The Problem Isn’t Just Liberalism


A mistake being made by some opposed to recent developments in the ELCA, I think, is to blame everything simply on ‘liberalism.’ Omitted is a reflection on how modern developments within Lutheranism, even and especially among some counted as confessionalists, are a large part of the problem.

Take this quotation from Werner Elert I ran across today (The Structure of Lutheranism, p. 412 – p. 361 of Vol 1 in the German): “Christ’s righteousness is my righteousness because the Word pertains to me. But it pertains to me only if this righteousness remains unentangled with my empirical existence. Faith, which hears this Word, has no other function than this hearing and exists only by hearing. If in spite of this it is my I that hears and believes, it can be only the ‘pure’ I, that is, the I cannot be further qualified in an empirico-psychological manner, therefore the transcendental I.” Once this move is made (and it is made in a similar manner by Gerhard Forde, without the Kantian trappings), the ‘empirico-psychological’ self, the self that actually lives in the world, is cut off from the self that truly lives in Christ. Ethics, especially as it relates to physical actions, then exists in a different dimension than faith. From here, it is downhill to where we are today in the ELCA. The church cannot be divided over an ethical question. Granted, it may be a ways down this hill to get to where we are now and admirers of Elert (and Forde) may believe they have ways of stopping the slide down the hill, but this sheltering of the new self in Christ from life in the world (the ‘gnostic’ move in Forde that David Yeago has identified) is one element in the mix that has produced our present mess.

Two comments have asked for further information on the critique mentioned but not developed in the posting. David Yeago’s analysis of Forde is developed in two pieces from the early 1990s:

David S. Yeago, “Theological Impasse and Ecclesial Future.” Lutheran Forum 26.4 (Nov 1992): 36–45.
David S. Yeago, “Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology: Reflections on the Cost of a Construal.” Pro Ecclesia 2 (1993): 37–49.

Unfortunately, neither is online. I find his argument devastating, all the more because it is unpolemical in tone. I utilize (but don’t really expand much further) his analysis in an essay on “Preaching Justification” in the new book on preaching by members of the Southern Seminary faculty: Proclaiming the Gospel: Preaching for the Life of the Church (Fortress).

53 Responses to “The Problem Isn’t Just Liberalism”

  1. Christopher Luke Says:

    Professor Root,

    Would you expand on this argument, perhaps into a full article? We would benefit from reading and discussing it more. Or, if you know of something already written about this (you mentioned Yeago’s critique of Forde).

  2. W.B. Picklesworth Says:

    Yes, I second that motion. I’ve enjoyed some classes with Dr. Paulson and read a number of Forde’s books, and have the nagging feeling that the theology is a bit ‘thin.’ I think you’ve put your finger on it. Lived faith, though dangerous in its own way (self-righteous pietism or liberal activism as the case may be), needs to be recognized and nurtured or its absence eventually causes the very problem it seeks to avoid.

    • Michael Root Says:

      See the follow-up I have added to the post. Sorry it is a reference you will need to find a library or someone with back issues of Lutheran Forum or Pro Ecclesia to track down.
      Michael Root

  3. Christopher Luke Says:

    I’d say this really needs to be discussed at some length and with all seriousness by we Lutherans. Hopefully this can be a part of the discussion as efforts for change and renewal are busily on their way.

  4. Fraser Pearce Says:

    That post hit the mark.

  5. Paul L. Knudson Says:

    I have no doctoral degree, but I have had three quarters of classes from Forde on the history of Christian thought, read multiple times much if not everything he has published, and I find Dr. Roots assertions astounding. To link Forde to gnosticism and anit-nomianism is beyond the pale. This is an example of what drives wedges between confessional Lutherans in the most destructive way imaginable. I still remember the Call to Faithfulness Conference in which Forde and David Yeago spoke. This division is being bridged in many circles, and today I have to read this nonsense. It is frustrating beyond comprehension. And any notion that this theology as represented by Forde is shallow as one response indicated is also ridiculous.

