Sherman on The Promise of Lutheran Ethics

[1] To judge by the current volume, the enterprise of “Lutheran ethics” is alive and well. Indeed, it’s a growth industry. The exhaustive bibliography provided by co-editor John Stumme lists some 45 books and articles on the subject by recognizably Lutheran scholars in the first 50 years of the present century (1900-1949), 115 in the next 25 years (1950-1974), and more than 300 in the next 23 years (1975-1997). And this just includes items in English, whether written as such or in translation. Clearly, Lutheranism has “come of age” if this means, or includes, dealing critically and creatively both with its own theological-ethical heritage and with the moral dilemmas cast up by contemporary life.

[2] An appealing aspect of this book is its interactive character, in the sense that its authors, unlike most authors of essays in symposia, give evidence of actually having talked with one another. The device of using asterisks to highlight footnotes in which authors make direct comments on one another’s views enables the reader to eavesdrop, as it were, on their interchanges. Also invaluable is the concluding chapter, presenting a skillfully edited transcript of a day-long “Table Talk” the authors had with one another following the completion of their essays.

[3] Perhaps the most striking contrast is between the essays by Robert Benne of Roanoke College and Larry Rasmussen of Union Theological Seminary (the latter co-written with Union doctoral student Cynthia Moe-Lobeda). Benne expresses his anxiety about those who practice a “hermeneutics of suspicion” against the Lutheran tradition, i.e., who emphasize its shortcomings – usually as measured by the concerns of contemporary liberation movements – so strongly that they threaten, in Benne’s view, the very continued existence of this tradition, at least in any coherent and self-confident form. Benne also adduces the profound religious ignorance of today’s college students, including Lutherans, to drive home his point that Lutheranism today is “a tradition at risk.” That is the background against which he sets forth a cogent summary of Lutheran distinctives, largely along the lines developed in his previous writings. Thus he emphasizes such themes as the given structures of life as places of both divine blessing and divine calling (“places of responsibility”), and the theology of the cross as enabling believers to cope with the ambiguities of life. In a nice turn of phrase, he speaks of the Christian’s dual duty of “making clear judgments when possible and maintaining a humble uncertainty when necessary” (14). On the whole, he sees the Lutheran tradition as tending toward a “Christian realism” in the Niebuhrian mode, urging towards ameliorative action but always on guard against utopianism.

[4] Rasmussen and Moe-Lobeda, on the other hand, set forth a position that is more transformative in nature. This they see as very much in the tradition of Luther, who bravely stood up to the dominant power in his society (the Papacy) and instituted “oppositional and reconstructive practices.” They urge us to do the same today vis-a-vis an industrial civilization that is in danger of rendering the earth uninhabitable. Building on Luther’s remarkably positive appreciation of the natural world, they call for an ethic as much oriented to the biophysical and geoplanetary dimensions as to the sociocommunal. “A sustainable world,” they write, “requires that large-scale systems and we ourselves be changed.” A thorough transformation (or “transition”) is called for – demographic, economic, social, institutional, informational, technological, moral, and religious (148). Benne would probably object to such visionary language, but is this utopian in any objectionable sense, or is it not a “greater realism”? Perhaps much depends on whether the vision would be implemented by mandatory means, or in freedom; the truly destructive utopianisms in modern times have been the totalitarian ones.

[5] Rasmussen/Moe-Lobeda are much more explicitly critical of Luther than are most of the other contributors to the volume. “Luther’s radical teaching on the justification of the godless and his cross theology,” they write, “did not recast his social theory. He remained medieval, Constantinian, patriarchal, and anti-Semitic” (142). Their tack is, in effect, to appeal to the radicalism of Luther’s direct reformatory work over against the conservatism of some of his social-ethical positions. However, in so doing, I would suggest, they overstate his theological/ecclesiastical radicalism (not for nothing has Lutheranism been known as “the conservative reformation”), while at the same time underestimating his reformatory thrust also in the sociopolitical sphere, from the Address to the Christian Nobility on. Luther, on most questions, is neither as good as his uncritical advocates would have it, nor as bad as his unsparing critics maintain.

[6] There is much of value in the rest of the volume as well; it is meaty indeed. Of special interest is the study of Pauline ethics by David Fredrickson, professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, which depicts the Pauline church as a prototype of the “community of moral deliberation” that recent ELCA statements have set forth as a model for the church’s moral role today. There is an instructive parallel, Fredrickson notes, between Paul’s view of the congregation and the assembly (ekklesia) of the Greek city. “The community of believers is a speaking place, where the future of the congregation is determined through unhindered conversation that seeks to arrive at consensus through persuasion” (117). It is a place where moral reflection, formulation, and action occur. Fredrickson proposes a number of striking re-translations to highlight this “political” dimension of Paul’s thought. Phil 1:27, for example, is rendered: “Engage politically in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

[7] The entire book will repay careful study, and is an encouraging sign of the vitality of Lutheran thought today.

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.