Malcolm on The Promise of Lutheran Ethics

[1] Fifty years ago, the United Lutheran church commissioned some theologians, including Joseph Sittler, William Lazareth, and George Forell, to contribute to a three volume set entitled Christian Social Responsibility. Like them, the authors of this new collection of essays have been commissioned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – through its Church Council and Division for Church in Society – to help its members “think through the nature of Christian ethics today” (p. 1). Any reader familiar with the work of Sittler, Lazareth, or Forell will see that these essays are not only responding to a radically different context but, indeed, are defining Lutheranism in very different ways.

For the most part, these essays criticize a specific distortion in much Lutheranism: the reduction of the Christian life to the “motivation touched off by justification” (p. 27). They are especially critical of the way Protestant ethics has been aligned with the “punctual self” of modernity, a self “unencumbered” by its ties to nature or even to the rest of the human community. This criticism, in my view, is the chief strength of these essays, along with their concrete proposal for how ethics and the law might be conceived in more substantive and positive terms. What remains a question – a question that is especially salient when we compare these essays to the work of their predecessors – is whether they have captured the comprehensiveness and, more importantly, the distinctiveness of Lutheranism’s theological contribution to the ethical problems of our day.

[2] This volume consists of seven essays sandwiched between two short introductions (one by each editor) and a concluding transcript of a “table talk” conversation among the authors. John Stumme’s introduction stresses the “tradition’s” focus on the gift of faith; Karen Bloomquist’s stresses how “today’s context” is largely defined by a range of reactions to the Enlightenment’s focus on freedom, a focus that has influenced much of the contemporary “culture wars” debate (e.g., with regard to homosexuality and abortion). Although the concluding “table-talk” reveals sharp differences among these authors, it does conclude that the church has a mandate to define itself in concrete and substantive terms as a “community of moral deliberation.” But these authors present very different proposals for what that community might look like. Four different positions can be identified in this volume. James Childs’ essay works out of an “eschatological” perspective The other six propose some form of a”contextualized” ethic. Three of these present an argument for an “ecclesial” ethics (Robert Benne, Martha Stortz, and Reinhard Hutter); two argue for a form of “liberation” ethics (Richard Perry and Larry Rasmussen with Cynthia Moe-Lobeda); and the final essay (David Fredrickson’s) offers a reading of Pauline ethics that mediates between these two positions even as it articulates a distinctive proposal of its own.

[3] With the exception, then, of Childs’ essay, all the others offer some concrete proposal for enacting the substance of the Christian life. Childs, by contrast, focuses on the “ambiguity” and “complexity” of moral choices, and how the reign of God offers a “horizon” against which to make these choices. Given the distinctive character of his voice in this volume, it is unfortunate that Childs is so tentative in developing his proposal, focusing more on the ambiguity and complexity of what the church might say rather than on the courageous and substantive stands it could take for justice and mercy. Indeed, the vision of the reign of God he presents has much potential and could serve as a norm that offers precisely the kind of substantive yet critical criterion needed to mediate between the more ecclesial and more liberationist essays in this volume. Also, as Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg have shown, the symbol of the kingdom of God is highly relevant to our understanding of trinitarian doctrine, a doctrine central to any theological formulation of Christian ethics.

[4] Among the essays stressing an ecclesial ethics, Benne’s offers a bridge between the emphases of a previous generation – say, as stressed in a volume like Christian Social Responsibility – and those of this volume. He begins by outlining classical themes in Lutheran ethics: justification, the church’s distinctive work of proclaiming the gospel, the twofold rule of God, and a paradoxical view of human nature and history. He then names a contemporary challenge: Lutheranism’s tendency to reduce “the whole of ethical life to the motivation touched off by justification” and its corresponding failure to develop the church as a “community of character.” Instead, he argues, it offers only a vague “realism” that, because of its lack of substance, leaves the church vulnerable to various hermeneutics of suspicion (from Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche to feminists and multiculturalists). His concluding constructive proposal centers not around the themes he began with (justification, paradox, etc.) but around correctives to these challenges)themes like “covenantal existence” and “divinization.” Although he presents a number of tantalizing suggestions, Benne does not offer an integrated picture of how the latter two themes, especially the Calvinist theme of “covenant,” cohere with the “classic” Lutheran emphases he outlines at the beginning of the paper. He is in a unique position to offer such an integration because he appreciates the distinctive contribution of Lutheranism’s classic emphases even as he is cognizant of their potential for misappropriation. I hope he will articulate the theological center of his argument more fully in future work.

