Tullian Tchividjian was Evangelical royalty, and once again we are reminded never to put our hope in princes. Grandson to Billy Graham, Tchividjian assumed the legendary pulpit of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church on Easter Sunday, 2009. Now he has joined Mark Driscoll and Ted Haggard as a megachurch pastor who has destroyed his own ministry. On Sunday, June 21, Tchividjian resigned from Coral Ridge, confessing to an extramarital affair.
The fall of Tchividjian calls us to prayer and reflection. Christians should pray for the man, for his family, and for Coral Ridge. And witnessing such sin should rouse each Christian to repentance for his own.
This episode also calls for reflection on Tchividjian’s ministerial legacy—a legacy that includes an unusual (for Evangelicals) affinity with Lutheranism. Tchividjian has expressed his appreciation for Lutheranism, and the Liberate Ministry, which he founded and fronted until its recent closing, gave prominent speaking and writing platforms to Lutherans. With his promotion of Lutheran theology and theologians, Tchividjian seems to have sought to fill the void noted by Kevin DeYoung, whose 2011 post “What’s Up With the Lutherans?” puzzled over the lack of interaction between Lutheranism and Evangelicalism. The question has received significant attention over the years, from authors including David T. Koyzis , Collin Garbarino , Greg Forster, D.G. Hart, Anthony Sacramone, and James R. Rogers. I have added my own voice to that mix.
Given my earlier plea for more interaction between Lutheranism and Evangelicalism, one might expect that I would have been pleased with Tchividjian’s promotion of Lutheran theology. I was not—because the theological perspective he offered held no promise for lasting rapprochement between Lutherans and Evangelicals. What Tchividjian promoted was a peculiar school of Lutheranism: the “Radical Lutheranism” of the late theologian Gerhard Forde.
A unique, even idiosyncratic atonement scheme drives Forde’s Radical Lutheranism. For Forde, Christ’s death is neither a penal substitution between the righteous savior and sinful humans, nor a satisfaction of the debt owed to God. Instead, Christ’s death is the means by which sinners understand the depth of their captivity to sin. With this understanding, sinners can cease their efforts of self-justification, having faith in the grace and mercy of God—which always had been offered, even without the work of Christ. In other words, Christ’s salvific work is revelatory, revealing the eternal mercies of God to sinners—and thus revealing to sinners that they always had been accepted by God, in His eternal grace. In Forde’s system, therefore, sin is not so much a transgression against God’s expectation of purity in deed and heart, as much as it is a failure to trust in God’s mercy. Christ came to free us from sin by arousing such trust.
Forde's views are so anomalous that they contradict even classical Lutheran doctrine! Consider, for example, Martin Luther’s explanation of Christ’s work as found in the Large Catechism:
We fell under [God’s] wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal damnation, as we had merited and deserved. . . . [Jesus Christ] delivered us poor lost men from the jaws of hell, has won us, made us free, and brought us again into the favor and grace of the Father. . . . He suffered, died and was buried, that He might make satisfaction for me and pay what I owe, not with silver nor gold, but with His own precious blood.
Plainly, Forde’s views of Christ’s work are at variance with this central teaching of the Lutheran Confessions. For Forde, Christ’s work leads fallen humans into accepting the eternally offered grace of God. God’s wrath does not need to be satisfied. Christ’s death does not bring sinners once again into God’s favor and grace. This eccentric take on the Gospel leads Forde to peculiar stances on other theological loci, such as God’s Law and sanctification.
Forde intended these idiosyncrasies, in part, to amplify the difference between Lutheran theology and other theological traditions—thus increasing the challenge of dialogue between Radical Lutherans and other Christians. But his theological system threatens ecumenical discourse in a way that not even Forde anticipated.
Theology Is for Proclamation is the name of one of Forde's most popular books, and the title summarizes his view of the theologian's task. According to Forde, all of theology should be aimed at shaking people out of their habits of self-justification so that they might trust instead in the justification of God. Indeed, Radical Lutheranism amounts to little else than reminding people of grace (and a peculiar understanding of grace, at that). This is the end of theology. Radical Lutheranism leaves no room for other theological endeavors, such as Christian ethics or aesthetics, because it neglects the Bible’s teaching that justification is itself a means to other ends, such as good works (Ephesians 2:10) and the adoration of God (Ephesians 1:12).
If theology is not a means to the adoration of God, then neither is it a means to Christian friendship—nor to ecumenism. C.S. Lewis described friends as those who stand side by side, brought together in a shared gaze upon something that both love. Christian friendship will be fully realized in the eschaton, when all God’s people will be united in a shared gaze upon the beatific vision. But even today, the shared adoration of the Triune God binds his people as friends across often necessary (yet always sad) ecclesiastical divisions. By leaving little if any place for adoration, Radical Lutheranism threatens this most vital ecumenical force.
I still hope to see more interaction between Lutheranism and Evangelicalism. Lasting progress, however, will come neither through a theology which is schismatic by design nor through the advocacy of celebrity pastors. Put not your hope in princes. Rather, my hope is in quiet and humble Christian friendship, forged by shared love of the Triune God. My hope is in Him who arouses that love. My hope is in the Prince of Peace.
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.