Meilaender on The Promise of Lutheran Ethics

[1] One need only read the respective introductions by the editors of this volume to appreciate the instabilities of the task they have undertaken. John Stumme struggles manfully (as, perhaps, one may still be allowed to say) to suggest that, while the several authors whose essays appear in this volume have not “produce[d] a single harmonious treatise,” their essays, nevertheless, make “a significant contribution to the Lutheran church and the ecumenical conversation.” That may be true enough, but so did the Vatican response to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, and we would be unlikely to include it in a volume intending to enunciate shared Lutheran accents in Christian ethics. Stumme’s is a descriptive introduction, acknowledging what seems obvious: that the authors included are not in agreement on some important matters.

[2] Karen Bloomquist also recognizes the differences present in the essays, but she seems more clearly to bend the discussion in the direction of certain emphases – namely, that we should not seek moral norms that are universal, since such universals might threaten to close off conversation. For her the essays convey the dynamism and vitality of our current Lutheran ethos; they are “part of a common conversation, or at times argument, in which shared theological understandings and dynamics make it possible to converse together, in quest of what is `good and acceptable and perfect’. . . .” Possibly true. But, again, the same could be said of Pope John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, but it would be strange to look to it for “the promise of Lutheran ethics.”

[3] Someone needs to say – as clearly as possible and however incorrect a thing it may be to say these days – that too many voices at the table makes not for conversation but for cacophony. Simply saying that does not, of course, mean that there are too many voices in this volume to provide any clear direction for Lutheran ethics, but, if we cannot grant such a possibility at the outset, we have little to gain from or offer to normative reflection. More and more diverse voices is not necessarily a good thing.

[4] What are the voices represented here chiefly in the essays but also in the “table talk on Lutheran ethics” with which the volume concludes? We can group them roughly as follows. (1) Robert Benne, Reinhard Hütter, and Martha Stortz – in quite different ways – are concerned that Lutherans need to retain normative patterns of behavior that obligate them as Christians and that delineate a way of life into which believers should increasingly be drawn. (2) David Fredrickson and Larry Rasmussen/Cynthia Moe-Lobeda – also in quite different ways – draw the sting from biblical norms by subjecting them to the ongoing critique of communities of Christians. (3) James Childs hovers a little uncertainly between (1) and (2); his emphasis on God’s future reign tending less often to emphasize the way divine judgment negates our action and more often to emphasize the way in which the promise of that reign fulfills the world in which we live, while still acknowledging each. (4) Richard Perry, so far as I can tell, is doing something rather different from any of the other essayists. When he does venture onto the ground they inhabit, he does so in rather confusing ways. (Thus, for example, having recounted the formation of the Franckean Synod by a rump group unalterably opposed to slavery, and having characterized it as teaching a brand of Lutheranism that saw opposition to slavery as a duty, he can write: “The ethical responses of African American Lutherans and the Franckean Synod challenge the Lutheran church to be flexible in its response to the world.” If his characterization of the Franckean Synod describes what he regards as a flexible church body, I wish to be the first to welcome him into our flexible LC-MS fellowship.)

[5] Beyond doubt, Hütter’s essay probes most deeply into the failings that have plagued Lutheran ethics in this country in this century. Briefly put, in searching for something that might be distinctively Lutheran to say about the moral life, we have obscured or lost the Christian substance. Put in more traditional language, by playing off the law against Christian freedom, we have lost the normative shape of Christian discipleship. The gospel becomes only acceptance, only pardon, and not also power to live as Christians. And then, much of the moral substance that Luther himself, for example, would have included in a discussion of the decalogue is relativized under the rubric of historical dynamism and change.

[6] Stortz’s essay, with its emphasis upon how Christian practices, and in particular the practice of prayer, shape a way of life, reinforces the claim that grace gives rise not only to a disposition of faith but to a distinctive pattern of obedience. (I say this despite having come to believe that we might all be better off had Alasdair Maclntyre’s language of “practices” never been drawn into the language of Christian ethics. The concept is used in so many different ways and to so many different ends that it is well nigh useless. But Stortz’s essay is a clear delineation of one way to pour some content into it, and Hütter also draws on the concept.) Benne’s essay likewise targets a “persisting tendency in Lutheran ethics.. .to reduce the whole of ethical life to the motivation touched off by justification. . . . The ethical weakness that ensues is one of lack of ethical substance. . . . Without a richer notion of life in community (covenantal existence) that comes from our Jewish roots, Lutheran ethics does not really know what is ‘good for the neighbor.'”

