On Christian Formation and Lutheran Theology

Is There an Entry for “Formation” in the Lutheran Lexicon?

A. On Formation

In those branches of Christian tradition where the term itself is most at home, “formation” is viewed as a deliberate undertaking in which those who are spiritually more mature direct and assist the less mature, and “forming” is seen as an apt term for this process: there are various disciplines and exercises aimed at shaping the Christian life, helping one acquire the proper habits (or virtues) and shed inappropriate ones, and so forth. But in other Christian communities, the very idea of “forming” is suspect, as running counter to the way human personhood ought to be described as well as to the way the Holy Spirit works with and in human beings. … Sanctification is God’s work – not the product of human programs; further, “forming” is not as accurate a term for what the Spirit does as, say, “regeneration.” Most of those who take this alternative to the language of “formation” still find appropriate ways of nurturing and guiding persons in the life of faith, and ways of describing the spiritual state of the life of the unregenerate and the regenerate, the immature and the mature Christian – but with some characteristic differences in both conception and procedure. There are similar ranges of variation among Christian groups as to, for example, the role involvement in Christian practice plays in spiritual formation – and as to what sort of Christian practice is most crucial.

from Charles Wood, An Invitation to Theological Study (Trinity Press Intl, 1994), 27.

B. Standing Questions for Lutherans

Would they [the 16th c Reformers]…have endorsed the sort of intentional training in virtuous works and deliberate cultivation of Christian character that is advocated by the supporters of virtue ethics? Is the exhortation to good works the same thing as the inculcation of virtue? Did the reformers approve the idea that individual Christian character could and should be formed through human effort as virtue ethics holds, or did they rely solely on the gospel’s power of transformation? Was there a place within the Christian faith and specifically within Lutheranism for the teaching of virtue, or were Christian virtues the essentially automatic fruit of the gospel and justification?

from Joel Biermann, A Case for Character: Toward A Lutheran Virtue Ethics (Fortress Press, 2014), 73.

C. One Strand of the Received Wisdom

41. Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace.

from Martin Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, 1517.

The quest to be a virtuous or pious person is not a Christian quest.

from Gerhard Forde, “The Christian Life,” in Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2. Eds. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, (Fortress Press, 1984), 438. [italics original]

Virtue is not the goal of life; virtue is our problem.

from Steven Paulson, Lutheran Theology (T&T Clark, 2011), 2.

D. A counter vision

I want to be part of a community with the habits and practices [i.e. virtues] that will make me do what I would otherwise not choose to do and then to learn to like what I have been forced to do [i.e. formation by habituation].

from Stanley Hauerwas, In Good Company (Univ Notre Dame Pr, 1995), 75.

Is Lutheran theology adequately capacious to assimilate Hauerwas’ admission? Or does this topic expose a structural blind spot for Lutherans? Or is it Hauerwas who’s missing the bigger picture? However we come down on these questions, I’m glad folks like Biermann are at least continuing the conversation.

Two Approaches to Ecumenism

Two Approaches to Ecumenism

A. Gerhard Forde

… the ELCA statement on ecumenism seems more geared towards what we ought to be prepared to give up — more interested in selling the farm than in contributing from its bounty. What, after all, do Lutherans have to contribute to this postliberal, postmodern age? Well, what is it that keeps a postliberal Lutheran catholic? What keeps me, for instance, in the catholic faith, ties me to the Trinitarian confession of the church catholic? … What keeps this postliberal Lutheran catholic is precisely the most radical facets of the early Lutheran Reformation, such matters as the “theology of the cross,” the anthropology emerging from the argument about the “bondage of the will,” the hermeneutics of “letter and spirit,” and “law and gospel.” These are some of the things we have to contribute. … Lutherans actually have something of value to say, and it is not a proper or faithful move to leave it all behind to enter the middle kingdom where all cats are gray.

We Lutherans have a contribution that is a vital understanding of what it means to preach the gospel and to give the sacramental gifts.

from A More Radical Gospel, Eds. Mattes and Paulson, (Eerdmans, 2005), 188.

