John Stumme: A Critical Appraisal of His Work in Editing The Promise of Lutheran Ethics

[1] If one were to live solely in the rarified air of most college campuses today, the overwhelming impression would be of a universe wholly devoid of continuity with the past. Linkage to tradition, much less voluntary servitude to something labeled “the Word of God” or the Great Tradition of Christianity, is anathema to the contemporary arbiters of good form in universities and seminaries alike. Similarly, the very concept of truth has taken a terrible beating within the hallowed halls of higher education. In both popular and highly influential circles throughout Western civilization, the movement known as “postmodernism” reigns almost without challenge. And that is the source of much of the current antipathy toward the Christian tradition and the word of God.

[2] The postmodernist assumption is that all truth is relative. Its creed, if you will, is centered on the affirmation of a denial: i.e., it claims that Truth (with a capital “T”) does not exist; that what we know as “truth” is but a matter of perspective, in reality nor more than the creation of the dominant power structures within a particular culture in a given moment of history.

[3] This postmodern commitment is met with solid rebuke in John Stumme’s chapter, “A Lutheran Tradition on Church and State”[1]. Whether it was his intention I cannot say, but John Stumme has given a convincing apology for living from within one’s own Christian\Lutheran confessional commitments; and in the course of his review of the Lutheran tradition on Church and State, he also makes a persuasive case for the viability of the Lutheran heritage when engaging the public arena of the modern world.

[4] Stumme’s chapter on Church and State is a gold mine in a real treasure of a book. His stated goal is to explain how the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has arrived at its definition of the proper relationship between church and state, to draw out the crucial implications of Lutheran theology for such a public philosophy, and to show how critically important this definition is for both entities.

[5] In the historical section, Stumme maps out the great transformation in Lutheran public theology that has occurred since the turn of the twentieth century. “Quietism”, the attitude that the public realm is of no concern of the church, was the dominant working assumption of Lutherans from the nation’s founding until the Second World War. Beginning in the 1940’s, Lutheran voices began to question the adequacy of such a radical “separationist” public theology for a Church carrying out its mission in a democratic republic. In a series of articles, authors such as Conrad Bergendoff, George Forell, and Jaroslav Pelikan challenged this abandoning of the public square to the radical secularists. Eventually, the predecessor bodies of the ELCA all developed social statements which both decried a “wall of separation” between church and state, and warned against a too close identification of the aims of the political realm with the coming Kingdom of God.

[6] The end result has been the ELCA’s current statement on Church-State relations. It sees the Church’s role as “work(ing) with civil authorities in areas of mutual endeavor, maintaining institutional separation of church and state in a relation of functional interaction.” Rather than bureaucratic “committee-speak”, this formulation is a vital expression of a hard-fought, carefully considered position toward the community of faith’s proper relationship with the civil powers. Stumme shows how Lutherans in this country have mined the thought of Luther and the Confessions until a Lutheran position evolved from one of quietism to the current attitude of “the interpenetration of church and state”.

[7] Absolutely essential in the telling of this story is the recognition that ideas matter, and that true ideas matter absolutely. Stumme explicates the indispensable role of Luther’s doctrines of ‘law and gospel’, and of the ‘two-fold rule of God’ in creating a working public theology that is capable of meeting the challenges of quietism, absolute separationism, and political enthusiasm. With Luther’s insight into God’s providential working within the civil realm, the temptation to despair over the inadequacies of political achievements is thwarted. Indeed, a new sense of the sacredness of the so-called “secular” realm as God’s created arena for bringing good to humanity can empower ordinary Christians to live with hope where others wallow in resignation. In addition, this doctrine gives grounds for countering the imperious expansion of government into every nook and cranny of the social realm. Similarly, the distinction between law and gospel deters enthusiasts who would coerce others to achieve their utopian schemes.

