Still, A “Lutheran Accent”: A Response to the Reviews

[1] I thank Editor Peters for this dialog symposium on The Promise of Lutheran Ethics (PLE). In our initial plan for the book, Karen Bloomquist and I envisioned a second part in which pastors, other ethicists, and an historian would comment on the original essays. For practical reasons we had to drop the idea. This symposium helps fill in for this initial plan and offers an excellent example of the discussion we hope the book evokes.

[2] I also am grateful to the five reviewers. Their reflections are an enticing invitation for others to read the book themselves and to form groups to study it with colleagues. These reviewers have read PLE with care, and they continue the civil tone found among the authors of the book. Their differently nuanced descriptions of the authors’ contributions as well as their evaluative comments offer insightful aids for readers to engage PLE.

[3] One obvious feature of PLE, which the reviews assume but do not dwell upon, is what might be called its institutional dimension. PLE is the product of cooperation between a denomination and its scholars, between church and academy. The ELCA is blessed with an array of able scholars and teachers who as part of their vocational understanding are willing and eager to work with the denomination to contribute to the life of the church. PLE is an example that the ELCA is eager to look to and trust its scholars for guidance and is willing to offer them space to draw upon their academic vocation for the church. The Lutheran legacy, at its best, is neither anti-institutional nor anti-intellectual. Fruitful cooperation between church and academy, with all its tensions, may be a good we too often take for granted. PLE is an example of cultivating this relationship with the hope that both will be mutually enriched in service to the church’s life and mission.

[4] One of the gratifying experiences in my present position is the annual gathering of Lutheran ethicists. PLE probably would have been possible without these gatherings over the last six years, but it would have been, I think, a different book. These gatherings influenced PLE by offering an informal setting for these authors and other Lutheran ethicists to become personally acquainted and to experience the Lutheran ethical tradition as an ongoing, lively enterprise. In its meeting in January 1999, over 50 ethicists and pastors, including most of the authors, spent a day discussing PLE, and it will continue to be a point of reference for future gatherings.

[5] It is refreshing that none of the reviewers ask for a different kind of book, one, for example, that might be “less academic” or more issue oriented. They do not challenge the value and the necessity of the book’s focus on the basic character and contour of Christian ethics today seen from a Lutheran perspective. Instead, for example, Solberg detects in these learned essays that the authors are “all theologians with a passion,” and Purdum concludes that PLE will re-introduce pastors into “the delight of ethical discourse.” While PLE embodies the proposition that fundamental theological work is needed at this time in our church, it should not be seen as suggesting that this is the only work in ethics that needs to be done. And so in Studies, we ask: What, if anything, should follow upon PLE? One answer we have given is a congregational study on Lutheran ethics that will be available in the Summer of 1999. While we recognized when we were selecting authors that there were other Lutheran ethicists that could well be included, Bloomquist and I were pleased that this team of contributors agreed to participate in the project. They were competent scholars and faithful church people who could creatively and constructively write theological ethics. In addition, their known viewpoints reflected some of the diversity in the ELCA. I, however, was far from certain what would unite these diverse writers. Could they work together in a common project? Could they discover the shared convictions needed for a sustained conversation during our three marathon weekends together and to give a sense of common purpose to their individual contributions? The authors did find commonality, and when they looked back at their experience, they spoke elegantly of the bonds of love and faith (173-4).

[6] Meilander thinks that the point of my introduction was to acknowledge the obvious: “that the authors included are not in agreement on some important matters.” Actually my concern was the opposite: Given their differences, what holds them together? My claim was that they all speak from within the Christian tradition with a “Lutheran accent.” I also recalled that contentious diversity – even on important matters – is built into the Lutheran ethical tradition.

[7] Does the book’s diversity represent vitality or confusion, creativity or instability, or perhaps a mixture of both? Purdum, Solberg, and Sherman think its diversity is a strength, and Meilaender and Forell indicate it is a weakness. Certainly, the diversity says something about where we are in the ELCA, but is this where we should be? Glorying in our diversity can be a way for us to avoid the question of truth. Meilaender is right that if Lutherans are to deny at the outset the possibility of setting limits to diversity, “we have little to gain from or to offer to normative reflection.”

