Gustaf Wingren on the Christian Life

1] The year 2010 marks the centennial of the birth of the Swedish theologian Gustaf Wingren, who died in 2000. For nearly all his academic career Wingren taught Christian theology at the University of Lund. Between 1940 and 1980 he published numerous books and articles that were influential (and often controversial) not only in Scandinavia but also on the continent and in English-speaking nations. He also was actively involved in the international organization of Luther scholars and in the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

Gustaf Wingren on the Christian Life by Marc Kolden

[2] Wingren’s first book, Luther on Vocation (1942; English 19571), established him as a Luther scholar whose views needed to be taken seriously. It also put him in some disagreement with German Lutherans such as Paul Althaus and Werner Elert, who linked Luther’s theology generally as well as his concept of vocation to a less dynamic view of God’s involvement in the world, especially regarding the law in its first use. As with other Scandinavian scholars (e.g., Einar Billing), Wingren distinguished Luther’s theology sharply from that of later Lutheranism and sought to retrieve insights from the former in contrast both to seventeenth-century Lutheran Orthodoxy and later cultural Lutheranism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While he learned from his famous teachers in Sweden — Gustaf Aulén, Billing, and Anders Nygren, as well as Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann (all of whom were a generation older than Wingren) — he broke with them on key issues of theological method, the role of the Enlightenment in theology, and the specific influence of Kant and Schleiermacher in their theologies, despite their attempts to free themselves from the these thinkers.

[3] By the 1950s Wingren had moved from historical theology to systematic theology, which culminated in his two volumes Creation and Law (1958) and Gospel and Church (1960). Luther’s influence as well as that of various figures from the early church (e.g., Irenaeus) continued to be prominent in these works. He also critically engaged the emphases on Christology and ecclesiology sparked by neo-orthodoxy (1920–1960), insights gained from the church struggle before and during World War II (1933ff.), and the important and often competing contributions by the LWF and the World Council of Churches (WCC) in reshaping theology and the church’s role in the world during that time (1950ff.).

[4] However, Wingren’s interests were less on redemption, church, and sanctification as being of first importance for theology than on the doctrine of creation and its importance for all other theological tasks. He realized that in terms of persons’ faith in Jesus the place of Christology understandably may draw the immediate attention of preachers and laity. However, in terms of logic (or “theo-logic”) creation must come first. It is the basis of all else in life and in theology: that God is the creator/preserver/fulfiller of all that was, is, and will be; and that redemption and eventual fulfillment flow above all from the purposes and activity of the creator. In this view the human is above all a creature, made in the image of the creator. That is essential, whereas sin, no matter how radical and serious, is not. Christ’s saving work is to restore humans to true creatureliness (i.e., sin-free humanity) as well as to complete the divine creative work in terms of fulfilling the eternal destiny of humans along with all of the rest of the created universe.

[5] Creatureliness for Wingren means that all humans (believers and non-believers) have more in common than any differences might suggest. Wingren insists that God’s will pertains to all people and can be known to some extent by all. Christians’ roles and duties as creatures are no different from those of others, even though Christians may realize that these come from God and are meant to serve God by serving God’s creation. Christians thus are to understand their stations in life and their responsibilities (whether given or achieved) as divine “callings” from God (or “vocations”). We should note that this view emphasizes (1) the created world more than the church and (2) persons’ humanness more than their religiousness, and (3) responsible living in “ordinary” life at least as much as eternal life. While this stance may be due in part to Wingren’s reaction against Pietism, on the one hand, or to the excessive emphasis on the church and religion by much modern theology, on the other, it is also similar in key ways to the situation in 1517 in which Luther first articulated his ideas on vocation against the Roman Church’s focus primarily on religious vocations (especially monasticism).

