Reformed and Lutheran Heresiology, and via media

I've been doing a lot of unsuccessful writing lately -- the thoughts are too full of material and not formed enough. It's one of the perils of this half of the term, and my standard pattern for starting any topic. Survey the area, cram in as much information as possible, shake well, let the brain sort it, sift for the patterns that emerge, and chase them down. Build on top of the ones that work.

But with the Kantzer lectures now completed, I've got some extra-curricular thoughts to play with, too. One of the things I like about PTS is that it has both Bruce McCormack and George Hunsinger. The trained post-liberal narrative theologian in me leans heavily toward Hunsinger. I have too many arguments with McCormack -- but they're necessary arguments. The man is solid, and solidly different. A post-Arminian Calvinist with good grounding in early Christian thought. A solid diagnostician, but "working the other side of the street" in ways that produce a markedly different system of heresiology from the Lutheran concerns.

And so it's been very interesting to me to hear McCormack articulate a doctrine of God for the Evangelicals. (Overviews of the lectures can be found on the Wheaton Blog.) The whole thing begins and proceeds and ends in heresiology! And it's good diagnosis, even if I wouldn't follow his line to its destination. His critiques are solid, if not exhaustive -- if you want to hold a position somewhere in the vicinity of the arguments, and it's not his, you still have to deal with his critiques. And as a Lutheran, I have to come at the same problems from a different direction, in different terms, even if both of us are working in deeply Barthian veins. Which is to say that I have a lot to learn from him!

But talking about Lutherans and Lutheran positions in this context gets me in trouble, especially since I have a friend who is both Lutheran and one of McCormack's students. It's caused both of us quite a bit of trouble understanding one another. And so I've been looking for a chance to draw out a better explanation of where I'm coming from. You see, McCormack and his students include Lutherans in their readings. Which is great -- I firmly believe that we'd do better with more Reformed thought in our studies. (Which is easy enough to go out and get, in Chicago.) But Bruce's Lutherans just aren't "Lutheran" enough, and why that should be the case is the trouble.

The 18th- and 19th-century scholars like Isaak Dorner, standing in the line of the arguments between Schmid and Baur, belong to a period after we'd basically stopped fighting so hard for our Lutheranism, a period before the "Luther Renaissance" of the early 20th century, when we started fighting again. To say that Dorner is Lutheran is to broadly contextualize his piety and his New Testament scholarship. It is to say that he was socio-politically acceptable at Tübingen and Göttingen. And he belongs to a beautiful period -- one where you can tell from the compendia of their dogmatics just how close the Lutherans and Reformed had gotten, largely because of philosophy. But from my end of things, theologically, everyone in the period is one shade or another of Protestant. What we mean when we say "Lutheran" as a theological descriptor today isn't quite what it meant to them.

We've come to bracket the 18th- and 19th-century European theologians in the normative accounts (at least the American ones) of Lutheran theology after the Luther Renaissance. They mostly disappear from our stories. The 17th-century period of orthodoxy gets concatenated with the 20th century, the point in time when we "picked up the thread again." (Even though that's a bit of an oversimplification, it hits the essence.) And I'll admit that that's pathological, as long as you'll hear me when I tell you that it's real, and that it isn't an easy problem to correct.

So: from my end of things, "Lutheran" has come to be defined in terms of the conflict between Flacians and Philippists, much as "Calvinist" came to be defined against the Arminians within the Reformed tradition. And it's this conflict, defined between Melanchthon and Flacius as effigies of the extremes, that stands at the root of why Lutherans of the modern period get written out of the story. It's the conflict that gave birth to the Concord, which defined our Lutheranism much more than the claimed common confession of the Augustana did. Think about the Formula of Concord as our Westminster or Dordt. The Augsburg Confession and its Apology mark the opening of a position against the Catholics that can be argued in many directions, and the Concord marks the closure of that debate in a definite direction. And yet the Concord is supposed to be exactly that, a peaceful resolution. Really, a via media between the errors of the Philippists and the Flacians -- the parties of the left and right, if you will. But as a concrete exposition of Lutheran teaching, its "middle path" always leans to the right, toward a correction of the Flacian/"Gnesio-Lutheran" errors, and away from Melanchthon's questionably "Calvinist" leanings. (Philip was a good Reformation theologian, but just not faithful enough to Martin Luther's teachings: too close to the Reformed on sacramentology, too Latin on salvation ... all of which is to condemn carbon for not being oxygen, for bonding generously without combusting.)