[8] Several reviewers refer to what Sherman calls the “interactive character” of the book found in the “Table Talk” and the endnotes marked with asterisks. Meilander’s point is clearly evident in these parts of the book and helps explain, for example, why in many of these endnotes the contributors vigorously question another author’s position. These endnotes are one of the most interesting parts of PLE; they also address a number of decisive issues in Lutheran ethics and help clarify what the real differences are. The debates between Hütter and Rasmussen and Moe-Lobeda on “the reform dynamic” and “sacramental” are lively examples. The message of PLE is that we should engage our diversity in seeking to be faithful, not that we should treat all views as equally valid.

[9] Meilaender’s mapping of the authors’ differences is one plausible interpretation of PLE. The interactive parts of the book anticipate such an interpretation. His claim and description of “a fault line” set forth a thesis that deserves consideration in any serious reading of PLE. While his fault-line metaphor, with its connotations of instability and pending danger, may be a salutary warning and an astute prognosis, I wonder if the image underestimates the overlap of the different tendencies in the book. Perhaps Christians outside the Lutheran tradition would more readily recognize a common accent.

[10] Forell in his final paragraph maps things out with a different interpretative scheme, which views most of the chapters sharing “the conviction that Lutheran ethics must recover the importance of the law.” He considers this development as “significant and promising” and then raises the important questions about “where we discover the law and why we should obey it.” He does not argue that a renewed emphasis on the law undercuts the gospel, but instead reminds us of the importance of the Decalogue for Luther. Meilaender, too, supports the turn to the law by Benne, Hütter, and Stortz. Solberg, who endorses Rasmussen and Moe-Lobeda’s method of “doing ethics,” also concurs with Hütter’s “deep conviction that real human freedom is constituted within God’s law.” In doing so, she insists in distinguishing between that claim and the need to interpret the Ten Commandments. This, of course, is consistent with Hütter’s emphasis on “an ecclesial hermeneutics in which God’s commandments are constantly remembered, interpreted, and enacted in faithful service” (45). We would do well to listen to these diverse voices in our approach to Christian ethics.

[11] Fredrickson as the lone biblical scholar was bold enough to walk into a den of ethicists. Whether by divine intervention or not, he more than held his own. His presence in the project reminded me how important an interdisciplinary approach to Christian ethics is, and how challenging it can be. Unmoved by the editors’ gentle encouragement that he may want to take on a task no one else wanted and write on how Scripture should inform ethics, Fredrickson chose to present Pauline ethics in a new light. Judging by the strong positive (Solberg, Sherman) and negative (Meilaender, Ford) reactions of the reviewers, his contribution may prove to be one of the most provocative. While I am not persuaded by his Pauline interpretation, his chapter is a creative attempt to give substance to the notion of the church as a community of moral deliberation.

[12] The reviewers interpret and evaluate Perry’s chapter differently. One positive feature of his chapter that needs to be highlighted is that it delves into history believing that the past has importance for the present and future. The editors and authors spoke of the desirability of having a chapter on the recent history of Lutheran ethics in the United States, but we had to leave that task for others. Forell calls for a thorough study of Luther’s ethics; I would add that we also need studies in the history of Lutheran ethics such as the one Perry has given us.

[13] The reviewers understand that PLE is a theological resource for the church with a practical intent. It is “a sort of Lutheran theology in, with, and under ethics” (Purdum) that “plumb[s] Luther’s legacy for the resources we . . . require to live faithfully” (Solberg). These reviews will, I hope, encourage others to read and study PLE – in seminaries, in pastoral conferences and continuing education programs, among interested lay people, in Studies’ e-mail meeting on the Web (go to the ELCA Home Page) and in other settings.

[14] The promise that calls forth and sustains Lutheran ethics, indeed, the whole of Christian life, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. On account of the gospel, Luther said, we live not in ourselves but in Christ and the neighbor-in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Stortz in a memorable way echoes Luther’s understanding of what the gospel means for how we view others: “To a community of pickpockets, all the world is a pocket. More soberly, to a community of Lutherans, all the world is filled with neighbors” (60).

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

John R. Stumme

Dr. John R. Stumme is a retired ELCA Pastor. When he wrote this piece, he was Professor of Systematic Theology at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos in Buenos Aires and Vice-President of the Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Unida in Argentina. After ten years in Argentina, he worked for almost two decades with the ELCA's Church in Society unit as Associate Director and Director for its Department for Studies.