    I have been reading books by Oswald Bayer from Tubingen. His positions have much in common with that of Forde. Neither of them are the source of our problems. This is just goofy.

  6. Harvey Mozolak Says:

    I am afraid I do not understand what is being asserted. Something is being said about Christ’s righteousness not depending on me/us and then somehow that relates to ethics, but …. Can someone put it in a example or in other words? Am I dense? Harvey Mozolak

    • Michael Root Says:

      Some added comments:
      1. The issue, for both Elert and Forde, is how the new person in Christ is or is not present in the world. In quite differing ways (more philosophical for Elert, more straightforwardly theological for Forde), they each allow little place for that person in this world. For Elert, the righteousness of Christ is only appropriated by the transcendental I, an I distinct from any ‘empirico-psychological’ reality. For Forde, the only intra-historical reality is the endless putting-to-death of the old person. “Being a Christian means ever and anew to be blasted by that divine lightening (for we always forget) and to begin anew” (Justification by Faith, p. 50). Or, “Man’s acting and thinking in this life remain an acting and a thinking in this age, under the eschatological limit. The fact that it is also total grace means that man can be content to allow his acting and thinking to remain as it is, totally in this age; he can trust in Christ entirely for the gift of the new age.” (The Law-Gospel Debate, pp. 223f; emphasis added). Herein lies what Yeago calls the gnostic tendency in Forde; the removal of the new self from this world. I would really urge those interested to seek out the essays by Yeago I cited in the post.
      2. As I have argued from the beginning of this blog, I don’t think a circling of the wagons around ‘confessional Lutheranism’ will help theologically, however much it might be useful church-politically. The present situation is the fruit of tendencies deeply embedded in modern Lutheranism. An example (to again pick up a theme of Forde’s) is the functional understanding of the law whereby it becomes entirely negative, rather than the good gift of God that indicates what pleases Him and what conduces to human flourishing. Until such problems are addressed, only band-aids are being applied.

  7. Carol Weist Says:

    I studied with Dr. Forde as well and his teaching was valuable to someone who had not been raised Lutheran or was from a family which had been Lutheran for generations. My apologies for not remembering where I read this, but at least once I have come across the proposition that all Western Christianity tends toward gnosticism. This is an over-simplification, but Western Christianity does tend toward becoming a head trip. Even those who talk about subjective experience, those labelled pietists and Pentecostals, many or most who are not Lutheran, have a little gnosticism in the arguments they use to make their case.

    Defining gnosticism is a bit like defining a moving target. Take another heresy, modalism. I try not to imply modalism in my teaching and preaching, but I have no doubt that some of what I have preached on Trinity Sunday could be heard modalistically. I generally throw in some caveat against that, but if someone is distracted they might miss it. It takes the whole rest of the year to keep preaching that redemption is the work of the entire Trinity (as are creation and sanctification).

    I have struggled with what it means to preach the theology of the cross. For me, it is not how often you mention or describe what happened on the cross. For me, it is not how often how often you teach or preach the concept or idea of being saved by grace alone, there is absolutely nothing you can do to be saved. The foundation of preaching is Christ, and I hope that being saved not by our own works but by grace alone is a consistent pre-supposition of my preaching and teaching whether mentioned explicitly or not.

    As I have actually been in the parish, and reflected on what was taught, many things have served well, but I have done some things differently than I was taught whether as a musician or how to a particular type of needlework or how to serve as a pastor. I don’t follow all of Professor Juel’s recommendations either, but I do remember a comment he made in a first year New Testament course about the fact that for most of us most of our parishioners would already been well-taught that they were saved by grace and although we all need to be frequently reminded of that, most of us will be called to places where people need also to be taught how to live out of the life-giving faith that we have been given. Dr. Juel said it in fewer words.

    I am working on an adult SS class that talks about the ancient heresies using the creeds and the Augsburg Confession as part of the framework. I know confirmation students can grasp that sort of thing and see through us adults. And it is an opportunity to shed some light on my own thinking and ways of expressing things, and makes some corrections or changes of emphasis if need be.

