The Paradoxical Vision: Robert Benne’s Public Theology in the 21st Century

[1] Dr. Robert Benne, prominent Lutheran theologian and ethicist is the closest Lutheran theologian who actively utilizes the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian Realism” within a Lutheran framework.[1] Dr. Benne has been a public theologian for the past 30 years and has explored different theological and ethical concepts, authored numerous books, and served as professor at Roanoke College. However, Dr. Benne is most known for his engagement with religion and politics using the Lutheran theological hermeneutic of paradox. Notably, The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the 21st Century explores in-depth this concept of paradox of the Christian vocation within a democratic framework. This article will explore more fully the implications of this paradox while also exploring several critiques of Benne and lastly offering a counter to Benne’s theology. Before I continue, I will admit that Dr. Benne has influenced my theological formation, and I tend to agree with some his conclusions.

[2] Benne opens his book by first exploring the topic of public theology, and he provides examples of how public theology has been used. First, Benne quotes David Tracy, who argues that the task of public theology is “identifying common criteria of truth that theology might share with other disciplines, common criteria that then would give theology’s truth claims creditability in the search for public truth.”[2] Benne notes that while Tracy’s definition provides an attempt at defining public theology, Tracy’s definition is not as expansive as Ronald Thiemann’s or Max Stackhouse’s. Thiemann defines public theology as “faith seeking to understand the relation between Christian convictions and the broader social and cultural context which the Christian community lives.”[3] Stackhouse’s definition has a two-fold approach: shared across different religions and philosophical schools and guidance towards public policy. Public theology is “ethical in nature.”[4] Benne then offers his own definition, which as he states, goes beyond the previous definitions. Public theology, according to Benne, is “the engagement of a living religious tradition with its public environment—the economic, political, and cultural spheres of our common life.”[5] Benne’s framework includes a Lutheran theological hermeneutic within the North American culture.

[3] Benne’s theological framework provides a helpful counter to the dominant theological narrative of Calvinism, which he notes has long dominated the shaping of public theology in the United States. Benne rightly notes that Reformed theology long dominated public theology, which then provided a challenge for other public theologies to emerge. Calvinism stresses the transformation of the individual, which in turn, aims to transform the wider society; however, the opposite happens, and religion is stripped from the public square.[6]

[4] Moreover, Benne also, provides a critique against liberal, or progressive, mainstream Protestant denominations for embracing the so-called Marxist narrative and turning that into their dominant theology, abandoning their orthodox siblings. The orthodox in the mainstream Protestant denominations find common ground with orthodox Christians of other traditions.[7]

[5] Benne’s theological framework of paradox includes the following four parts: paradox of God’s salvation and human action; paradox of human nature being simultaneously justified and sinner, God’s rule of law and God’s gospel, and lastly, the paradox of history.[8] Benne, then articulates the Lutheran distinction between Reformed, sectarian, and Catholic views of engaging the world. He rightly critiques the Reformed position for two reasons: a) it is overly influential of American culture because of its transformative view and b) the transformative affect of Reformed theology permeates the progressive and conservative theologies as both groups believe humanity has an impact towards change. The sectarian view is quickly dismissed because of its disengagement with the world while the Roman Catholic position is critiqued for shifting too quickly to reading Christ into the existing culture into a synthesis.[9]

[6] Benne surveys the landscape of American Lutheranism through World War II, and he notes that 1960 is when Lutheranism in America started shifting with the emergence of new Lutheran church bodies who were exploring their theological context in a shifting American environment.[10]

[7] Benne then applies his theological framework to four Lutheran bodies and some of their social statements. Benne’s case studies are the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Benne neglects to include the Association of America Lutheran Churches, who broke off from the American Lutheran Church at the formation of the ELCA, and Benne does not include either the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod nor the Evangelical Lutheran Synod as they were likely either too small for his study or too theologically isolated, thus, having little influence overall in the wider Lutheran discourse.

[8] Benne first examines the Lutheran Church in America, the more liberal and ecumenical of the major Lutheran bodies, and its respective engagement of public theology. The LCA formed in 1962 and lasted until 1988 when the LCA merged to form the ELCA. Within the LCA, social statements, which served as the “framework, authoritative policy, and the church’s public witness,” were not solely confined to the academy but involved the work of the whole church.[11]

[9] Benne analyzes the “Peace and Politics” social statement produced by the LCA, and while Benne praised the effectiveness of the paradoxical vision within the statement, he critiques how the approach the LCA took remained solely within the church and had no overall effect on the public and on policy writ large. He also critiques how Lutheranism continues to serve as the alien denomination within the United States. Lastly, he critiques the engagement of the laity, and that the later social statements of the LCA served not directly as public church engagement but instead served as the forefront of advocacy, and that the LCA fell prey to “interest group liberalism” and joined the other mainstream Protestant denominations.[12]

[10] Benne delivers a scathing critique of the ALC over its similar statement on “Mandate for Peacekeeping.” The ALC developed a system of ranking of authority on their social statements.