B. The Princeton Proposal

71. The disciplines of unity are penitential. As St. Paul teaches, for the sake of unity we must be willing to suspend gospel freedom and conform to the limitations of the weak. This process will be ascetical; it will necessarily involve the sacrifice of real but limited goods for the sake of greater good. We are convinced, however, that this ascetical dimension is necessary if the ecumenical project of modern Christianity is to move forward. Unity will require our churches not only to renounce the selfishness and insularity that we all dislike and easily see as sinful. It will also require our churches to embrace a spiritual poverty that has the courage to forgo genuine riches of a tradition for the sake of a more comprehensive unity in the truth of the gospel.

from In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, Eds. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, (Eerdmans, 2003), 58.

Book Notice: Marianna Forde

Marianna Forde, Gerhard Forde: A Life. Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2014. 247 pgs.

Marianna Forde has written a welcome tribute to her late husband Gerhard Forde. Gerhard, or “Ga” as his family knew him, and who passed away in 2005, taught theology for nearly forty years at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. In theological circles Gerhard will surely be remembered for his many writings, his “Radical Lutheranism,” and his inimitable articulation of Reformation commonplaces like the distinction between law and gospel, the bondage of the will, and justification by faith. A credit of Marianna’s work, though, is its premise that there is just as much reason to appreciate the memory of Gerhard the man as there is for Gerhard the theologian.

Marianna develops this lesson in two principal ways. First, interspersed throughout the volume, there runs a biographical narrative that outlines the major episodes that structured and colored Gerhard’s life and ministry. Much of the material is what you would expect from a biography. Marianna details Gerhard’s childhood in 1920s Starbuck, Minnesota; the tragic early loss of his mother; his decision to switch from the study of chemistry to theology; his time in the U.S. Army Medical Corps (‘46-‘47); his attendance at Martin Luther Kings Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech accompanied by Robert Jenson and Sam Preus; his courtship of Marianna and the beginnings of their family; and his work at the universities of Harvard, Tübingen, Oxford, and other institutions. Second, Marianna includes a copious amount of first-hand recollections of Gerhard from siblings, friends, colleagues, and students. From these vignettes much is learned about Gerhard that his own writings shed only little light on, namely, his political sympathies for the working classes, his profound enjoyment of music and poetry, and his partiality for understated, dry witticisms.

When it does come to Gerhard the theologian, Marianna proves just as able a guide. This is not the least surprising considering, she admits, “my theological understanding was much increased listening to Gerhard very often discuss theology over the dinner table during forty years of marriage” (7). The result is the most comprehensive introduction to Gerhard’s writings and characteristic themes to-date. Gerhard is situated as a student of the Luther Renaissance. Particularly influential for him were the Lutheran theologians Lauri Haikola (1917-87, Finnish) and Hans J. Iwand (1899-1960, German). Gerhard himself contributed to the recovery of Luther’s theology of the cross and eschatological sensibilities, and he sought to demonstrate their fruitfulness for contemporary systematic use. Gerhard’s work in atonement theology is a prime case-in-point. Still controversial, even in some Lutheran circles, are Gerhard’s treatments, or lack thereof, of sanctification, the third use of the law, and ecclesiology, though Gerhard would more likely consider these lacunae badges of honor. A more germane testament to Gerhard’s ministry as a theologian, however, would have to be the generations of students who, stirred by his teaching and preaching, “have described what happened to them as a conversion” (167).

The volume is not without its share of shortcomings. At times the narrative dallies with repetitiveness (cf. 69-70 and 121). It may be overgenerous with lengthy quotations. Its endnote apparatus is a curious editing choice. The volume would also have been improved had it included an index. None of these features, though, eclipse its achievements.

What’s nicest to see is the attention Marianna pays to Gerhard’s central insight: “dogmatics cannot save us—only preaching and the sacraments can do that” (114). It’s difficult to overstate how formative this conviction was for Gerhard’s body of work. It even came to inform his choice of audience, for Gerhard “refused to write his theology for [the] guild. Instead, he wrote for preachers. He could have written for the guild, of course. His mind was first class, and he wrote beautifully. But, like St Paul, he came to preach Christ and him crucified. Toward that goal, he was steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord” (190).