    Thank you for the many, many thoughtful comments and ideas on this blog. I don’t mean to imply that being a thoughtful idea person is being incorrigibly gnostic or gnostic at all. But I feel moved to be more vigilant about that in my own life.

  8. John Stephenson Says:

    Wow, this is deep stuff, and you are undoubtedly on to something, to say the least. I shall be tracking down Dr. Yeago’s articles to which you refer. Please keep posting your reflections on this issue.

  9. Dave B. Says:

    The anti-synergistic teachings of Elert and Forde have morphed into antinomianism countless times within the ELCA. . .Whether the topic is infant communion, ecumenism, homosexulaity, the results are always the same. The problem with Forde, for instance, is that he fails to distinguish between the “Old Adam” and the conscience, which is the Law written upon the heart. Unwittingly, these anti-synergistic attacks against the “Old Adam” end up destroying one’s individual conscience, leaving an entire denomination with a belief system that a new life “In Christ” is one without a conscience. It is a belief system that ultimately advocates psychopathy!

    So, what happens to the conscience, the law written upon the heart, when one becomes a Christian? And does the Holy Spirit work through both Law and Gospel, or simply the “Gospel” (in the narrow sense of the term)? What say you, ELCA?

  10. Tom Pearson Says:

    Unfortunately, I haven’t read either of the articles by Dr. Yeago cited by Dr. Root, so I speak out of ignorance of Dr. Yeago’s analysis of Gerhard Forde.

    I agree with Dr. Root that a retreat to “confessional Lutheranism” is no longer a helpful move (that phrase — “confessional Lutheranism” — is so swollen with, as they used to say, “a surplus of meaning” these days that it is available for all sorts of mischief). More important, it seems to me, is for those who struggle to re-connect orthodox Lutheranism with the larger tradition of western Christianity to frame in a more satisfactory way two enduring problems in Lutheran theology.

    The first invovles Lutheran theological method. That method has always tended toward a strong reductionism, a reductionism that celebrates certain basic themes, and then requires all of theology to be explicitly derived from those basic themes. The various “solas” are one example; another is the singular role that justification plays in Lutheran theology. My sense is that it may be fairer to Gerhard Forde to describe him as a theological reductionist of this Lutheran sort, rather than to accuse him of gnosticism. I read him as an exemplar of a well-established methodology within Lutheran theology, a methodology that typically produces the baleful effects lamented by Dr. Root of separating the “transcendental I” from the person who lives in the world. I think it would be useful to begin exploring the possibility of articulating an “expansionist” Lutheran theological method rather than the reductionist model used by Forde and others, in order to find a way to situate historic Lutheranism within the larger context of western Christianity (which, among other things, might give Lutherans the resources to start talking about ethics again).

    The second enduring problem is the Lutheran theological concept of sin, and the effect that concept has too often had on matters of common morality. If it’s true that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves,” that alone renders ethics of limited importance: whatever we do, it will always be sin. Lutherans can’t abandon this concept of sin because it is too deeply implicated in our notion of justification, and in our theology of the cross. So we wind up ignoring ethical concerns, since there is no theological ground for addressing them. One way out of this might be to refurbish our Lutheran understanding of the close connection between creation and vocation, and locate questions of law and morality as operative within our earthly vocations. There can be no questiion that the law is good; the question is, given the sinful conditions under which we presently live, what is the proper locus and expression of law and morality? Positioning them within our several vocations, and relating those back to a strong doctrine of creation, seems a viable option to me.

    • Michael Root Says:

      I am in complete agreement with Dr. Pearson on the need for a more ‘expansionist’ Lutheran theology. My sense (here I simply need to do more reading) is that the Lutheran scholastics generally had such a theology. The importance of justification did not lead to the idea that all theological loci should be derivable from the doctrine of justification. We do not need a repristination theology, but we do need to learn what can be learned from the breadth of the Lutheran past and not just jump from a selective reading of Luther to the 20th century.

