Being Lutheran

What is it to be Lutheran? To what point do we go back, or upon what principle do we focus? I might say that to be Lutheran is to always be stuck qualifying yourself. To never be able to make the world black and white. Some of Hendel's beloved insistence upon both/and rather than either/or.

I'm tempted to sidebar into Kierkegaard's either/or, and its relation to Nietzsche's transcendence of good and evil, but the margin is too small for the solution to fit. And Heidegger gives me ways and ways to keep the world irreducible, but I dare not seize upon them too tightly.

Indeed, we are stuck with that other Martin's habit of wandering around the topic in question, even if our Martin's publications were remarkably to the point even in disputation. Not to say that we are Philippists, treading lightly as apologists away from the Father's house, though perhaps we should learn something of Melanchthon's balance. Let me clarify, against my nature: to be Lutheran is to be stuck defending what is central to the faith, and because of it to be stuck defending peripheral points to which one does not wish to hold with nearly the same fervor. To be compelled to argue about issues about which one should not have to care, because the opposition has made from them an attack upon the gospel. And to be compelled to watch as those issues supplant Christ and wreak havoc in the church.

To be Lutheran is to have a lot of work to do, in the Nietzschean sense of having to do it oneself in order to know. I refuse to believe that any dogmatic positions can be written any more firmly than lines in the sand. We haven't the knowledge to do any better, and it is hybris to try. This is why Lutheranism is confessional, even though that word has come to be equated with doctrinal orthodoxy. To be Lutheran is to confess the truth of the God to whom alone one prays for help. When you come to truly be in status confessionis, upon what will you rely? The test is about what you cannot recant in the face of mortal peril. So much that we now style in this way has no acquaintance with such peril, and little reliance upon the God who alone delivers. Pretty stones, but not one will be allowed to remain upon another in the end. Watch where you step in dogmatics, it can be a long way down.

And yet there are ways and ways of being Lutheran, and all of them outgrow this essential concern the longer they live. This center is subject to dogmatic accretion by its very nature. (Or perhaps by our very nature.) We define it, or we define our standpoint with respect to it, and proceed from there. Whether in the modern, Cartesian mode of demolition back to center and reconstruction from there, or in the prior orthodox mode of reshuffling the traditions in order to demonstrate their relations of force with respect to the center, the theological task is the same in its reliance upon explaining the penultimate in relation to the ultimate. Qualifying. Qualifying the penultimate against the ultimate, and also qualifying the ultimate in penultimate terms. God in human view is theological, as is humanity in God's view. Neither human nor divine aseity share the same status. The latter is pure speculation, and the former can only be useful as prologue to theological anthropology. (So much for "natural" law or theology, which is as the reformers would have it.)

How do you know if you've got a Lutheran? Besides an obsession with Paul, you ought to be able to tell theologically. We hold a very particular center, a very particular theological view. How is humanity saved? By grace, through faith, in Christ, apart from works done according to the law. We hold neither the total depravity of humanity nor any sense of human autonomy, but rather the simultaneity of self-selected sin and God-elected grace in each and every member of the body of Christ. And we believe that God is the stronger of the two. We believe that the church is dependent upon God, and therefore marked by the fullness of God's Word among us and by the offering of the fullness of God's gracious means at God's command to all sinners in need. We believe that these are the prescriptions for our sin, and that God gives them freely: the law, gospel and sacraments to humble, free and strengthen. We believe in the necessary work of these humbled, freed, and strengthened members of Christ's body for their neighbors in need, under no law but the need of the other and with no merit but the good of the other. We label as pernicious heresies those theologies that deny or diminish the efficacy of Christ, and thereby misplace the hope and trust of faithful people into some other means of justification before God. Especially when this results in trusting souls being condemned to stand in judgment. And yet even where it hampers human understanding, we do not believe that sin can diminish the effectiveness of God's means of grace, nor that it in any way invalidates the community gathered around those means. We believe in good order, but not at the expense of any of the above. We believe in the traditions of the church, but not at the expense of any of the above. We believe in living an honorable life, understood in accordance with the above. We believe in judging everything against the gospel, because that is constitutive of our existence as Christians.

And if you can make all of that into a position on an issue that fits into a sound bite, you will inevitably be stuck qualifying it. Haste is of the devil, as is oversimplification.

Awfully banal, as you should be able to find this elsewhere, but I feel compelled to say it myself.


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