[6] The most helpful account of Wingren’s theological development in his own words is the 1979 book Creation and Gospel. This work contains lectures and conversations that took place over a semester at the University of Toronto following his retirement.2

[7] Wingren’s impact in North America has been uneven at best. Luther on Vocation, especially after its availability in English in 1957, was well received and fit readily with the growing emphasis on Christian vocation that had been taking place in the English-speaking theological world since about 1950 — especially among Reformed and Lutheran authors. Vocation fit also with the growing emphasis on the importance of the laity’s role as it is portrayed in the New Testament. However, this movement was short-lived because of the eruption of the “1960s” (which actually began about 1964 but continued well into the 1970s) and focused on huge popular struggles related to civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam war, the “death of God,” the assassinations of 1968, the “new left,” feminism; black theology, and liberation theology. These called traditional theology and North American church life into question and in their emphases on these crises it became difficult to think of Christian obedience as being linked primarily to one’s stations and offices in the dominant culture — which the traditional doctrine of vocation seemed to require. The theological and ethical radicalism of Wingren’s work (including Creation and Law and Gospel and Church, as well as Theology in Conflict) largely was missed at that time while pastors, congregations, and students responded enthusiastically to J. A. T. Robinson’s Honest to God (1963) and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965) and various other volumes of theology-lite. The more significant contributions of eschatological, black, liberation, and feminist theologies, which became prominent near the end of the 1960s, further marginalized the emphases of many theologians and theologies of a more traditional or confessional bent — and not least, any talk of vocation.

[8] Things I Have Learned from Wingren
A more accurate title for this section would be “Things I should have learned from Martin Luther and others but didn’t really see until I read Gustaf Wingren.” (In many cases that entailed reading Wingren several times.)3 I had read Luther on Vocation and Gospel and Church as a seminary student (1962–1966) and I thought they fit readily (perhaps too readily, in retrospect) with my experience of having been raised as a Lutheran Christian in North America and having been attracted during college to movements for social justice and ecumenical renewal. However, doctoral studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School amidst the struggles of the later 1960s (listed in the previous paragraph) put much of my earlier theological awareness on the back burner. A major positive influence for me during that time was Jürgen Moltmann — especially through his books The Theology of Hope and The Crucified God4 — which led me in directions only tangentially related to Wingren. Or so I thought at the time.

[9] It was not until 1979 that I rediscovered Wingren. I was serving as a pastor in Helena, the state capitol of Montana. Our congregation had numerous recent Ph.D. graduates (in the natural sciences) working for the many state and federal offices concerned with biology, geology, land, fish and wildlife, water, and the like who, while they may have been raised as Christians and even as Lutherans, found that their knowledge of Christianity lagged far beyond their professional knowledge. They wanted to fit things together intellectually, although some doubted that it was possible. (I was surprised at first, partly because relating my academic specialty — theology — to my life and work seemed so natural that it hadn’t led me to think about the issue very much.)

[10] At about the same time, I was invited to speak at a conference for pastors in Washington State that featured a noted “futurist” (this was at the time when “megatrend” was an emerging buzz word), who was focused on future political and ecological developments in the United States after the Vietnam and Nixon debacles. Of course, the word “future” first suggested that a theologian should speak of eschatology, except that this conference was about the near-term future, not the ultimate or end-time future. For the near term I would need to think in terms of the doctrine of creation — which, I soon realized, was what my scientifically-training congregational members also were grappling with. In both cases, this was creation not in terms of creationism debates or curiosity about ancient beginnings but about what God the creator was doing now and in the years immediately ahead in the created world — and how that relates to what we are doing each day. Voilà! Wingren … and vocation.

[11] Start with creation. Wingren argued for this throughout his life: creation is the logical and most basic presupposition for Christian theology because it happens first and it continues at every moment. Further, all of the other main doctrines presume the divine creation of the world as well as God’s continued involvement in and with it. And while some movements in twentieth-century theology did something like that (e.g., process theology, Tillichian apologetic theology, theology and science), most confessional or doctrinal Protestant theologies started with Christology or perhaps with ecclesiology. The dominance of Karl Barth (plus Rudolf Bultmann and the legacy of Kierkegaard) during much of the century undergirded the central role of Christology. By the end of World War I, the waning of traditional Protestant orthodoxy, on the one hand, and of liberal theology, on the other, seemed to leave few other options.

[12] Wingren recovered the priority and importance of God’s continuing creation as he examined the many aspects of Luther’s theology — and particularly his concept of vocation — and organized them systematically. While Luther was pre-Enlightenment and thus did not need to make a case for the concept of divine creation in light of modern science, the chief aspect of his teaching emphasized God’s involvement with everything in every moment — creating, innovating, preserving, and working with (not controlling) creatures in this activity — which is necessary for focusing on vocation, whether in the sixteenth or the twentieth century. This became both the substantive and methodological basis for all of Wingren’s theology.