  11. Weedon Says:

    Dr. Root,

    I believe you are onto something quite profound here. It ties directly to those who deny that there can be progress in sanctification; it ties directly to Elert (and Koeberle) objecting to the language of the Formula regarding “cooperation” in sanctification; it ties directly to contemporary aversion to the Formula’s language of “healing human nature.” By driving a wedge between the gifted, extra nos righteousness of our Lord and the inchoate, imperfect righteousness which that extra nos righteousness begins to produce, a “theory” has replaced the living in communion with Christ which is by its very nature transformative.

  12. Paul L. Knudson Says:

    The desire for an expansionist Lutheran theology may have the consequences that an orthodox Jewish theologian has found causing problems in Judaism. Michael Wyschogrod challenges the desire of orthodox Judaism to make use of Aristotelian philosophy so that the particularity of an electing God does not embarrass Judaism by cutting it off from great philosophical streams of thought. Wyschogrod once spoke of himself as a Barthian Jew. His thoughts have much in common with the peculiar Lutheran approach to the theological enterprise. I am not as attuned as I shoud be to the desire to have us on the playing field of ethical discernment in the wider theological and philosophical world, but I wonder if this expansionist move is really as great as it might appear. I find it quite striking that an orthodox Jewish scholar of renown is willing to call his community to a radical partiularity that is found in the Hebrew Scriptures. He sees this more promising than the hankering for more universal acceptance he sees in Maimonides who has led Judaism to allign itself more compatibly with Aristotle.

    • Michael Root Says:

      The more ‘expansionist’ (as opposed to reductionist) theology that I would advocate has no problem with particularity. The issue is whether the engagement of that quite particular God with humanity and the world is reduced to a concern with the specific issues of justification (or some other theological locus).

    • David Charlton Says:


      Let me say to begin with that I am no expert in modern philosopy. However, I think it is too simple to pit a Christianity tainted with Platonic or Aristotelian philosophy against one that pure of philosophical influence. I think it would be difficult to find any theologian who is not influenced by one philosophical school or another. Just to name a few, how about Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard? Even among those who are characterized as “confessional Lutherans” as opposed to an “evangelical Catholics”, there is someone like Dennis Bielfeldt, who attributes much of our current mess to faulty philosophical presuppositions.

  13. Paul L. Knudson Says:

    I just read an article in the current Lutheran Quarterly on “Preaching the Justification of Zacchaeus” by V.F. Bud Thompson. He is obviously a student of Forde, but his approach to this story through the work of the justifying God as opposed to the alternatives makes eminent sense. It creates an ethical outcome. I found Wyschogrod, an orthodox Jew, insisting that Judaism not run from God’s electing (choosing of them as his people) very similar to the power of God’s justifying word doing its work. I would need to know a better alternative before I would be enamored by it.

  14. John D. Koch, Jr Says:

    Hello all,

    I ran across this blog the other day and I have to say, I’m surprised by this particular post. I am an Episcopalian currently writing a PhD on Bayer, Forde and Elert in Germany and one of the main reasons I came over here was on account of wanting to learn more about their position on the Law as it related to the “presenting issues” in my own church. I’m far from finished, but the (often made) argument that the trajectory from Elert/Ebeling/Forde/Bayer ultimately results in antinomianism is incorrect. At least, this is the argument I am hoping to make! (but give me a few more years:)

    At any rate, Forde’s essay on “Law and Sexual Behavior,” is a good place to start to see how his position is anything but gnostic:

    And, a good comparison of the ways Elert can be marshaled in defense of both sides is a short article by John T. Pless entited: “The Use and Misuse of Luther in Contemporary Debates on Homosexuality”

    Ok, I’m way out of my confessional depth here–we’d rather speak of Articles:)–but just wanted to chime in. Even if we find ourselves interpreting Forde in different ways, as an “Episcopalian Persisting,” I pray for your continued witness within the ELCA!

    Many blessings,

  15. Christopher Luke Says:

    In the spirit of not wanting to pick on Forde too much, and with the desire to understand how this particular issue perhaps is a broader problem within Lutheranism, I wanted to point to what may be another example.