For Marianna’s work in preserving the memory of such a theologian, and the gospel Gerhard served, we owe Mrs. Forde our thanks.

Gerhard Forde on theology and proclamation

Gerhard Forde on correlating the church’s theology and proclamation

This quote may need some introducing. Fundamental to Forde’s thought was the distinction he drew between theology and proclamation. Forde distinguished between them by way of mapping their difference onto another distinction, that between the church’s primary and secondary discourse. Primary discourse speaks from the first person point of view to the second. E.g., statements like “I love you,” “I baptize you in the name of..,” etc. It is the in actu language of the church as it engages in the commerce of its practical life. Proclamation in particular, then, is that species of primary discourse that actually delivers grace to its addressees when it’s deployed. Secondary discourse, on the other hand, is reflection upon, or talk about, primary discourse. So if primary discourse says, “Your sins are forgiven,” secondary discourse adds, “and here is what we mean by sin and forgiveness.” It’s this latter mode of discourse that theology speaks. Theology, then, is charged with the task of overseeing and regulating the church’s primary discourse, such as its proclamation. It is meant to teach the church how to speak its message faithfully. So much for my introduction.

It seems to me that one of the biggest temptations in theology today is […] to confuse the lecture, the explanation […] with the proclamation, the primary discourse, the “I declare unto you.” When that confusion is made, what happens is that the proclamation invariably gets lost and is ultimately silenced. […]

Without proclamation, there will be no systematic theology — at least not proper systematic theology. If systematic theology does not understand the place of proclamation, and realize that its purpose is to drive to proclamation, then it will overstep its bounds and try to usurp proclamation. […] Systematic theology, that is, has to recognize that there are definite limits to the enterprise, boundaries to our explanations. It has to realize that proclamation is not the practical application or popularizing of systematic theories, but that it is itself the last move in the theological operation, the last step in the argument. If done properly, systematic theology leads one to the point where the only move left is to leave the lectern and enter the pulpit. […] The only point, finally, in saying so loudly and persistently as we do in our systematics that grace, faith, and all those things are free and unconditional gifts is precisely to give them, to do it, to say it. That is what God is up to in this world.

from The Preached God, (Eerdmans, 2007), 47-48.

Gerhard Forde on the fall

Gerhard Forde on humanity’s “upward” fall

We must consider the fall and sin differently from the traditional scheme. The fall is really not what the word implies at all. It is not a downward plunge to some lower level in the great chain of being, some lower rung on the ladder of morality and freedom. Rather, it is an upward rebellion, an invasion of the realm of things “above,” the usurping of divine prerogative. To retain traditional language, one would have to resort to an oxymoron and speak of an “upward fall.” […]

Does such rebellion mean that the image [of God] is lost, either partially or wholly? That question is really not to the point since it comes from the picture of the downward fall. There one treats the image as though it were a faculty or an endowment that could be impaired or lost by falling to a lower place on the scale. Usually the “image” has to do with “reason,” on the one hand, and free will, on the other. Humans are “like God” in that they have rational freedom. In the scheme of the downward fall, consequently, one is anxious to protect free will from total corruption or loss. If one cannot, the whole scheme will have to be jettisoned. Those who speak of “total depravity” are thus quite naturally a dire threat and often charged with manicheism and the like.

If one looks at the human predicament as the consequence of an upward fall, however, then much of the difficulty can be avoided. What one “loses” in such a “fall” is faith and trust in God. One becomes, as stated previously, bound against God, indeed, a bondservant of Satan. The image is not lost, but turned to its opposite. One now images not God but the divine adversary. Even though the image is not lost as such, one can see that the predicament is infinitely more serious than the relatively mild impairment or partial loss envisaged by the downward fall. The God-given faculties are not lost, but rather bound to the service of Satan.

from Theology is for Proclamation, (Fortress, 1990), 48-49.