Purdum on The Promise of Lutheran Ethics

[1] The ELCA Division for Church in Society has lost no time in getting copies of The Promise of Lutheran Ethics out to the desks of parish pastors. Now the question remains: Will pastors find promise in The Promise. . . ? Will these shiny two-tone volumes join the clutter of dust-covered books that already grace the overburdened pastoral bookshelves, or will they be read, marked, and inwardly digested for use in pastoral ministry? I took up the book with the usual misgivings of a time-anxious pastor in an active congregation.

[2] Ethics is not a subject that I read regularly; I confess this readily. I enjoyed my ethics class in seminary, but that was over ten years ago. My introduction to the subject was under the tutorship of Dr. Karen Lebacqz at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. It was as I recall, a good class, but not in any sense Lutheran. The seminal issues were wealth and poverty, and peace from the UCC perspective. But in the course of our semester’s study I and several other Lutheran classmates undertook to examine the Lutheran contribution to ethics. I clearly remember discovering Luther’s Two Kingdoms writings and the hours we spent wrestling with the work in the context of our embryonic ethics studies. I had a sneaking suspicion that the Two Kingdoms theory would show up in this work. I was right.

[3] But let not the gentle reader be dismayed. There is promise in this book – and not just for parish pastors. No less than eight Lutheran theologians (plus two more as editors) weigh in with insights into ethics. In fewer than 200 pages of text one encounters a rich spectrum of concepts which have long been considered emblematic of Lutheran thought: the proper distinction of Law and Gospel, Luther’s Three-Legged Stool, orders of creation, the “already/not yet” of redeemed life, the justified saint-and-sinner, and of course, Two Kingdoms, to name a few. Even so, this is much more than an examination of Lutheran theology for ethical application. It’s a thoughtful look at ethics from the rich tradition of the Lutheran ethos. A sort of Lutheran theology in, with, and under ethics.

[4] A word of advice, however, from the outset. Chapter one is not really chapter one, it is the editorial introduction and summary of the upcoming chapters. If you (like me) are anxious to get right into the thick of things, begin with chapter two and then read the introduction later, after you’ve read everything else.

[5] As a parish pastor, I was immediately captivated as I delved into chapter two. Robert Benne is concerned about the church’s failure to educate young Christians into their own ethos. I am too. And it’s not just the youngsters who are confused about the ground of their moral and ethical being. I find that people of the parish like to think through problems in the world, but they rarely do it systematically. They blend and borrow from a wide variety of moral sources. In one breath it might be a Dobsonian critique and the next, Keillonan. (Referring of course to the two most known Christian moral deliberators in our area of the universe: James Dobson and Garrison Keillor.) My pastoral response is to sigh inwardly and pray that the parousia will save me from further in-depth dealings with these ethically creative congregants. As a community of moral deliberation we’re pretty fragile. The Promise of Lutheran Ethics offers insights to address this fragility and claim the stuff of our Lutheran heritage in all its diversity.

[6] Subsequent chapters hold to the high standard begun in Benne’s offering. Reinhard Hütter takes issue with the “Protestant fallacy” that the entire ground of ethics (for Protestants) is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This coupled with a negative understanding of freedom in Christ ultimately leads to a limp ethic driven by the assumption that radical acceptance is the only possible Protestant position. We are thus constrained from commenting on good/evil. Martha Stortz introduces a notion of spirituality and moral discourse. I took pleasure in her exploration of prayer as formation. Many times I have heard the critique of Lutheran thought that it is rich in scholastic theology but weak in spirituality. I’ve disagreed, but had little to point to except an intuitive appreciation of the spirituality that undergirds all of Luther’s writings. Stortz’s chapter gives me hope for justifying my opinion. James Childs explores moral ambiguity and the Lutheran response. In his writing we hear familiar and comforting terms: gospel, word, authority, and faith active in love. Among these and other chapters, there’s something for everyone.

[7] On the other hand, it’s unlikely that the reader will agree with each of these eight theologians in turn. That’s not the purpose of the book. This is essentially a conversation, not a “last word.” Each chapter is a self-contained reflection on ethics. Each author’s hermeneutic is helpfully articulated in the introductory remarks of his or her chapter. And the authors represent a wide spectrum of ethical deliberation. Liberation and feminist perspectives are included as organically as the most orthodox of systems.

[8] I appreciated the editorial leadership in creating a “Table Talk” as the concluding chapter of this work. So often we read the complex discourses with some degree of understanding, but then fail to make the critical leap from deep thought to application. In Table Talk the authors add a collective codicil to their individual work. Their conversations are summarized in discussions on how social location affects moral discourse, the distinctiveness of Lutheran ethics, the tradition itself and how it may be retrieved, taught, and critiqued, and the role of scripture. Finally there is a discussion of the difficult issue of homosexuality. In this last chapter, the reader is treated to a insider’s view of how each perspective plays out in moral discourse.

[9] Even with this disclaimer, however, there are less promising features of The Promise of Lutheran Ethics. The conversation, rich as it is, occasionally borders on the shrill. Robert Benne seems convinced that without a radical change in course, the ELCA is lost. Are we really failing to transmit the essence of the Lutheran way, as he suggests? In my part of the world, we still manage to stand out over against other mainline Protestant traditions as distinctively as over against the prevailing conservative and fundamentalist religious culture of the community. Our people know they are Lutherans, and they know why. And this understanding is articulated even in our fragile and undisciplined ethical discourse.

[10] I also struggled to make sense of Richard Perry’s chapter on African American Lutheran ethical action. (I say this with some trepidation, knowing that such an admission might readily be interpreted as a sign of inherent white racism.) I appreciated Perry’s application of principles of social location to ethics, and his summary of nineteenth-century African American Lutheran leaders (male and female). But I lose my way as he asserts that African Americans both amalgamate their African and American religious and ethical thought, yet cannot fully unite the “African soul” and the “Lutheran soul.” Perry seems to say that African American Lutherans will shape the church of the future from the context of a non-Lutheran black Christian tradition. I see this as a positive contribution, but how then is this a promise of Lutheran ethics?

[11] On the whole, The Promise of Lutheran Ethics delivers. It’s an invitation to enter the dialogue on ethics (something which ought to pique the interest of dialog readers) thoughtfully and deeply. Lutheranism does have a distinctive voice, and you may find as I did that your theological perspective is affirmed. We have something rich to offer ourselves and those outside the Lutheran tradition. Parish pastors like myself will be re-introduced to the delight of ethical discourse and encouraged to use it more readily in both preaching and teaching. This book is a noble offering.

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.