Saturday, May 21, 2011

Law and the Purity of the Gospel

My post about the Augustana and article 7 occasioned the following, rather insightful comment from a man named David:
I'll admit I've only skimmed some of the work you're citing, but has anyone focused in more on the "pure preaching" and "proper administration" aspects? One argument I can see is that the gospel is not preached purely if the law is not also preached purely, and calling something not sin that is sin dilutes the purity of the law.
And that's exactly the place I want to begin, because David put his finger on one of the key complaints about preaching the gospel in its purity, the one that is most often framed in terms of "Gospel Reductionism."  It begins with the notion that the gospel requires the law -- that the dialectical relationship between law and gospel is necessary for the existence of the gospel.  The second move in the chain is, given the scriptural understanding that the gospel has an essence -- that as Paul says there is one gospel and only one gospel and it is thus-and-such -- that therefore the law has an essence.  That therefore the purity of one depends on the purity of the other, and any dilution of one has a direct effect on the other.  And so if we water down the law, we cannot be doing justice to the essence of the gospel.

(I might note that the argument rarely runs the other direction -- nobody shouts so loudly when we water down the gospel and deliver full-strength law.  They just blame it on the nature of Christianity as a judgmental and condemnatory religion.  It's expected.)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Up next:

The next post, which I haven't got time for this minute, needs to hit the uses and abuses of law/gospel dialectic and the office of the keys.  Here's what I put up on Facebook not too long ago:
The more I go back into 2009 and read up on the reponse to CWA, the more irritated I get at the theology on display. Seriously: the keys may be one of Luther's late-extended marks of the church, but they are not a means of grace. 
I've been coming to a realization about forgiveness lately. It isn't an end in itself; it's strategic. It sets the power of sin aside, demonstrating the truth, which is that God has no need to respect our sin as an impediment, as though it could possibly stand in the way of salvation, redemption, and the call to mission. Which are what God *does*, what God *wants to do*. What God wants *us* to do. Binding sins and sinners is not even beside the point; it competes against the point. 
Modification to the above: binding sinners is useful as part of the civil order -- I'm not about to argue that Ted Kaczynski, for example, should be free to do as he pleases so long as violence pleases him. But it does not interfere with the progress of the gospel. Nor am I about to argue that he should be removed from Christian community because of his actions, or exempt from Christian care. Which basically writes off the usual uses of that key...
Some of that I've said here already; but the development for the specific theological offense has to come on its own.

What's church? Or: The use and abuse of AC 7 for life

So I'm spending a lot of time re-reading the late-2009 Lutheran right.  As a friend of mine says, the Churchwide Assembly wasn't about theology, so much as emotional processes, and I think he's right, but it produced a whole steaming heap of theology out the other end.  And I'm digging through it, and one of the bits that bugs me most is the assertion that the ELCA is no longer a church, because in accepting "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust" and the ministry recommendations, we violated AC 7.

The claim seems to turn on a reading of the satis est in which conformity to the Bible is the first mark.  You can read plenty of Thursday Theology entries on the wrongheadedness of this replacement of "Gospel" with "Bible" over at Crossings, but since this is a place where I do my  own work for mostly my own sake, I'm going to take my own run at it.  What is the functional ecclesiology of the Augsburg Confession?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Evangelical Catholicity -- not theirs, and not enough.

I've avoided calling myself an "Evangelical Catholic" for a while now.  Basically since college, when I realized that the ALPB and their periodicals were taking the perfectly good concept and making it the exclusive preserve of the politically reactionary.  I don't mean to say "conservative" because I'm not clear that they are in any way actually more conservative and less liberal -- but I've said that already here.  But I'm sick of abandoning perfectly good Lutheran identifiers, and along with "confessional," I refuse to give this one up to the right wing any longer.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Frangible and plastic

Whiteness is a weird thing to get a hold of.  I keep finding myself talking about it in two different ways.  On the one hand, it is a profoundly plastic identity, in that the standard of social power and prestige involved shifts constantly as different groups approach it.  On the other hand, it is a profoundly frangible identity, in that when you try to grab hold of it as a thing, it instantly shatters into a million other, officially non-white, things.  I think the distinction can be made this way: whiteness as an identity is frangible, because it is not actually an identity; whiteness as a position is plastic, because it keeps moving as the landscape of social power changes.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

What are theological conservatives conserving?