[5] A similar comment can be made of Stortz’s essay. She offers an intriguing depiction of Martin Luther’s understanding of the practice of private prayer – a depiction that, she states, is intentionally empirical, concrete, and inductive (as opposed to being theoretical, abstract, and deductive). Appropriating the Ignatian focus on “formation” as a lens for her analysis, she outlines Luther’s instructions for daily prayer. In turn, she establishes a connection between the daily practice of prayer and a way of life shaped by responsiveness, gratitude, modesty, and joy. Given her recognition of the reflexive connection between doctrine and practice, Stortz could bring to the fore even more explicitly what is meant by Luther’s understanding of tentatio (prayer and meditation), which he uses coterminously with Anfechtung (suffering or”tempting attack”). Tentatio is a key moment that links Luther’s practice of prayer to his theology of the cross and understanding of justification. As Ignatian prayer has at its heart our tangible participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, so Luther’s understanding of prayer is deeply shaped by the tentatio that brings us face us to face with the crucified Christ and his resurrection life. Indeed, we might say that the activity of tentatio is precisely the “inductive” way by which a theology of the cross is enacted in our lives. And further, such tentatio not only “forms” the lives of Christians but offers a radical critique of all sinful distortions that keep us from union with God. I hope Stortz also will pursue the theological import of her argument more fully in future work.

[6] Hütter’s is the one essay in the volume that does not shy away from rigorous and thorough theological argument. His footnotes are a veritable survey of relevant literature in theology and ethics. Presenting the most explicit critique of the modern theological impoverishment of Protestant ethics, he analyses two dimensions of what he calls the “Protestant fallacy.” The first is its reduction of all theology and ethics to the single article of “justification by grace through faith alone,” and the second is its strictly negative understanding of freedom as freedom from the law rather than for it. Aligning these “Protestant” emphases with modern ethics, he situates his own proposal in relation to three twentieth century movements that serve as correctives to the restriction of all ethics to the “unencumbered” self: (I) the Christocentrism of dialectical theology; (2) the Protestant discovery of Aristotle’s and Thomas’ character and virtue ethics; and (3) the stress on embodiment and location in liberation theologies (including feminist and eco-ethics). The heart of his proposal centers around a reading of Luther’s “The Freedom of a Christian.” By way of a reading of Phil 2:4-11 and Luther’s commentary on Genesis, he argues that, for Luther, law gives concrete form to the life of the human creature “deified by grace.” Drawing on David Yeago’s interpretation of Luther, he contends that although sinful humanity may receive the law as an external code, for the subject “deified by grace” there is no difference between “God’s gospel” and “God’s commandments.”

[7] Hutter’s critique of Protestant ethics and its alignment with the excesses of modem ethics is a brilliant one, as is his strong argument for a retrieval of the commandments in ethical teaching. His argument is one that demands attention, and I concur with much of its thrust. The question I have about his essay is whether he fuses law and gospel in the lives of believers. For example, does he maintain the distinctions Lutheran orthodoxy has held among the three uses of the law (first or “civil” use, second or “theological” use, and third or “exhortatory” use)? Or, are they subsumed under a kind of “third use” unique to the Christian community? In other words, does he do justice to what Lutherans have called the first two uses of the law? The first use of the law pertains to the presupposition (based on the first use of the law) that all human beings, by way of their being created in the image of God, have the capacity to perceive some understanding of law or the “orders of creation” (the traditional name given for the requisite conditions for human life in community). To affirm this capacity is not to affirm an Enlightenment conception of “autonomous” ethics but rather to affirm that God’s power and goodness encompass the totality of life and our creaturely – and this includes nonbelievers’- participation in it. The second point is its recognition (based on the second use of the law) that even believers live in the tension between being made in God’s image and yet being fallen members of a humanity in bondage to sin. To affirm that the law also functions as an “alien” demand in the believer’s life (which criticizes all the demonic distortions that keep us from worshiping God and treating our neighbors justly, both individual and corporate) does not entail negating its very positive capacity to guide and give substance to that life. And finally, and many would say, most importantly, we can ask whether he does justice to the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel)that the gospel truly is a free gift from God not contingent on human works. That distinction, many would argue, is what distinguishes Lutheran from other forms of ethics. A stronger recognition of what is distinctive about a Lutheran understanding of the gospel and the first two functions of the law would greatly enhance his argument and bring to the fore what Lutheran ethics has to offer other forms of ecclesial ethics (e.g., Calvinist, Wesleyan, or Roman Catholic).