[8] This is an awfully truncated account of Stumme’s truly excellent historical review of Lutheranism’s transformation from a near-sect-like separationism to its present-day “dynamic tension” with the state. But it leads to a discovery of the advantages which Lutheran doctrine affords to anyone engaging Church-State issues. They include:

A revised understanding of Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine from a negative to a positive interpretation. So, instead of a dualistic view arising from this insight, there is one that calls for a “critical participation” in society. The result is that Barth’s misunderstanding of this doctrine is corrected, and a critical tool for approaching life in the world through faith becomes available.
A Trinitarian understanding of God’s work in Church and world leads to a defense of religious freedom for all based upon the conviction that each individual is created in the image of God, and is personally called to faith – a call that cannot be coerced and still remain legitimate.
A rejection of the equation of “state” and “society”. This allows room for mediating structures such as family, economy, voluntary organizations, civic duties – all apart from government, and hopefully, free from its tentacles.
A clear distinction between the desired separate authorities for church and state, combined with the quite necessary mingling of “religion” and “politics”. Nowhere does the Lutheran view outlaw or restrict the public character of religious faith or allow public life to escape religious influence. Granted, in public debate Christians cannot use Scriptural authority as warrant for their positions, but that does not proscribe convictions rooted firmly in a Biblical faith.
The Christian belief that government is authorized by God to bring order out of chaos in human affairs leads directly to the prohibition against the state deifying itself. The reason: the state does not create its own legitimacy, but has it conferred upon it by God, to be employed for the benefit of its citizens. This is why the state depends upon the Church – not just for prayers of support, but for prophetic guidance and judgment.
vi) Finally, both Church and State are granted their respective authorities by God, and not by the other institution. This prevents the church from claiming some special privilege in the marketplace of political ideas; and it disallows the state from arrogating to itself absolute sway over peoples’ lives.
[9] An example of Stumme’s balance and critical eye when dealing with explosive social issues is his handling of the volatile question of prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. After explicating the attitude of institutional separation in Lutheran social statements, he then quotes a 1984 ALC statement that provides needed correction to the current drift toward an officially secularist state: “it is as wrong for the public schools to become agents for atheism, godless secularism, scoffing irreligion, or a vague ‘religion in general’ as it is for them to make religious rites and ceremonies an integral part of their programs.”[2]

[10] This rich chapter illustrates the wisdom gathered from years of immersion in Luther and the Confessions of the Lutheran Church. It is a witness to the abiding truth about humanity, society, and the political realm contained in the Christian tradition. As Stumme says, the Trinitarian theocentrism of the Lutheran heritage “…views church and state in light of God’s story with creation as revealed in Scripture, confessed in the church’s creeds, and taught in the Lutheran Confessions…Trinitarian theocentrism is public witness to God that makes claims about what is true. God’s true story with creation is essential, we believe, for protecting human life and dignity, affirming and limiting the state, and giving the church its mission.”[3] If the protest is given that we no longer live in a predominantly Christian society, therefore the Christian voice is not eagerly welcomed, Stumme answers: “Such a culture ‘heightens the need of the church for strength to stand alone, lofty and unshaken, in American society. It calls for greater depth of conviction in all Christian men and women’.”[4]

[11] In sum, John Stumme displays the kind of thoughtful theological reflection one would hope to find in the leadership circles of the Church. He is obviously familiar with the Lutheran heritage, and clearly sympathetic with it. He has allowed his Lutheran roots to feed and nourish his reflections on current issues in society. Without forgetting the contextual locus of all thought, he is not mesmerized by it either. Here is a prime example of how a religious tradition – if true – can provide modern culture with an inexhaustible supply of wisdom. While offering insights for the guidance and well-being of society, it also charts a course for God’s people in the new millennium. It is a course that involves embracing and re-claiming a tradition rather than ignoring it.

End Notes

[1] Chapter 3 of Church and State: Lutheran Perspectives, edited by John R. Stumme and Robert W. Tuttle; (Fortress Press, 2003.)
[2] Ibid. p.60.
[3] Ibid. p.70.
[4] Ibid. He is quoting a 1964 L.C.A. social statement.

Michael Shahan

Michael Shahan is Book Review Editor of Journal of Lutheran Ethics. A retired ELCA clergyman, Shahan does freelance writing from his Nashville home.