Forell on The Promise of Lutheran Ethics

[1] This collection of essays by eight different authors in addition to the editors, who are the director and associate director of studies in the division for Church in Society of the ELCA respectively, is an effort to establish “What is distinctive about Lutheran ethics?” The first chapter offers a short introductory statement by John Stumme, which tries to set the theological context with very brief descriptions of the thrust of the different articles. Karen Bloomquist endeavors to depict the social and political setting for the effort.

[2] The entire book has the weakness of all such collections. The points of view expressed are occasionally so different that it is hard to discern what they may have in common.

[3] The book starts with a very lucid and persuasive chapter by Robert Benne, “Perennial Themes and Contemporary Challenges.” Benne is a professor of religion at Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia. As a teacher of undergraduates he has developed the ability to write clearly and understandably.

[4] He begins by illustrating the perennial themes “that provide Lutheranism with a coherent and persuasive account of Christian ethics” and then continues by showing the challenges that confront such an ethics today under three headings: (1) theological, (2) ecclesiological, and (3) epistemological.

[5] In regard to the first issue he writes:

“Dazzled as they are by the wonder and profundity of God’s justifying grace in Christ, Lutherans are tempted to think that the only really interesting question is the motivational one” (27). He calls this a “soteriological reductionism” which tends to ignore the first and third articles of the creed. It has sometimes been called a Unitarianism of the second article of the creed. Its result has been to rely on the moral consensus of the prevailing culture to supply practical ethical standards. As this cultural consensus has collapsed Benne suggests that Lutherans have to recover the resources supplied by the first and third articles of the creed: “Lutherans need a more specific notion of the Christian life if they are to respond to this chaotic world. They cannot do this by relying only on justification. Lutheran ethics will have to be more trinitarian” (28).

[6] Benne believes that in order to bring this about Lutherans will have to develop a different understanding of the church. He advocates the church as a community of character. The traditional emphasis has also neglected social ethics. All this is the result of the lack of authority in the church, which has naturally affected the authority of its ethics as well as its social teachings.

[7] The epistemological problem is the crisis of reason in the post-modern world. Lutherans have always appealed to reason as the God-given instrument to deal with the problems of this world. While unable to reach God, reason is the tool given to us by God to resolve the problems relating to the earthly welfare of humanity. In the face of the irrationalism of our age Benne suggests that new resources are needed.

[8] The third chapter, written by Reinhard Hütter of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, tends to continue Benne’s criticism of contemporary Lutheran ethics by examining its notion of freedom. He claims, “There is no way to ask what ‘Lutheran ethics’ might be like in the contemporary matrix of the Western world without addressing the deeply problematic opposition that many allege exists between ‘freedom’ and ‘law'” (32). He insists that “Christian freedom is the embodiment of practicing God’s commandments as a way of life” (33). We must recover Cod’s commandments in order to discover true Christian freedom. In this process we shall be helped by the Decalogue as summary of natural law (50). And he concludes:”Christian ethics in the tradition of the Reformation serves the remembrance of God’s commandments and the interpretation of the innumerable challenges, complexities and perplexities that we encounter in our world in the critical and wholesome light of God’s commandments” (53).

[9] In the fourth chapter Martha Stortz, who teaches at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, uses prayer as a way of illustrating the practice of the Christian life. She also asserts that this requires the recovery of the Christian community and the overcoming of the individualism that has reduced Christian ethics to one personal opinion among a plurality of equivalent personal opinions. She utilizes the notion of “formation” as a way of shaping moral agency, which demands a community where this formation happens. She then uses Luther’s own practice of prayer as an example. With the help of Luther’s writing in A. E. Volume 43, especially his “Personal Prayer Book,” she illustrates how Christians can and should use prayer as ethical formation.

[10] In the fifth chapter Richard Perry Jr. of the Lutheran School of Theology writes about African American Lutheran ethical action, using the ministries of Rev. Jehu Jones Jr., Sister Emma Francis, and Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne as well as the actions of the antislavery Franckean Synod as paradigms. He concludes his chapter with a call to move the Lutheran church from a preoccupation with “right doctrine” to “right practice” (96).

