ibid., 51.

[7] See Eric M. Riesen, “Finding Common Ground?,” LF 53, no 3 (2019): 50-51; and Dan Fienen, “Can We Talk?: Another View of the Abortion Discussion,” LF 54, no 1 (2020): 58-61. We published an additional article during this period on the topic of abortion, though it does not directly respond to the piece by Carr and Helmer: Dennis R. Di Mauro, “Have Christians and Jews Believed ‘This’ for a Very, Very Long Time?,” LF 53, no 4 (2019): 38-42.

[8] David P. Scaer, “Claiming Christian Freedom to Discuss Abortion Together,” Concordia Theological Journal 84, no 2 (2020): 175.

[9] Nelson, “The Forum Notebook,” LF 54, no 3 (2020): 2-3.

[10] Nelson, “Theology and Protest—Reflections on the Theological Legacy of James H. Cone,” LF 54, no 2 (2020): 2-5.

[11] Matthew O. Staneck, “A Lutheran Case for Reparations,” LF 54, no 2 (2020): 6-10.

R. David Nelson

R. David Nelson is senior acquisitions editor at Baker Academic and editor of Lutheran Forum.