[13] The three “tensions” in Luther’s theology. Wingren found in studying Luther, especially on vocation, that running through his thought invariably were 1) an eschatological tension between “earth” and “heaven” or better “this age” and “the age to come;” 2) a modified dualistic tension between the devil and God; and 3) the tension within each believer between the old sinful self and the new self in Christ. Each of these is involved in the ways that God rules: in this present age and the age to come; in opposing the devil’s destructive work and in continuing to sustain and redeem the creation; and in commanding/disciplining the sinful self and also forgiving sin and preserving in faith. Basic to each of these tensions is Luther’s insistence that a close relationship between law and gospel must be in place. Likewise, an adequate doctrine of vocation (as well as any other doctrine) must include attention to all three tensions, since they are fundamental in the Bible as well.

[14] The importance of the law — in both its uses. Divine law was not in the beginning; it appeared after the biblical pre-history of creation, humans, and the fall into sin. Law was given by God to protect creatures from the destructive power of sin and to preserve and promote life and goodness in this present age (although not in the promised age to come). All humans feel the pressure of the law to work for the good of the neighbor in the world whether they understand its source or not. This is the first and most obvious use of the law. The law in this sense is concerned with civil righteousness. The law also has a second use: it arouses guilt in persons who either do not do what the law commands or even in doing it become aware of their resistance and opposition to it. This second use is often called the accusing or “spiritual” use of the law. Apart from the gospel, however, the second use of the law has no role in giving new life or pardoning sin, although throughout Christian history some people have thought they could merit certain eternal rewards from God by keeping the law.

[15] In relation to the law, Wingren saw in Luther that God through the gospel does two things: he pardons sinners condemned by the law and he reveals the true extent of their guilt under the law by showing that it is actually a total rebellion against or rejection of God. Sin and guilt are not merely a matter of breaking a rule. Through creating God is related both to the world and to the neighbor and the law is intended to produce goodness and prevent evil. When that does not happen, not only are the world and the neighbor affected, but God is dishonored. Christian vocation, as Luther understood it, insists that Christian believers are simultaneously righteous in Christ yet still sinful in themselves and because of sin always need the law to guide and compel them to do good works. And while laws in society can be changed or obeyed differently (or broken) in new times and places, Christians ought not suppose that the world should be governed by the gospel, for the gospel is the promise for the world to come — spoken ahead of time to give forgiven sinners faith and hope and to free them from the law’s condemnation to live responsibly in this present age. What earthly government would compel us to do, we now may do freely.

[16] Perhaps most Lutheran Christian thinkers are familiar with what has been said in the previous two paragraphs, What was new for me in Wingren (although I should have seen it in Luther) is Wingren’s emphasis that God also uses the law in both its functions to put to death the old sinful self precisely in our callings — where the law compels and demands that we keep the law for the benefit of our neighbors and the world (as the law is shaped by our specific roles and responsibilities in our callings) even as our resistant sinful self in the calling is worked to death. In God’s economy each person’s work both provides for others and is a means for God to discipline the old self. At the same time, through the continued preaching of the gospel God raises that person to new life day-by-day. If we forget the putting to death of the old self in vocation (which most believers forget or do not know), repentance risks becoming only an emotional/ spiritual exercise instead of a real event in the created world by which God conquers sin and gets his will done for creation.5

[17] Prayer in one’s calling. Luther’s writings on prayer in the household (morning, meals, night), in worship and in relation to reading the Bible, prayer in confessing our sins, and prayer for those in need are familiar, but Wingren’s insistence and intensity about praying in the context of one’s particular callings came as a surprise to me. Much of it is in the context of the ongoing battle between God and the devil, in which the devil seeks to lead persons to use their callings for their own benefit (or to leave their callings altogether for something more attractive or fulfilling). For Luther, prayer is the door through which God enters into vocation; when we turn to God in faith (that is, in prayer) we depart from the devil’s power and, in turn, may be faithful also to the requirements of our callings. According to Wingren, prayer in one’s calling for Luther is “a positive action through which new and revolutionary ways are opened, for it brings into the earthly situation the God who is free from all external orders. The end of persevering prayer is to call in God, who turns the world upside down.” (LoV 113) Or again, “In times of cross or desperation [facing the challenges of vocation that make faith seem impossible] man must pray and cry out…. Prayer is a turning point in which the suffering laid upon us ceases to be a heavy cross … because in prayer God himself comes to man and helps him to live and act.” (118–19) But when a person prays without doing everything possible with the gifts God has already given, that person tempts God and cannot expect an answer. On the other hand, when all efforts do not succeed, the time for prayer has come. “Then by prayer one brings in a new power where the ordinary powers within creation do not suffice…. When the need is genuine, it is impossible to put God to the test.” (135, Wingren paraphrasing Luther from the latter’s Commentary on Genesis as well as some sermons. See also the long section [in LoV 185–99] in which he gathers many emphases of Luther under the theme of prayer.6)