[8] The two “liberationist” essays make very different types of arguments, but they share the “ecclesial” ethicists’ emphasis on particularity, embodiment, and community. Perry presents his case from the vantage point of the experience of African American Lutherans. Like Hutter, he is concerned that traditional Lutheran preoccupations have tended to sever the connection between “who we are before God” and “what we are doing among God’s people.” His concern is not with appropriating Lutheranism for an African American situation but with examining what the rich and diverse traditions of African American Christianity have to offer Lutheranism. In this appropriation, he makes an important contribution to Lutheran ethics by tracing the actual history whereby African Americans offered a corrective not only to racism in this country but to the tendency in much of Lutheran ethics to separate”right doctrine” from “right practice.” What would make his argument even more potent is if he concentrated more fully on how African American conceptions of “who we are before God” theologically inform “what we do among God’s people.” This would establish even more firmly the rich theological resources African American Christianity has to offer – and criticize – Lutheranism, especially in its predominantly European American forms.

[9] A similar point can be made about the essay by Rasmussen and Moe-Lobeda, which identifies the environment as the essay’s concern and the question of whether life as we know it is able to meet the needs of “the expanding world and the rest of nature for present and future generations” as its contextual problem (p. 132). But unlike either Perry, who describes specific practices of advocacy, or even the “ecclesial” essayists, who describe practices that form Christian community, Rasmussen and Moe-Lobeda focus on a “reforming dynamic,” which, they argue, is the “proper dynamic of a Lutheran ethic for our time” (p. 134). This dynamic does not negate the role tradition plays as a “deposit” carried over time. Rather, it is essentially a “dynamic” that moves within a “dialectic of continuity and discontinuity” that interprets itself in light of the “signs of the times” as these are read in and by the believing community. I hope Rasmussen and Mee-Lobeda will develop even more fully the theological import of their argument: specifically, how this “reforming dynamic” (as a formal construct) is intrinsically shaped by the material themes of “creation,” “cross,” and the “response of faith”- themes they also discuss in the essay. They do establish this connection in the essay, but it could be developed. Doing so would make even more explicit how this reforming dynamic is not merely a function of tradition and change but a function of God’s justice and mercy in the world and how we, as creatures might speak, think, and enact it.

[10] So far we have identified two major poles in this volume: a pole emphasizing the substantive ethos of Christian community life and a pole emphasizing its critical prophetic dynamism. Fredrickson presupposes both poles in a “political” reading of Paul’s ethics, which draws a parallel between the way Paul conceptualizes the local church and the “assembly” (ekklesia) of Greek city-states and their democratic procedures for decision making. But what is distinctive about Fredrickson’s reading of Paul is its theological thrust. The political process of the church’s discernment as an assembly is not simply a baptizing of Greek political procedures but an actual and tangible participation in Christ’s death and resurrection by the power of the Spirit. The free speech of the “political” assembly of the congregation is granted by the Spirit. Unlike Hutter, who interprets the Christ hymn in Phil 2:5-l1 in relation to the role of law in the believers’ lives, Fredrickson focuses on how we are transformed by “the Spirit’s free gift of the mind of Christ to the community” (p. 124). Thus, the Christian community’s “political” process of deliberation cannot be divorced from the “ethical” way in which we are, through Christ, mutually enslaved and dedicated to one another’s freedom. In turn, a focus on “ethos” and communal identity cannot be divorced from the “critical principle” in Paul’s ethics, a principle defined theologically by the freedom granted by the Spirit through Christ’s death for us. Fredrickson makes a truly innovative argument in this essay, but he restricts his analysis to a close exegesis of the texts he analyzes (2 Corinthians 3; Philippians 1:27-2:18; and Romans 12-15). Hopefully, the argument he develops in this essay will be developed more fully in future projects.