    Jensen and Gritsch’s classic “Lutheranism” presents Lutheran theology which has as its locus justification and points to how this doctrine permeates all of Lutheran confessional theology. It posits justification as more than a doctrine. Rather it is a metalinguistic reality, a way of talking and enacting. In this understanding (as I have understood it) Law = every promise or statement that is conditional, while Gospel = every promise or statement that is unconditional. I find this a fascinating proposition. However, I personally have a hard time finding this reflected in the actual Confessions (perhaps my fault), and my reading of Scripture and the Fathers seems to contradict this a lot as well. (It seems that Jesus says a lot of “if…then” statements, though this could be understood as Jesus speaking the Law.) It is a difficult concept to grasp.

    I think this understanding of Law and Gospel has filtered into the mind of the ELCA and, in my observation, has become a way of avoiding the Law; ie, we need to not speak and proclaim conditionally but unconditionally. This seems, then, to lead to Unitarian universalism (for proclaiming everyone saved is the ultimate unconditional promise) and a shallow positivism that shies away from anything “negative” (a regular avoidance of the concept of judgment).

    I certainly don’t wish to lay the blame for this at anyone’s feet, and perhaps I have misunderstood Jensen and Gritsch, and ultimately misdiagnosed this problem in the ELCA. But I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and keep coming to this conclusion.

    • Dave B. Says:

      I believe you have put your finger on the unfortunate practical application of conditional (Law)/unconditional (Gospel) theology being promoted within the ELCA. For example, in my former ELCA congregation, the disciples of Forde, in hot pursuit of a “purer” form of Lutheranism, routinely deprecated catechesis prior to communing . . .’cause that was “conditional”. . .and God’s love is unconditional. Without a heart properly prepared by the Law to receive this unconditional grace, an ‘ex opere operato’ form of grace seemed to emerge. The church council eventually voted to remove the word “repentance” from the church’s bylaws concerning those who should receive communion: Repentance is a “work”! Next, it was taught that one must not preach Law prior to Gospel in the church, as this is the wrong sequence. Even the second homosexuality draft back in 1994 actually stated, “This Church’s ‘Confession of Faith’ begins with the Gospel, instead of the sequence implied in ‘Law and Gospel.’

      Such blatant antinomianism is no accident. As young seminarians are indoctrinated with such thinking, they are reluctant to preach Law for fear of legalism, synergism, fundamentalism, Missourism, etc. Better to err on the side of ‘grace’. ‘Don’t put God to a Foolish Test?’ That’s Law, and the Old Adam’s attempt to place a condition on unconditional love. . .So when the church says “jump” from the top of the Temple, we Lutherans have no recourse but to “jump”!

      • Tom Pearson Says:

        The term “antinomian” gets thrown around a lot, but in the Lutheran theological context I’m never quite sure what its boundaries are. Is the segregation of the Law from any theological locus whatsoever considered an instance of antinominainism?

    • Tom Pearson Says:

      It would help to know what “conditions” we are talking about here. Christopher Luke’s analysis of Jensen and Gritsch (whether accurate or not) sounds like a poor man’s Kant, akin to the latter’s well-worn distinction between the categorical and the hypothetical. I can’t see how such concepts can be usefully applied to Law and Gospel, but perhaps that’s my problem. Can anyone suggest what it is that “conditions” the Law, and that does not “condition” the Gospel?

      • Christopher Luke Says:

        I’m not sure I understand the question, but I’m also not sure I understand “Lutheranism” by Jenson and Gritsch. It seems to me that in this book Law and Gospel are a way of speaking: “law-speak” and “gospel-speak”. Law-speak is any form of speaking that uses “If…then…” (If you accept Jesus into your heart, then you will be saved), and gospel-speak is “Because…therefore…” (because Jesus died for you you are saved).

        As Dave B. notes, taking this line of thought (whether intended by the authors or not) repentance is a condition, thus law-speak, and not gospel-speak. As a recent seminarian I can say that the way this is understood is that while we need Law/Gospel distinction, the distinction functions more to identify the way we should not normally speak (if ever): Law. I’m not sure I’ve answered the question though.