[18] Vocation not the same as “occupation.” Readers may have noted that I often refer to vocation or calling in the plural. By doing this I intend to make two points regarding Luther’s and Wingren’s ideas: 1) since everything in the world is related to God who creates, then everything we deal with, every task, every person — all these are callings or vocations, of which a Christian may have several or many; and 2) while occupation is one possible vocation, it is only one among several or many for any one person and a person without an occupation will still have other callings or vocations. Occupation was emphasized by Luther in contrast to the monastic vocation, since occupations are obvious contributors to life and the civil realm generally (while according to Luther monastic works were — wrongly — thought to be for a person to better himself with God). Luther actually spent more time focusing on vocations within families and civil governance and participation in the community than on occupation. Modern usage, however, both religious and secular, seems to have learned only about vocations as work for pay. Wingren vigorously opposes such a limited understanding.7

[19] The dynamic character of this theology. Luther’s doctrine of vocation often has been understood primarily in terms of seventeenth-century Lutheran Orthodoxy and/or the conservative and static Lutheran state and folk church bodies of nineteenth-century Europe. Wingren argues that vocation has been a victim of that history in such a way as to obscure the dynamic aspects of Luther’s understanding that are much more fitting for our time. Where Lutheranism said “orders” of creation, Wingren says “ordering;” where it said “preserving,” he says “creating anew;” While it emphasized “obedience” to an unchanging law, he emphasizes love for particular “neighbors,” whose needs are never exactly the same as those of others; while it counseled “patience,” he seeks “fairness” and “equity” through the law seen as God’s will now.

[20] While it urged “belief,” he speaks of faith as “trust” and of God actually being present in faith; where it saw all of vocation being allied with law, he speaks of faith’s having real significance in shaping vocation — because of the Christian’s freedom to do whatever is loving for the neighbor (or to omit doing something that is required by a law but harmful to the neighbor). The old self does not have such liberty “to do or to omit,” and the Christian will need to take great care in exercising this freedom, but vocation is flexible for him who loves his neighbor. (LoV 95–100; also 144–49)

[21] If one understands the law to be rigid, it cannot deal with different situations and complexity, so “Fairness adjusts the law to particular circumstances…. Genuine justice is the product of the cooperation of law book and the judge.” (154) This is a way in which God’s love breaks in — and love is the fulfilling of the law. Wingren repeatedly quotes Luther (WA 27, 563) that “to create is always to do something new,” which he considers to be true whether applied to God or to people in their callings. God’s love expressed in the idea of “fairness” is said to “open rifts in the law” to effect new things. (159) Among other things we should note here the dimension of change in God’s ongoing creative work. Change is necessary in the world because of the devil and sin. The devil seeks to pervert the actions of people in offices while sin in the office holders makes the office “old” and in need of change. But when the neighbor is made the central norm for action, “change is introduced into ethics as a constitutive mark.” (231) Despite the emphases on God working through all people and all people knowing the law in some sense even without knowing it expresses God’s will, Wingren is eager to give roles for faith and the gospel in Christians’ vocations. Prayer, of course, is a major factor, but the ways that creation and law are portrayed in this and the previous paragraph offer several other possibilities. For example, Christians will be motivated by faith and the forgiveness of sins and their values, perspectives, and goals will affect how they seek to carry out their callings. They will have a different focus available in understanding God’s will, especially as that was embodied in the redeeming work of Christ. Faith may give us courage and selflessness and it may make us properly critical both about stations and offices that may be God-given but are now distorted as well as alerting us to the role of sin in oneself and in others in particular situations. Members of congregations with similar callings may benefit by reading and discussions among themselves regarding these matters.8