Reading a lot of sociology of religion lately -- it's getting awfully hard to put up with the "conservative" and "liberal" labels as frequently applied from the political field to the theological one.  The "most theologically conservative" position is not the one which most agrees with a very precise and relatively recent strain of the Fundamentalist lineage.  Unless, of course, you're of the Fundamentalist line, in which case you may well be conserving something original to your heritage.  If you're Lutheran, holding that point of view is highly theologically liberal of you.  By which I mean exactly what the term says: you have applied the label of the Lutheran confessional heritage with a high degree of flexibility, including within that position elements that are not original to it.  And in this case, often at the cost of failing to conserve elements native to that tradition, which stand in conflict with the position you hold.

I'm tired of being labeled a theological liberal by Lutherans who claim political conservatism as though it were theological conservatism.  For whom the choice of theological novelties leans to the Biblical inerrantist side, rather than the social justice side -- just as liberal, but in the opposite direction!  Proper theological conservatism is aware of its sources and their authenticity to a particular claimed tradition.  It is a median position -- not to say centrist, but a position in the midst of a field of options.  And the options aren't "my way or the wrong way" -- orthodoxy or heresy, as most poignantly put by Neuhaus in recent time -- but rather, my way or someone else's way.  Our way or their way, except where we reach points that are common to us in the tradition, but ideally without stigmatizing the other traditions.  And, of course, a whole range of new ways as we take up situations not properly considered in the pasts of our traditions.

So, when you claim theological conservatism as your high ground, stop and think: whose traditions are you conserving?  Where did you get that idea from?  Whose is it, and how did it get to be yours?  And if you thump on the "conservatives," don't thump on them for being traditional, or socially and politically conservative -- thump on them for being deeply theologically liberal.  Get to the root of the problem first.

Is it really "the Lutheran Ethic"?

Rule number one of evaluating Lutheran scholars talking about Luther and the confessions: if they don't cite either of them directly by specific writings, chances are they have problems in their grasp of Lutheranism.  The Book of Concord is a collection, and no sensible confessional scholar will tell you "The Book of Concord says [x]."  (Any more than a serious exegete will tell you "The Bible says [x]," and mean that the thoroughgoing witness of the whole is [x].)  Perhaps the Formula says [x], or one of the writings in the BoC says it, but you must be specific!  And of specific attention in terms of "what Luther said," watch for people whose major Luther citation method is secondary: Weber, Troeltsch, Fromm ... and one citation from Dillenberger's collection of snippets.  I'm sorry, where's the references to Luther's Works?

Kersten's The Lutheran Ethic (1970) isn't serious scholarship by this judgment.  And it bugs me!  Perhaps it is serious sociology for its time.  It looks reasonable by that standard.  But it is not reasonable in its grasp of the thing it attempts to measure.  The titular "Lutheran ethic" -- more properly "ethos" -- is characterized from the introduction on in terms of 17th-century gnesio-orthodoxy.  It holds up Flacius -- or at least his grasp of the utter depravity of man and the destruction of the image of God -- while slamming Calvin.  (And not realizing how inconsistent that is!)  And then it slams the LCA and ALC as falling into liberal Protestantism because they don't hold to this view of Luther, while pointing up the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods as the conservators of this Lutheran ethic.  Pardon me, that means they're heretics, conserving something the Formula steers clear of.

Why am I reading it?  Well, for a paper, as with so many books.  I read through Wuthnow on the restructuring of American religion, and a recent collection on Lutheranism pointed me to Kersten as a direct approach to sociology of Lutheranism in the US context.  Somehow, I have to either get past the fact that Kersten is measuring a highly biased target, or use that to frame how I read him and filter his results for it.

Suffice it to say I don't recommend this book.

Monday, May 2, 2011

"Is it good to be only human?"

Bill Schweiker asked the question last week in the Advanced Seminar, and I can't help but hear Barth in it.  "Is it good to be only human?"  And it dovetails with questions that have been foremost on my mind several times in the last few weeks -- about death.

We've been talking about death as "senescence," as an evil of the human design that can be fixed.  S. Jay Olshansky showed us very interesting approaches to the problem on the demographic understanding of the mortality curves, and actuarial science.  And as far as it goes we have certainly pushed out death as far as possible, and we look to push it out further still.  But we've reached the end of the low-hanging fruit!  Children in developmentally advantaged areas have profoundly limited mortality, and it drops to the floor as we move through the ages of fertility and reproductive impact, and rises after.  And so we push out the rise in mortality as late as possible, and hit the point where we're in linear rise in mortality over age bins, and we see things like dementias that we'd never see before, because death always came before.  So we're playing with the nature of the ends of our lives all the time, even as part of "civilization".

But we still die.  It is still part of human nature, the essence of our being.  We are born and we die.  And this is where Schweiker hits me: is it good?  Is death a good part of created existence?  Or is this something we ought to write out of the code if possible?