[11] This book makes a timely contribution to the “ethos” of contemporary American Lutheran congregations. It identifies a central modern problematic – individualism – and a central theological problem in much of Lutheranism – the tendency to reduce ethics to personal motivation. But the question remains whether some of the resources in Lutheran theology that are either rejected or neglected in this volume might not be the very ones needed to help us respond to this situation. For example, a sharp distinction between law and gospel may especially be needed in an age that relies even for its “spirituality” on human technique. A strong theology of the cross, with its critique of all forms of self-salvation and its focus on Christ’s death and resurrection, is a needed message for our time. All our attempts at securing ourselves – politically, economically, technologically, even by way of our religious identities and forms of spirituality – are not sufficient to save us from the realities of sin, death, and demonic power. To say this is not to reject the law and the way it offers substantive guidance for how to live. In other words, a corrective to either an antinomianism or an interiorized interpretation of justification need not entail a rejection of the core Reformation insight – an insight that is essentially theological – that God and God alone has the power to save.

[12] Furthermore, Lutheran theology has strong warrants for a wholehearted affirmation of the doctrine of creation and its implications for our lives as creatures within the very complexity and nuance of all our interactions – interpersonal, political, economic, technological – with other human beings and even the natural and technical worlds of which we are a part. Rasmussen and MoeLobeda grapple with this question the most (with their focus on “sustainability”), but Perry deals with it as well (with regard to institutional racism), as do Benne and Hutter (by way of retrieving the “orders of creation” or “natural law”) and Childs (by way of an eschatological vision of creation). Yet much more could be said, especially given the highly complex systems each one of us actually participates in on a daily basis – from, e.g., the systems of the mass media to those of a global economy. This task of fully grappling with what it means to be ‘creatures’ is not a simple one, but more guidance is needed if God’s power and goodness arc not merely to be restricted to a Christian ghetto of interpersonal encounters.

[13] And a focus on creation leads to the need for a rehabilitation of a concept not discussed in a sustained fashion in these essays: the doctrine of vocation. At issue here are the concrete roles and relationships in which our “ethos” as Christians – as individuals and communities – takes a palpable form as it serves the neighbor’s needs. Given the plethora of popular books, Christian and otherwise, dealing with spirituality in everyday life or finding one’s purpose in life, it is surprising that these essays touch on the doctrine of vocation only in a cursory fashion. If writers like Deepak Chopra are not to corner the market on spirituality in a capitalistic society, then theologians need to retrieve those aspects of our tradition such as the doctrine of vocation – that do speak of God’s justice and mercy in relation to the actual circumstances that constitute most of our waking hours.

[14] In spite of these concerns, these essays make an important contribution with their stress on the concrete formation of individuals and communities, whether or not one defines it primarily in terms of “retrieval” or “reform.” The need to attend to ethos and community is probably one of the most important tasks facing congregations in contemporary North America. And, an individualistic, self-centered piety or spirituality is not sufficient for facing this task. But this corrective should not leave us with a truncated vision of the resources in the Lutheran heritage. Perhaps a return to the themes discussed in that first three-volume set – with echoes to the work of theological ethicists of a previous generation like Sittler, Forell, and Lazareth – is needed as a corrective to this corrective.

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

See Karen Bloomquist’s response to reviews of The Promise of Lutheran Ethics.
See John Stumme’s response to reviews of The Promise of Lutheran Ethics.