1) Statements of comment and counsel required a simple majority for adoption and were addressed primarily to the members of the church to the broader societal discussion and for their own reflection and action.

2) Statements of judgement and conviction required a 60 percent majority for adoption and were considered a contribution to the broader societal discussion on the subject as well as guidance to members.

3) Statements of policy and practice required 66 percent of the votes for adoption and were binding on the ALC as an institution, in addition to contributing to the societal debate and speaking to church members.[13]

Benne had several critiques and praises for the ALC’s “Mandate for Peacekeeping, and his main critique is that the ALC statement lacked four things: lack of paradoxical vision, lack of theological/moral argumentation, especially in its conclusions, Lutheran theological assumptions, and procedural and methodological problems.[14] The ALC’s statements remained within the confines of the committee and did not reach the laity and like the LCA’s, these statements had little impact.

[11] Benne lifts the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod as the theological par excellence for maintaining the paradoxical vision with their approach to public theology, yet Benne critiques the LCMS for remaining theologically isolated and not making a significant impact on public theology writ large. Benne notes that the divisions within the church have hindered the overall public theology of the LCMS having significant impact.[15]

[12] Benne’s final case study was the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and when Benne wrote this book, Benne had served as professor of Ethics and Theology at several ELCA institutions. Benne largely critiques the ELCA over several issues: “inclusiveness, interest group liberalism, and advocacy.”[16] Benne calls the binding power of the social statements from the ELCA Churchwide Assembly as coercive. I would disagree with his statement. The teaching documents, while they serve as the official teachings of the church, are more concerned with how the ELCA articulates issues while acknowledging the diverse views among the laity. Benne acknowledges that the church’s indirect action of affecting society by changing the hearts and minds of its members. The church, through the process of the social statements, has a two-fold purpose: address an issue in the wider society through a distinctive Lutheran voice while also planting seeds for change among its parishioners.

[13] The three statements Benne examined were “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” “The Death Penalty,” and “Abortion,” as these were the first statements ratified at the second Churchwide Assembly in 1991. Concerning the first statement, he acknowledges how the church balanced both direct connections (social statements and advocacy) while weighing the role of indirect connection (sustaining vocation, moral deliberation, and institutional integrity). Yet Benne critiques how the church substituted strong theological convictions for “those who feel and suffer with the issue and those who interests are at stake.”[17]

[14] “Death Penalty” and “Abortion” fail Benne’s paradoxical vision test because in them the reign of God is not fully expressed. The abortion statement lacked a robust engagement with human nature and does not fully express a Lutheran attitude. Benne’s primary critiques are more with the abortion statement, even though he praises the persuasiveness of the statement. Some of his critiques include failure to tie the theology with the moral arguments, failure to call abortion a sin, lack of the paradoxical framework in the overall statement, and the lack of biblical and theological support.[18] While Benne laments the direction the statements took, especially as they lean towards advocacy, I would direct Benne to the historical trajectory of the abortion statements, notably in the ALC, as they had a more robust theology of abortion. Carl Reuss directed most of those efforts.

[15] Benne laments the direction of American Lutheranism because the on the one end of the spectrum, the LCMS is too theologically isolated to produce any substantial public theology. On the other end, the ELCA is so active in their public theology that its Lutheran identity is masked by the liberal strain of Christianity, thus divorcing itself from their theological heritage. Overall, Benne’s bleak analysis continues to raise questions and concerns as Lutheranism heads into a new direction gripped by the polarization within the church.

[16] Benne’s preferred public theology was Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism because it checked the boxes within Benne’s paradoxical vision. The only pushback I would give Benne, and he may have alluded to this, is that Christian Realism remains informed by the Reformed doctrine that humanity can advance justice in society. Thus, Christian realism elevates a slightly more positive anthropology than classical Lutheranism does.

[17] Within his closing chapter, Benne notes that the paradoxical vision is merely prescriptive in its function and merely guides the conversation of social ethics. He argues that this paradoxical vision “protects the radicality and universality of the gospel,” which is needed in the world today.[19] Benne’s radical defense of a Lutheran theological epistemology mirrors Gerhard Forde’s “radical Lutheranism,”[20] with the only difference being that Forde remained within the academy while Benne applied his ethic to the wider American political and social ethos.

[18] While I agree with the premise of Benne’s paradoxical vision, his view is too optimistic for our current polarized society. He hoped that his vision would provide some avenue of healing for the divisiveness within the church and the larger society. However, these divisions have been amplified beyond repair since he wrote his book. As he envisioned that the political polarization that was fermenting at the time would eventually die down, there was not a deeper critique of the society at the time. While he mainly stays within the realm of the church and the academy, he does not fully apply his vision to the wider political discourse. Benne’s framework only applies within the confines of different Lutheran traditions and theologians who engage or have engaged with Lutheran theology. Benne’s failure to apply his framework to the wider American political system undercuts his argument of his framework as a viable approach to public theology. Instead of sketching how different theologians utilize their theological methods, Benne’s framework would have been more apt examining a public policy issue of the day.