Bruce's Lutherans won't pass muster in my circles precisely because, in the end, we leaned toward the hard-liners while trying not to fall over the edge. And we've been negotiating that line ever since, calling the right-most position Lutheran, and the left-most, Calvinist. Falsely, of course! I just saw David Housholder do it this morning, calling Gerhard Forde a Calvinist and attempting to define Lutheranism in terms built on Missourian hard-line dogmatics. And calling Forde a Calvinist is risible, but Housholder is a populist and not a scholar, and suffers from a great deal of imprecision. What he demonstrates, however, is this tendency to define "Lutheranism" as the right-most position, and hack away the left until we reach purity of thought. "Calvinist" in this schema just means "too far left." Irredeemably liberal. And the Lutherans of the modern period, the ones who defined Lutheran dogmatics in an age of growing philosophical idealism, are far too moderate for Lutheran heresiology. Especially for American Lutheran heresiology, since pieces of it escaped from the Prussian Union in order to preserve their purity of thought against merger with the Reformed. The modern period in Europe is lukewarm, and we're fighting hot vs. cold.

Now, I'm a left Lutheran. Which means that I avoid the legalism and literalism that have come to be the bulwarks of the right-most position, and embrace the thoroughgoing criticism that characterizes the left. But I still belong to this post-Luther-Renaissance American Lutheranism, this polemical hot/cold insistence on foundational repristination. The easiest way to look at it is that the right reads the orthodox interpretation of the reformers, and relies on it. In this there is a lot of continuity with the Lutheranism of the modern period. What resonated with compendium dogmatics against the abuses of philology by modern critical scholars was solid system. And you only got that, among Lutherans, in the 17th century. And so the right, in going ad fontes, takes hold of the post-confessional orthodoxy and works from it in interpreting Luther. The left is characterized by a refusal to take confessional and post-confessional orthodoxy at its word. It wants Luther himself. The hors-texte and his own texts in their contexts. And by and large the left is willing to scrap historical Lutheranism and its determinations for the sake of theological principles derived closer to its origins. And so one side re-writes Lutheranism, and the other, Luther.

And so when it comes to heresiology, we have basically two sets. We have patristic and conciliar dogmatics, the prerequisite for our confessions because the confessors and the tradition after them retain these as the normative ground of faith; and then we have confessional dogmatics. As Barth put it in his course on Reformed confessions, Lutherans have a fourth creed. We have this tendency to look at the Reformation developments preserved in the Book of Concord, thought of basically in terms of the Augustana and its exposition, as something parallel to the process that produced the creeds of the ecumenical councils up to Chalcedon. And so when we argue about orthodoxy and heresy, we have this tendency to argue patristic terms with Reformation meanings. Pelagius takes on the tint of Renaissance humanism, for example.

Which shouldn't really surprise the Reformed, for whom the lens is so often Dutch or Swiss or English -- as long as we all realize we're doing it! But I've observed through McCormack's lectures these past couple of weeks just how thoroughly modern his heresiological lens is. Not less patristic or conciliar, but differently so in profound ways from my own. And it hadn't struck me until then just how much Lutherans today have written off the modern period. We leap over it in ways that the Reformed have never been inspired to do. Somehow, even though we all lived in and through modern Protestantism after the period of orthodoxy, it became their heritage and not ours, diagnostically more useful for one than the other. That's a deep, deep mistake. If it's given us a tighter focus on the conciliar theology, perhaps it's been a benefit to Lutherans, though I'm not sure that's uniformly the case. At our extremes, we have become blandly liberal and rigorously conservative Protestants, in ways so much more antithetical to one another than the moderns ever were. But toward the middle we have insistence on theological principles and traditions that do uniquely belong to us, and if there is a Lutheran path to be walked, it has to come out of those, in line with the orthodox and catholic faith.

Watching McCormack do it as a Reformed theologian among the Evangelicals gives me confidence that it can be done from this side, as well. There remain consistent paths to be navigated through our traditions, today.


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