[11] In the sixth chapter James Childs of Trinity Lutheran Seminary addresses the topic “Ethics and the Promise of God.” He asserts that Lutherans have not always been clear or consistent about their mandate for ethical witness” (98). He reviews the controversial ‘two realm’ teaching of Luther and its results in the history of Lutheranism and then presents the notion of “the church as the community of promise called to live out an ethics of anticipation” (103). The authority to speak comes from the vocation of the church to witness to God’s eschatological promise. This results in a commitment to peace, equality, and life. These values are based in scripture and he sees the Decalogue correlated with other scriptural resources as giving direction to this ethics (110).

[12] In the seventh chapter David Fredrickson of Luther Seminary discusses Pauline ethics as resource to contemporary Lutheran ethics. He does not use any of Paul’s frequent ethical exhortations but claims that he discovers in Paul the theme that the power of persons in community is able to influence their corporate lives and the world for good or for ill (116). “The moral task that lies before the church is the testing of all things by those who must bear the consequences of the decisions reached” (116). Paul has allegedly adopted the political metaphor of the congregation as an open and inclusive democratic community (119). Moral action means extending freedom. Paul is not asserting that the moral life is imitation of universal order, of moral order, nor is it conformity to a particular historical tradition. Neither is it obedience to divine command. Instead, persons in community pursue consensus through testing (120). “The story is not of Jesus’ conformity to God’s will but of his own initiative to extend equality with God to others” (121). There is no reference to all the concrete and specific standards for the Christian life in Paul’s writing, e.g., Gal 5:19-24. One does not get the impression that Benne and Hütter had been talking to Fredrickson.

[13] The final chapter is called “The Reform Dynamic, Addressing New Issues in Uncertain Times.” It is written jointly by Larry Rasmussen and his doctoral student Cynthia Moe-Lobeda of Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. It is a fairly tentative presentation ending a number of section headings with the word “perhaps.” Their main emphasis is on ecological issues. In this context they speak of “the Protestant derailment of the doctrine of creation” (136). In a section headed “Conclusion, Perhaps” (148) they suggest their own eight commandments for a Lutheran ecological ethics:

[14] 1. A demographic transition from an unprecedented population explosion to a roughly stable world population.

[15] 2. An economic transition that lives off nature’s “income” rather than its “capital” and builds into all economic activity, including the cost of goods, what is required indefinitely for nature’s regeneration and renewal.

[16] 3. A social transition to a broader sharing of nature’s income and human wealth, along with increased opportunities for sustaining livelihoods for all.

[17] 4. An institutional transition that combines greater cross-national cooperation in order to address global problems with greater attention to what makes for sustainable local communities and regions.

[18] 5. An informational transition in which research, education, and global monitoring allow large numbers of people to understand the problems they face and offer them the means to address these problems.

[19] 6. A technological transition that effectively means minimal environmental impact per person.

[20] 7. A moral transition to a framework that includes the sociocommunal, the biophysical and the geoplanetary – the whole community of life – as the arena of daily responsibility and accountability.

[21] 8. A religious transition to earthkeeping as a religious calling and vocation common to all the world’s religions. (148)

[22] All these transitions are a function of the law, according to these authors. It is not very clear why Lutheran Christians should obey their eight commandments. The question of authority is not even addressed.

[23] Where does this leave us? Except for the Fredrickson article, which could have been called the promise of Thomas Munzer’s ethics, all articles share the conviction that Lutheran ethics must recover the importance of the law. This is in itself significant and promising. In some articles it is not always very clear where we discover this law and why we should obey it. The rejection of the reformers’ advocacy of the repression of human passions when applied to sex (149) does not explain why the subjection of the equally strong human passions of greed and covetousness essential for the success of Rasmussen and Moe-Lobeda’s eight commandments should be promoted. Heilbronner’s facetious question “What has posterity ever done for me?” has to be answered if we are to make the eight commandments credible. The false alternative between right doctrine and right practice must be overcome. Luther taught us that it is impossible to maintain practice without faith. All the short-lived enthusiasm of the sixties failed because it was rooted in sentimentality and not faith. Without Christian faith there is no Christian ethics. Luther saw the importance of community, defining the church as the communion of saints in his pre-1517 writings. He saw the importance of the Decalogue for Christian ethics. In his Treatise On Good Works(1520 A.E. 44) he does the very thing for his age that Hütter advocates for our time. I conclude that a thorough study of Luther’s writings would be the best way to realize the promise of Lutheran ethics. It might very well start with a study of Luther’s Small Catechism by all members of the ELCA.

Copyright © 1999 dialog. Used with permission.
From dialog, Volume 38, Number 2 (Spring 1999)