Response to Bo Kristian Holm

See also Paul R. Hinlicky’s Luther and the Beloved Community:A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom by Bo Kristian Holm

[1] I am grateful to Bo Holm for his careful and insightful elaboration of my recent book on Luther. Taking the book on its own terms, he grasps its leading intentions very well and in this light earns the right to ask trenchant questions in the end. This is the very model of a review essay, which I strive in my own work also to follow. I am happy to acknowledge here as well how much I have benefited from Holm’s important work on the theology of gift. Let me make brief responses on: 1) the end of Christendom, 2) Ritschl, and 3) theological argument as the alternative to demonization.

[2] As to Christendom, I would like to acknowledge Denmark and Danish Lutheranism as a happy exemplar. Indeed, to put the matter in Danish terms, personally speaking I would far rather be a Grundtvig than a Kierkegaard! Holm is certainly right, as well, to detect the great influence Regin Prenter’s Creator Spiritus has had on my thought. Yet terms like the “end of Christendom,” or my neologism, “Euro-America,” are meant to make socio-historic observations, which are subject then to empirical correction. It is the case in my culture, I am asserting, that the leading lights are not to be found in the Bible and its theological interpreters but in Descartes and Hobbes and Locke, Hume and Kant, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. Moreover, the shallow bourgeois theology of the affluent classes makes a cozy relationship to these leading lights and thinks to have said something daring and radical (as William James cunningly observed, as noted in the opening chapter of Luther and the Beloved Community). But this is just a dishonest way of holding on to Christendom.

[3] It is fascinating that Holm finds parallels between my work and Albrecht Ritschl, in spite of the obvious and well-acknowledged differences he elaborates. The same observation was made a generation ago by the American theologians Phil Hefner and David Lotz in their Ritschl studies, who both pointed to the formal similarities between Ritschl and Karl Barth, namely: 1) a suspicion of metaphysics and natural theology; 2), a return to Biblical revelation; 3) an ethical correlation with Christian dogma; and 4) an interest in retrieving for today the insights of Luther. I can see such formal parallels to my own work, but I would like to lay the accent somewhat differently: 1) not on the simple rejection of classical metaphysics but on their revision by the doctrine of the Trinity (as argued in my new book, Divine Complexity); 2) on Biblical “revelation,” yes, but in the specific form of apocalyptic parable, Pauline paradox and Johannine enigma; 3) on the ethos of the martyrs, not on the Kantian hubris of building the Kingdom on earth under the veneer of Lutheran “vocation”; and 4) on “my” Luther, yes, then with his penchant for demonizing rigorously repudiated.

[4] That last remark leads to the problem and possibility of theology as a means of argument. Holm is absolutely right to ask whether “the recognition of differences by theological opponents is not a vital part of being a community of love.” Just this is what we so sadly lack today and it is indeed the sign of our lovelessness. But one may as well observe that the repudiation of demonization is meant to make real, effective critique possible instead of the bellowing ad hominems or lazy pluralism which are the common fare today. Real critique is possible only when we hear the other’s claim to truth; in theology, that is a claim to the truth of the gospel. Here the core ecumenical doctrines of the Biblical canon, the Trinity, Christology and salvation by grace operate as regula fidei, rules of faith; that means they constitute the ground rules for theological debate. Without these rules observed you don’t have an argument that can go anywhere, only a free-for-all that defaults either to bluster or indifference. Within the framework of these rules, much is undecided. There is plenty of room for difference and indeed for opposing developments. But where these basic rules of Christian doctrine are themselves subverted, no argument can be engaged because there is no topic identified and sufficiently parsed which engages us in common.

Paul R. Hinlicky

Paul R. Hinlicky is the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.