Introduction to an Interview with George Forell, September 6, 2001

[1] George W. Forell has been one of the theological giants of the Lutheran churches in America for over half a century. During this time, he has been a major figure in helping to interpret Luther, and particularly a Lutheran understanding of Ethics, to generations of students and scholars alike. His influence on the self-understanding of Lutheran churches in this country has been immense.

[2] Forell’s influence on Lutheran churches is particularly remarkable given the fact that his teaching career has been primarily within the context of a secular state university – the University of Iowa. Here he has faithfully maintained his integrity as a Christian theologian, while at the same time being open to and respectful of all the points of view that comprise the pluralistic culture of a major university. Enormously popular as a teacher, as well as a prolific author of books and articles, Forell was awarded the prestigious Carver Distinguished Professorship at the University of Iowa.

[3] Forell is passionate about the contribution to be made by a distinctively Lutheran understanding of theology and ethics. In an autobiographical article, first published in dialog [33/2 (1994) 129-134] and later re-published in Word and World [Supplement Series 2 (1994) 1-9], Forell claimed that “while a Lutheran church without a Lutheran theology may be sociologically viable in Germany or Scandinavia, it is doomed in America. Without a distinctive theology there is no reason to maintain a separate Lutheran church; its disappearance within the mainstream of culture-protestantism of the right or the left is unavoidable and by no means deplorable. There is no need for another version of the UCC or the Episcopal church. For that matter a Southern Baptist church with a slightly German accent is redundant.

[4] “That raises the question as to the nature of Lutheran theological identity and its significance for the life of the Christian church in this country. For years I have claimed, in season and out of season – in Lutheran theological journals and Funk and Wagnall’s supermarket encyclopedia – that there are certain distinctive aspects of Lutheran theology which if lost would weaken and impoverish the Christian message in our world. Here I shall mention them only as slogans: (1) the distinction of law and gospel; (2) the Christian as righteous and sinner at the same time; (3) the finite as the bearer of the infinite (with its implications for sacrament, scripture, and vocation); and (4) the theology of the cross vs. the theology of glory.

[5] “Everything I have ever written has been an attempt to elucidate one or the other aspect of this message, convinced that it might help all Christians to understand their election and the resulting obligation. This proclamation is a debt Lutherans owe to the ecumenical church. It is not a sign of superiority or a reason for isolation, but rather a vocation which should contribute to the wholeness of the people of God.”

[6] On September 6, 2001, three representatives of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics – Kaari Reierson, Ed Schneider, and John Stumme – interviewed George Forell at his home in Iowa City, Iowa.