[19] Benne’s critiques of the ELCA Social Statements ignore the complexity of those decisions, namely the death penalty and abortion. While he notes that some of these social statements are theologically grounded within his framework, he does not see the conclusions reached as viable within his overall framework. Benne praises the ambiguity found within the statements yet disagrees with the conclusions drawn. Both “Death Penalty” and “Abortion” acknowledge and explicitly state the differences between the moral and the legal and claim that there is no right answer to these issues. His main critique is that these two social statements fail his paradoxical vision and that they also do not arrive at definitive stances. Benne’s analysis of the ELCA Statement on Abortion drew more pages than the death penalty did, despite both topics having a wide range of opinions. Benne noted that the Abortion statement should include some reference to the doctrine of the twofold nature kingdom of God, yet the statement implicitly draws on the relationship with the church, state, and family.[21] What both social statements, Abortion and Death Penalty, conclude is that these issues are complex, and that further theological reflection is needed to fully explore the implications. I argue that these statements capture the theological tension and the social tension without firmly settled into a single camp. The conclusions drawn by these two social statements capture the both/and-edness of Lutheran theology.

[20] Dr. Benne’s paradoxical vision (God’s action and human response, paradox of human nature, paradox of God’s rule, and the paradox of history) captures how Lutherans ought to engage with the world, yet his focus on how the different Lutheran churches engage in public theology limits his framework to only a theory. Benne only engages with the LCMS, ELCA, and the predecessor bodies and does not engage the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and their approach to public theology.

[21] As the nation and the church is becoming divided politically, Dr. Benne’s framework provides an antidote, if not small, to an ever-increasingly polarized society.  Undoubtedly, as the Lutheran church starts shifting apart and fragmenting due to differences on social issues, maybe there is a way of developing a coherent framework across all Lutheran denominations that might lead the way in a developing public theology grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ.


[1]Christian Realism acknowledges the human condition of inherently sinful in a broken world, and thus the kingdom of God cannot manifest itself on Earth, and yet, humanity is not exempt from action in the world. As Benne fleshed out his paradox, he saw Christian Realism as the closest embodiment of his framework.

[2] David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination (New York: Crossroad, 1981), Plurality and Ambiguity (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), and “Defending the Public Character of Theology,” Christian Century 98 (1 April 1981): 350-356 quoted in Robert Benne’s The Paradoxical Vision: Public Theology for the 21st Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 3.

[3] Ronald Thiemann, Constructing a Public Theology: The Church in a Pluralistic Culture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 21 quoted in Benne’s Paradoxical Vision, 4.

[4] Max Stackhouse, Public Theology and Public Economy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. xi quoted in Benne’s Paradoxical Vision, 4.

[5] Benne, Paradoxical Vision, 4. Italics are his.

[6] For further reading on the public square becoming religion less, see Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans’, 1984). For more on Christ Transforming Culture, see H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture and Harry S. Stout’s “The Historical Legacy of H. Richard Niebuhr,” in The Legacy of H. Richard Niebuhr, ed. Ronald Thiemann (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 88.

[7] Benne, Paradoxical Vision, 53-55. Benne also noted in both the preface and within Chapter 2 of his time as a neo-conservative. The draw to neo-conservatism stemmed from his experience within prominent liberal seminaries as well as the direction the mainline Protestants were going. He mentioned the role of the Institute of Religion and Democracy as the foremost think tank for public theology; however, the IRD, while still engaging on the public theology front, serves more as an orthodox watchdog for the United Methodist Church (UMC), Presbyterian (PCUSA), and Episcopal Church (ECUSA). The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America does not fall under into this category; however, the ELCA is a persona non grata due to the full communion partnerships with the three church bodies.

[8] Benne, Paradoxical Vision, 68-90.

[9] Benne, Paradoxical Vision, 98-103. Benne interestingly connects fundamentalist churches within the synthetic camp along with Roman Catholics. The end result of the synthetic position, if taken to the extreme, is transformationist.

[10] Benne, Paradoxical Vision, 104-109.

[11] Ibid, 111-112.

[12] Ibid, 120-122.

[13] Ibid, quoting Charles Lutz’s Public Voice, 6.

[14] Ibid, 130.

[15] Ibid, 130-134.

[16] Ibid, 134-140. Benne addresses advocacy in Chapter 7, and he connects the role the social statements play as an avenue of advocacy. However, I would apply his critique to the later ELCA Social Statements, notably post 2009.

[17] Ibid, 136-138.

[18] Ibid, 138-140.

[19] Ibid, 226.

[20] For more on Gerhard Forde’s notion of radical Lutheranism, see “Radical Lutheranism,” in Gerhard O. Forde’s A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, Lutheran Quarterly Books, edited by Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017), 3-16.

[21] Benne, Paradoxical Vision, 138-141.

Thomas Johnston

Thomas Johnston is a first-year Intern Pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church, Richland Hills, Texas. He is also finishing his Master of Divinity degree at Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University. Johnston serves as a steering committee member for Lutherans Alliance for Faith, Science, and Technology, and frequent book reviewer for Currents in Theology and Mission.