[7] Interestingly, the issue here is one that was at the foreground of debates in the great Missouri Synod smash-up of a quarter century ago. Two of the principal issues, on which, I would say, Missouri proved very prescient, were the third use of the law and what was called at the time “gospel reductionism.” (The third, which Missouri failed to handle with any nuance, had to do with biblical interpretation.) Neither Hütter, Stortz, nor Benne puts the matter in quite these terms, but they might well have. Benne says that “[f]or the mainstream Lutheran ethical tradition…there is no third use of the Law. . . .” I think, however, that, wholly apart from any worries he perhaps should have about Article VI of the Formula of Concord, he really ought to change his mind. His entire view demands such a use. Hütter also steers clear of the term (cf. his fn. 16), but he can write (of the Christian, who in union with Christ is back in paradise): “God’s commandment is nothing else than the concrete guidance, the concrete social practice that allows us to embody our communion with God in concrete creaturely ways.” Indeed, without some notion such as this we end with the “Protestantism lite” that Hütter describes, having lost much of the catholic substance of the faith and having mistakenly supposed that Christian freedom is allergic to norms that bind in every time and place.

[8] That allergy is rather evident in Fredrickson’s essay, though it plays itself out in discussion of the Pauline writings to congregations that are depicted as “communities of moral deliberation.” (In passing, I note that the entire approach is not without its difficulties. Among them: [1] It’s by no means clear that the understanding of these congregations – as democratic communities in which the moral life is a matter of listening to different voices and pursuing consensus rather than obeying divine command or apostolic authority-can really be reconciled with the whole of, say, the Corinthian correspondence. [2] The claim that we best understand the internal moral deliberations of the early Pauline congregations by analogy with the Greek polis overlooks the fact – which Fredrickson notes once but fails to reflect upon – that these congregations were separated by centuries from the world of the polis and that an age of empire had intervened. [3] Although the essay talks about ethics, it is really a description – whether accurate or not – of ethos. As such, it fails to distinguish between what the canonical writings record and what they teach. We are not bound to duplicate the life of these early congregations, as the Pauline letters record them, even if Fredrickson has accurately described that life.) It is hard to know, to use the categories to which I referred in mentioning Childs’ essay above, whether any product of this deliberation could, in Fredrickson’s view, finally be negated by divine judgment. Childs notes that any ethic must identify what is right, good, and virtuous. Fredrickson depicts what might perhaps be a community of virtuous deliberators, but he gives us no sense of how they are to determine the good and the right that guide their deliberations.

[9] At certain moments Rasmussen and Moe-Lobeda seem very much to be riding the same train as Fredrickson. They want to find in Lutheranism a “Protestant principle of prophetic criticism and creative protest” that gives “a reforming dynamic as the way of living faith itself.” Much, perhaps most, of the time, one is hard pressed to find any of the tradition’s substance that is, in principle, not subject to this dynamic. Nevertheless, one of the ways in which they seek to reform the tradition sounds itself rather irreformable – namely, their insistence that there be “no apartheid segregation of the human from the nonhuman,” and that the ecosystem be included among those “neighbors” to whom we are obligated. This is, however, more asserted than argued here, and the evils of anthropocentricity are simply assumed. (In passing, I note that it is time to stop denigrating Augustine as one who “fostered human estrangement from earth.” Their discussion of Augustine is all Nygren and no Burnaby. Their claim that “Augustine’s heaven has no ponies” needs to be enriched by a sensitive reading of City of God, XXII, 24.) More generally, this “reform dynamic” that is purportedly at the heart of Lutheranism will, to revert yet once again to the terms drawn from Childs, have a hard time explaining how the judgment that negates and transforms is finally God’s rather than, just, ours.

[10] In short, a fault line runs through the essays in this volume. When Lutheranism tries to understand itself as reaffirming the substance of the teaching of the church catholic, and doing so with a special concern to uphold the soteriological significance of faith alone, as it too rarely has in this country in this century, it will at least be positioned to try to shape lives of Christian obedience and witness. That I take to be the concern of Benne, Hütter, Stortz, and, to some degree, Childs. When Lutheranism tries to find in its tradition some peculiarly Lutheran ethic (whether, as is likely, a “reform dynamic,” or, as is recently popular, a consensus that includes as many voices as possible), it will cease to matter much, and it will, for the most part, echo what academic culture teaches us to say about morality. If the second of these is the promise of Lutheran ethics, it cannot, I fear, elicit my fiducia.

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.

Gilbert Meilaender

Gilbert Meilaender is Professor of Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana.