Will There Be a Lutheran Theological Ethic in the Next Generation?

[1] The greatest challenge for Lutheran theological ethics in the coming years will not be how adequately they address the myriad contemporary issues the modern world faces. Rather, it will concern whether or not ethics done by ELCA Lutherans will flow from genuine Lutheran theological sources.[1] The Lutheran theological resources I am thinking about are these: the profound insights into human fallenness and the radicality and universality of God’s grace in Christ found in Lutheran theology; the centrality of the Cross; the crucial distinction between the Law and the Gospel and the role they play in Lutheran ethics; the two ways that God reigns in the world; the proper vocations of the clergy and laity; a preference for an indirect role for the church in society; and a dialectical view of sanctification (simul justus et peccator) that leads to a sober and realistic approach to human and worldly possibilities.

[2] These Lutheran themes constitute a particular construal of Christian ethics in general, in which they are a tributary in a much larger river. It could be argued that the dying away of these particular Lutheran themes would be a good thing on the way to a genuinely ecumencial Christian theology and ethics. But then there would be no compelling reason for the ELCA to persist as a separate church, let alone maintain a distinctive approach to ethics. In spite of the sad movement of some of our brightest and best Lutheran theologians and ethicists to Catholicism and Orthodoxy, many of us believe there is yet a Lutheran theological and ethical witness to be made within the Christian church as a whole. And that means that we should employ our distinctive resources as long as they contribute significant, if not indispensable, truths to Christian theological and ethical reflection. Fortunately, we Lutherans are not the only Christians who see an ongoing importance for our specifically Lutheran themes. Mark Noll, the distinguished evangelical church historian now at Notre Dame, makes the case for our ongoing contributions in his important First Things article of 1992 entitled “The Lutheran Difference.” Many others cheer us on.

[3] However, the likelihood is strong that our Lutheran heritage of theological ethics will not persist much longer into the future, but rather will most likely blend into a liberal Protestant social ethic which will be indistinguishable from liberal ideology in general. This trajectory will ape the liberal Protestant theology and ethics that have already more or less been subsumed into liberationist social ethics so favored by the mainline denominations. The liberal Protestant trajectory has imitated the earlier movement of the onetime great ecumenical organizations-the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches, who are now only shadows of themselves.

[4] The general movement of liberal Protestantism can be clearly traced. It had its origin, of course, in the European efforts to “update” Christianity by emphasizing its ethics of love over against its retrograde dogmatic claims. Overwhelmed by the threat posed by the sciences to Christian theological claims, the great liberal thinkers-Kant, Ritschl, Harnack, Troeltsch-proposed that the dogmatic content of the faith be replaced by enlightened ethics, something that by its inwardness was protected from the reductionist claims of science. On American soil the Social Gospel picked up this ethical thrust, though its first generation-represented by Rauschenbusch-still maintained the classical theological themes of the faith. But its emphasis was focused on ethics. Indeed, Rauschenbusch remarked that “Thus far Lutheranism has buried its ten talents in a tablecloth of dogmatic theory and it has kept its people from that share in the social awakening which is their duty and right” (Quoted in E. Clifford Nelson’s The Lutherans in America, 11).

[5] For Lutherans there is no such thing as a Social Gospel, there is only the Gospel of Jesus Christ addressed to every person and people by the Church’s preaching. As a response to the Gospel, Christians individually and corporately are led by the Spirit into the Christian life, which has both personal and social dimensions. So, while there may be a Christian social ethic, there is no such thing as a Social Gospel, strictly speaking. Likewise, while there may be a Christian ethical agenda that aims at liberating persons and groups from oppressive ideologies and structures, there is no liberation theology per se. Claiming otherwise simply makes Gospel into the Law.

[6] The elites of liberal Protestantism tend not to make those sorts of Lutheran distinctions. For many years now they have either assumed or become uninterested in the proclamation of the Gospel itself. (What happens at the grass roots level is often quite different.) And they have paid little attention to personal ethics, except as such ethics need revision according to their enlightened agenda.

[7] Their energies have been poured into the social, economic, and political ramifications of Christian teachings, not the central affirmations of the Christian faith itself nor in personal ethics. Not only does this miss the main thing that Christianity is about and therefore leads to membership losses as people look for the real thing, but it has serious divisive tendencies.

[8] As one loves from the central affirmations of the Christian faith to its social and political ramifications, one passes through several stages of argument that involve different assessments of the current situation, different analytical judgments, different philosophical principles, different ordering of Christian principles, and very different applications of those normative principles. For example, arguments about whether or not we should have invaded Iraq involve all those complex steps, and Christians of good will and intelligence differ about them. But one would never come to that conclusion if one examined the social and political proclamations of liberal Protestantism. They move with utter confidence directly from the central affirmations-or from selected biblical passages or theological themes-to highly debatable public policy. They are joined in this “straight-line thinking” by some of their counterparts among religious conservatives. As this “straight-line thinking” becomes politically predictable over time, one gets the suspicion that political commitments are more dominant that those of a theological nature.

[9] Internally, liberal Protestantism at the elite level spends its energies purging the life of the church from oppressive ideologies rather than focusing on the proclamation and extension of the Gospel and on Christian personal ethics. Those oppressive ideologies are sexism, heterosexism, racism, monoculturalism, and American imperialism. The manic movement toward “diversity” is meant to shatter and overcome these oppressive ideologies and practices. (Generally, however, “diversity” does not include persons of conservative cultural and political convictions, especially if they are vocal.) So, for example, many catalogues of interdenominational and mainline Protestant seminaries will include pages and pages of rules to govern “inclusive language,” but nary a word commending orthodox Christian belief. Students studying in those divinity schools would find it far more dangerous publicly to use “non-inclusive language” than to deny the Trinity, or to support the Iraq war than to deny the divinity of Christ. Volunteering at a Crisis Pregnancy Center would make a student a pariah. Needless to say, the situation is quite different at the level of local parishes.

[10] In short, the grounding of Christian ethics in the Gospel has been practically supplanted by a debatable liberal social and political agenda. There is uninterest in or squishiness at the Christian center, dogmatism at its periphery. Such is the Social Gospel of liberal Protestantism.

[11] It is my judgment that the elites of the ELCA are moving rapidly toward this liberal Protestant consensus and that soon there will not be interest enough in the Lutheran themes I outlined at the beginning to continue a Lutheran theological ethic. Instead, Lutherans writers will, like liberal Protestants, take up almost exclusively the struggle against the oppressive ideologies and structures they believe are contaminating the church and world. That struggle will inevitably beg many questions and tip toward social and political liberalism, so confidently that no other interpretations will be allowed.

[12] Many signs of this elite movement are evident. The highest of our elite-our presiding Bishop-seems to understand his central calling as making “prophetic” pronouncements on every political issue that looms before us. The too-frequent public policy statements he has made generally tilt toward policies favored by the liberal end of the American political spectrum. Most of his pronouncements are uninformed by Lutheran themes. He has taken on the mantle of leader of liberal Protestantism. Meanwhile I have yet to see significant efforts to stem the steady loss of membership by increased home missions. Nor do I see the absence of disciplined lay theological education accompanied by comprehensive delivery system being addressed.

[13] The ELCA’s priorities seem to fit those of liberal Protestantism. Its actual commitments reflect the liberationist thrust of the older denominations. Once one understands this, it becomes clear what is non-negotiable to the elites of the ELCA and what is adiophora. The former they fight for tooth and nail. Thus, they stand firmly for: quotas (to fight racism and monoculturalism), unqualified access to abortion (to fight sexism), the ordaining of gays and lesbians and blessing gay unions (to fight heterosexism), centralization of power (to fight the benighted masses of the church who are infected with all the “isms”), a relentless purging of masculine language from worship materials (to fight sexism), and a strong commitment to insistently left-wing foreign policy positions on Iraq and Israel (to fight against imperialism.)

[14] This is not to say that vigorous efforts against racism and sexism are unimportant. They have wrought real benefits to church and society. However, some versions of those struggles are highly dubious in both their assessment of the problems and their strategies to overcome them. But these ecclesiastical and social/ethical initiatives cannot and should not take the place of the foundational Lutheran biblical and theological themes that should be the beginning point for us all. Without those Lutheran themes Lutheran ethics will have no meaning.

End Notes
[1] I say “ELCA” theologians because Missouri Synod ethicists will continue to write from classical Lutheran themes, but they seem less able to address contemporary issues than their ELCA counterparts. Gil Meilaender, of course, is an exception to the general Missouri pattern.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.