Lutheran Options

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Contemporary Lutheranism is impoverished by the narrowing in the last few decades of theological options. My own negative reading of Forde far predates my ecumenical work, but goes back to grad school in the mid-1970s and was a function of the kind of Lutheran theology that engaged me.

When I began graduate school I was bowled over by my first detailed encounter with Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Quickly, however, I came to have some of the standard Lutheran doubts about the systematic structure of Barth’s theology. The critique of Barth by Elert, focussing on the categories of law and gospel, seemed inadequate. I discovered Regin Prenter, the Danish theologian who had begun as a disciple of Barth, but broke with him in the 1940s. Prenter used the richer categories of creation and redemption to criticize Barth. When I learned to (very haltingly) read Danish, I discovered how deeply Prenter’s understanding of creation and its role in theology was indebted to Nicolai Grundtvig. (The English translations of Prenter eliminate most of the discussions of Grundtvig.) Grundtvig’s positive evaluation of creation and its important function in his outlook lays a groundwork for a more nuanced understanding of law. When I then read Forde’s The Law-Gospel Debate, my suspicion was aroused by the absence of any significant, positive function for the doctrine of creation.

Grundtvig’s writings are something of a mess and there are many versions of Grundtvigianism, but he represents an option within the Lutheran tradition quite different from what one finds in, say, Forde or Eberhard Jüngel.

Another lost strand is that of the Heidelberg school of the mid-twentieth century: Edmund Schlink, Peter Brunner, and, a bit later, Albrecht Peters. Their most important work was not translated into English. Here there is a confessionally serious, but more ecumenically open sort of Lutheranism, less shaped by existentialism or the urge to make Lutheranism distinctive. This school has little influence in Germany today (despite its extension in Wolfhart Pannenberg), but lives on to a degree in Robert Jenson, who did his doctoral work with Peter Brunner. A rediscovery, especially of Brunner, would do Lutheranism much good.

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8 Responses to “Lutheran Options”

  1. Rev'd C. Lynn Bailey Says:

    I remember my systematics class with Dr. Root in 1980. Our source for the class was the theology of Regin Prenter. It was very challenging, and I will never forget the phrase “echoing and affirming God’s good creation.”

    Thanks, Dr. Root, for those systematic days!

    C. Lynn Bailey
    LTSS class of 1984

    • Pr. Keith A. Hunsinger Says:

      I am another product of that first class of yours Dr. Root. Like Lynn, I thank you for the grounding I received. It still finds expression in the work I am called to do both in parish life and more often in ecumenical and churchwide endeavors.

  2. Jared Eggebraaten Says:

    I am unfamiliar with Grundtvig, and after a quick look I wasn’t able to find any writings in English; are there any? Also, it sounds like Grundtvig may share an affinity with Gustaf Wingren on the topic of Creation/Law. Where would you place Wingren in all this?

    Thank you for your thoughtfulness,

    JE

    • Michael Root Says:

      There is very little of Grundtvig in English. His writings on theology were mostly occasional and scattered. There was a small book of selections done in the 1970s (Grundtvig, N. F. S. Selected Writings. Ed. Johannes Knudsen. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976.). There is an excellent biography and study of his sermons by A. M. Alchin, from the University of Aarhus Press. The same press is starting a series of translations of Grundtvig into English.
      It has been a long time since I read Wingren, but I don’t remember extensive references to Grundtvig. I would guess, however, that Grundtvig and the traditions that shaped Grundtvig are also part of Wingren’s background. Wingren was in some respects similar to Prenter, esp. in his critique of Barth, but in other ways quite different.

  3. Pastor Nathan Hilkert Says:

    I think that the most important contributions to our current malaise might be to encourage and support translation of good Lutheran theology. In an earlier age, Lutheran pastors were expected to know German and Latin, and thus a lack of good translations of, say, Gerhard or Loehe made sense. Young pastors these days are lacking much that is essential, including the mid-20th century Lutherans you mention here. A pity.

    You’ve mentioned elsewhere that there is not much good “middlebrow” Lutheran writing; theology that is accessible and compelling for the average lay person. On the one hand, antinomian or proto-gnostic Lutheran writings are a dime a dozen. On the other, popular Evangelicals of a Barthian stripe are easy to find, too. I find myself gravitating toward the latter in response to the former, but like you, have some objections to Barth rooted in a theology of creation.

    I think that we need a revival of “confessionally serious, ecumenically open” Lutheranism, the kind that takes law seriously but also addresses a more catholic concern for the doctrine of creation, among parish pastors. This can’t really happen until either: a) German and Latin are required in seminary, which is unlikely, or b) there are translations of Brunner, Prenter and the like.

    • M. Martin Says:

      As a Lutheran candidate for ordination currently attending a non-Lutheran seminary, I appreciate your reminder of the need for more “middlebrow” Lutheran writing of the “confessionally serious, ecumenically open” bent. While certainly it would be wonderful if access to the rich Lutheran tradition of this and other centuries could be made more accessible, equally important, I think, is the need for Lutheran writers (and not just those with Ph.Ds) to start thinking about how to communicate new paradigms built on traditional foundations to the church at large – not just in closed debates with the like-minded, but trusting that there is a desire among the people for something that will feed all of us in this time of famine.

      I wonder why the Lutheran tradition has been unable, recently, to produce a writer like Henri de Lubac, who was able to dig deeply into the neglected resources of the Roman Church and then share the Gospel treasured in the past to a wide audience int he present. Any sort of Lutheran “resourcement” has to, in my mind, be accompanied by an equally strong commitment to making this knowledge available in terms useful to ordinary Lutherans in their every day church situations – not just to other seminarians and leaders.

  4. John Hoyum Says:

    Being “confessionally serious” would do much good for modern Lutheranism. Indeed, many churches are not celebrating the mass weekly or on major feasts. Nor is private confession incredibly common.

    But a rigid confessionalism can be blamed, in some ways, for the some recent and distinctly Lutheran problems.

    The problem in modern Lutheran theology is the narrow lens through which the Christian faith is view. One theological camp is trying to repristinate 17th century Saxony. Others, like Forde and Elert, have attempted to create a Lutheranism based only on a segment of Luther’s thought. Still others are interested in expunging anything uniquely Christian from the Church’s teaching and proclamation.

    Lutheran theology for the future must be articulated in a way that is catholic and ecumenical in addition to being evangelical.

  5. Derek Nelson Says:

    In addition to the Heidelberg school, one might add Ebeling. I read much of his Dogmatik des Christlichen Glaubens last summer, and it was absolutely fascinating, esp. vol. 1. And it’s not nearly as determined by existentialism as you might fear.

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