[22] Conclusion. Wingren thinks that Lutherans should be emphasizing creation in terms of saying that the world is God’s world, where God creates even without the church’s involvement. In this sense, rationality has freedom of action and faith in the gospel is not necessary for the preservation of earthly life. This means that non-Christians and Christians can confer together, come to at least some agreement, and take actions — using arguments available to all. He thinks this is true also of the unceasing antagonism between God and the devil and destruction of all things earthly, whereby all people can know something of this antagonism from experience and potentially find agreement about the importance of humans opposing destructive forces and taking certain actions. This is the sphere in which Christians have their callings.9

[23] Wingren would remind us that vocation includes everything that brings us into relationship with other people, from occupation to family roles, to politics and citizenship, to care of the environment, to giving money, to volunteering, to membership in various groups, to protesting and criticizing — everything that brings us into relation to others. Here we will work both as human beings with other human beings and as believers who testify to the one who is the creator and redeemer and true hope for the whole world.10


1. Wingren, Luther on Vocation (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1957); Creation and Law (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1961); Gospel and Church (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1964); see also his Theology in Conflict (1954; English 1958; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1958).

2. Wingren, Creation and Gospel: The New Situation in European Theology; introduction by Henry Vander Goot (Toronto: Mellen, 1979). This volume contains a bibliography of Wingren’s writings from 1936 through 1979. Some critics of Wingren find fault with his account of his reflections on his own and others’ theology here and elsewhere. An indication of this may be found in Henry Vander Goot, ed., Creation and Method: Critical Essays on Christocentric Theology (Washington, D.C.: Univ. Press of America, 1981); see especially the rather hostile chapter by Thor Hall as well as the more careful statements in the chapters by Bernhard Erling and Ron Thiemann.

3. For an example of how I appropriate many of Wingren’s insights for a popular audience, see my The Christian’s Calling in the World (St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary, Centered Life, 2002). See also “Earthly Vocation as a Corollary of Justification by Faith,” in By Faith Alone: Essays on Justification in Honor of Gerhard O. Forde, edited by Joseph A. Burgess and Marc Kolden (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004) 267–88. For more examples of my writing, particularly as it has been influenced by Wingren, see my web page at

4. Moltmann, Theology of Hope (1964; English 1967; New York: Harper & Row); The Crucified God (1973; English 1974; New York: Harper & Row, 1974). I came to see several connections between Moltmann’s work and Wingren’s, not least in the final chapter of Theology of Hope, esp. 329–38, on “The Calling of Christians in Society.”

5. See Luther on Vocation on the death of the self in one’s callings: 29–32, 53–59, 66–68, 118–19, 141–43, 166, 250–51. In addition, cf. Creation and Law, esp. 149–95 on the first and second uses of the law.

6. See Luther on Vocation regarding prayer in one’s callings: 83–84, 113, 118–19, 132–37, 184–99, 220–22.

7. For Wingren’s own position on vocation, see the important article from the latter part of his career, “The Concept of Vocation,” Lutheran World 15,2 (1968) 87–95. The article relates also to the next paragraph on the dynamic character of this theology.

8. Luther on Vocation, esp. 37–47, 91, 94–99, 123–30, 143–59 (a fascinating section in which Christians are warned not to make judgments between persons of faith and others in terms of the rightness of their actions—even if Christians may have some insights from faith in Christ that others lack; justice is still justice no matter who seeks it), and 199–212 (very important).

9. “The Concept of Vocation,” 94. See also Gospel and Church, which I have neglected in this article; it offers an important presentation of Wingren’s views on the Holy Spirit, the means of grace, and the church. He is critical of many aspects of the Swedish state church with its hierarchical structures. He learns much from North American Protestants, especially regarding the laity, whom he calls a “vast diaconate” who serve through their callings. Despite the fact that this book is now fifty years old, his words regarding the church and its mission are surprisingly relevant in our quite different situation today.

10. “The Concept of Vocation,” 95. Wingren has a habit of writing summary statements at the end of each major part of his books and even at the end of articles. Reading his summaries—even before reading the section being summarized—often is helpful for seeing what he is assuming and intending in his sometimes complex and detailed arguments.