As a recent Atlantic essay points out, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s emphasis on sin and grace in Christ sounds downright conservative. Her congregation even utilizes orthodox Lutheran liturgy! In a sense, the claims to Lutheran orthodoxy are correct. Bolz-Weber’s approach is the natural end of the predominant understanding of Lutheran theology in the twentieth century, though this understanding is ultimately false both to Luther and to the broader Christian tradition he sought to reform.
Gilbert Meilaender, in an essay entitled “Hearts Set to Obey” (Dialog, 2004), remarks that contemporary Lutheranism presents a static account of the Christian life. While Catholicism presents a “linear” framework in which the Christian journeys in progress toward holiness, Lutheranism posits a “dialectic” one which precludes any self-perfecting tendencies. In this view, “Christians make no progress in righteousness; they simply return time and again to the word that announces pardon, a word that invites and elicits faith.”
This understanding “eventually arrives at a kind of practical antinomianism,” for in this framework God’s Law loses any power to guide the Christian in a more holy Christian life. “The normative will of God [is] of purely passing significance” so that “what the church has to say increasingly mimics the secular sphere both in what it accepts and in what it rejects.”
The late Gerhard Forde forcefully presented this dialectical approach in the “Radical Lutheranism” that he proposed. Forde argued that there are only two kinds of religions or theologies: theologies of glory (almost all theological systems) and theologies of the cross. Theologies of glory are those which aim to perceive God’s divine attributes as they shine through in the good, true, and beautiful. He argues against all such theologies in that they attempt to set up a “glory road” to God, a way of self-reliance toward righteousness and holiness.
Opposed to all these theologies of glory is the theology of the cross, in which God through the cross ends all attempts at self-justification so that sinners might despair of themselves and thus embrace God’s justification of them.
Bolz-Weber’s ministry is the end-result of the dialectical approach to Lutheran theology, especially by way of Forde. It is no surprise that a profanity spewing drag queen would be held forth as a model of Christian piety by one who so consistently adheres to a system that has no room for the good, the true, and the beautiful. And, this approach gains her glowing reviews from influential magazines. Meilaender’s concerns were prophetic: the purely dialectical approach to Lutheran theology inevitably leads to a kind of antinomianism and a church life that mimics secular society.
Lutheranism need not always lead in this direction. The merely dialectical approach to Lutheran theology severed itself from a significant part of classic Lutheran theology. In his Large Catechism, Luther writes: “Sanctification has begun and is growing daily.” To be sure, Luther affirms that this side of heaven the Christian remains simul justus et peccator, requiring daily forgiveness. And yet, we are progressing towards holiness, not statically caught in a cycle of despair and faith. This understanding endured through the nineteenth century, though not without detractors. As the influential American Lutheran theologian, C.F.W. Walther put it:
[Are most Christians] concerned about their sins? Do they seek to understand them ever more clearly? Do they battle against them? Do they despite their flesh diligently watch and pray, hear and read God’s Word, that all sins may be purged from their hearts and life and thus grow in sanctification? Not at all! Most of them think: “To be that worried about sin is enthusiasm. That is pietism and Methodism. That is false legalism.” (Gospel Sermons. St. Louis: CPH. 190.)
Bolz-Weber sounds thoroughly Lutheran in the way that Lutheranism has come to be understood over the last century. Sometimes it is better to speak beautiful and true words in service of goodness, even if one might sound like a pietist, a Methodist, or, dare I say, even a Catholic.
Christopher D. Jackson is pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Northeast Wisconsin, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming Foundations for Online Theological Education (B&H Academic). Follow him on Twitter: @revcjackson.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?