  16. John D. Koch, Jr Says:

    Dear Dave et al, (sorry for all of the hyperlinks:)

    This is fascinating.

    I don’t know how Forde is heard from people who have grown up with Law/Gospel terminology from birth, but for us, his interpretation has been nothing short of revolutionary.

    Thanks to Forde (and his students), there has been a complete revival of Law/Gospel preaching and teaching in the Anglican church. We’ve had two Law/Gospel conferences in New York already and are looking towards another in April with Dr. Rod Rosenbladt as the headliner. You all are cordially invited:

    We’ve experienced Forde as those without any Lutheran history, and it promises to be quite a weekend (additionally, the recordings of all of our previous conferences can be found here:

    I’m studying here in Berlin and have met some good LCMS friends who point out where we are not completely Lutheran, but I’m happy to call myself an Anglo-Lutheran any day (particularly with such good historical warrant (cf. Robert Barnes).

    Check out: for the way we are wrestling with this distinction via the culture, and for “the most theologically aggressive podcast recorded in New York city that is dedicated to the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.”

    It is sad that these wonderful, life-giving insight of Forde have been manipulated into the vacuous, tautologous mantra of “All we need is Love”—like we in the Episcopal Church, you guys (ELCA) have a lot of problems, but don’t lay the fault at Forde’s feet–μὴ γένοιτο!

    Many blessings!

    • Dave B. Says:

      John, I am delighted to hear about the revival of the “Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel” that you are experiencing! But, if I were you, I’d stick with Walther. In my opinion, Forde might be good for his defense against synergism to some extent, but his writings, which are weighted with anti-synergistic zeal, are woefully lacking in any defense against the abuse of God’s grace. As a result, it attracts all who are uncomfortable with God’s words of Law and those who prefer a message of grace for victims instead of grace for sinners.

      Forde does not think through things adequately. . . For instance, when Forde speaks about the resistance we all have to hearing God’s words of grace, he automatically attributes this to “The Old Adam”. However, he does not consider that such resistance just also might be the resistance God places in each of our hearts called the conscience. I would agree that the ego in all of us tries to climb the ladder of righteousness. But if we make the mistake of equating the “Old Adam” with the conscience rather than the ego, we unwittingly allow a [false] Gospel message to destroy the Law in our heart. The true Gospel, however, is not in the demolition business. But the Law is. And the purpose of the Law is to crush the ego, not the conscience.

      What I have witnessed in the ELCA is that Forde’s disciples like to use the Gospel as a hammer. They like to proclaim of an “in-your-face” grace. Unfortunately, this is not a grace that comes through repentant faith, but a grace that works ‘ex opere operato.’

    • Randy Gibbs Says:

      Here, Here! Don’t blame Forde for the problem. When he insists that the announcement of forgiveness does something, actually “creates” a response, most don’t actually believe it. Thus the insistence on the law as the saving announcement. (“we have to have it or the gospel won’t work.”) This is the objection of the “self” that won’t die but is being put to death in the proclamation. The Gospel message does not destroy the law, but it is the end of the law. ( Paul has something to say here.) I might add that the law not only crushes the “self” but puts it to death as well. The announcement of what God is doing in Christ is not always heard as “good news”!

      • Tom Pearson Says:

        This is excellent. Unfortunately, it provides no grounding for ethics. If it’s true that Forde’s account of proclamation “creates” a response, this speaks to the motivational element in proclamation, but offers nothing in terms of the normative content of that response. We hear the Word proclaimed in Law and Gospel and we are moved to respond to it; but how then shall we live? All this simply reinforces my sense that ethics falls outside the Lutheran theological framework, and that we must either recapture a theological loci (such as a robust doctrine of creation as entailing vocation) to work from, or else adopt a secular model of ethics to fill in this gap in Lutheran theology.

        As an aside, it continues to baffle me how some contemporary Lutheran folks seem to assume that motivational ideals such as “love,” or “service,” or “compassion,” automatically supply their own normative content — as long as you are properly motivated toward service to the neighbor, you will just know what is appropriate to do in every situation. Such a notion of “service” or “love” is apparently self-informing, a suggestion I have a hard time making sense of.

        I appreciate what Gerhard Forde has contributed to a clearer sense of how Lutherans are to engage in proclamation of Law and Gospel. But he bestows few resources for us to engage in ethical reflection and action. I wonder — is there a theological connection between the fact that Forde has a malnourished ethics and the fact that he insists on an impoverished ecclesiology?

      • Randy Gibbs Says:

        Creation as a gift, and vocation is exactly where Forde would turn us. See Oswald Bayer’s piece in the Autumn issue of Lutheran quarterly entitled “Preaching the Word”. I believe he says this very clearly.

        Once one is free from storming heaven one can recieve creation and neighbor as gift. Service and love is not self- informing at all. Service is dependent on the need of the neighbor. (even this is neighbor focused) Do what you have to do to help them because you are gift to them from God. It has nothing to do with salvation, but everything to do with who you are (who the announcement of the Gospel has claimed you to be.) Luther (Forde, Bayer) all go right to Vocation.

        I am not sure what you mean about malnourished ethics. Is it because he refuses to let the law be the final word over us? Or is it because he doesn’t spend much time spelling out what behaviors of the Christian should look like? (I am not sure he could do better in this regard than Scripture.) I’ve never thought of his ethics as malnourished, in fact I have never given it much thought beyond the concept of creation and vocation. I’m not sure why many don’t get that from Forde, but apparently they do not. It is a shame.

        I am also not sure what form an impoverished ecclesiology takes. Do you mean he spells out no particular form of Church? I find his comments describing the church and it’s role and mission quite fine.

        In the end Forde was just interested in getting preachers to preach, proclaim, give the gift of the Gospel. He wasn’t all that interested in being the one to provide resources for ethical reflection. Law and Gospel, fine. Law and Gospel and Law, not so much.

  17. Sally Says:

    Thanks for that post, Dave, it makes sense to me. As a lay person who often just scratches my head on the deeper theological discussions, I have to ask this question…Luther says we are to FEAR and LOVE God. What has happened to the FEAR?

    • Dave B. Says:

      Fear implies God’s Law, which necessitates a conscience. And the conscience has been voted out by the Love Police. The ELCA has unwittingly theologized itself into a one doctrine, Antinomian system, yet remains convinced that this is somehow authentically “Lutheran”. I call it theological psychosis. . .a guilt-free, no fault ‘grace’. Then, it brazenly pits God’s Righteous Will against His Gracious Will and demands that the membership make a false choice between the two. When disagreement remains, it sees no problem in having Lutherans and Antinomians coexist within the same denomination. Ecclesial schizophrenia!

      • Tom Pearson Says:

        I’m curious: why does God’s Law necessitate a conscience? Is conscience the primary medium by which God’s Law is conveyed to us? If so, does this make conscience a vehicle for divine revelation of the Law?

  18. Paul L. Knudson Says:

    I do not want to get into some endless back and forth, but unlike David B. I would encourage you, John, to keep using the “theology is for proclamation” perspective of Forde. It would appear you get it, and it is helping preaching. Each week I in retirement am privileged to hear pastors here proclaim law and Gospel with power. I have no idea where the criticisms come from. They appear way off target to me. I also was blessed in my proclamation during my nearly 40 years of ministry by this perspective. Far from dangerous it offers most helpful insights that lead to powerful proclamation. Our crucified and risen Lord and Savior if let loose to do that work only he can do within and among us.

  19. Dave B. Says:

    Not to belabor my objections to Fordeism, but I think I would like to illustrate how his writings can be, and have been, misconstrued by many. Here is a synopsis of Forde’s understanding of Justification, from his book, “The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament”:

    Now, of course, as old beings, we have a desperately difficult time
    with such an unconditional promise. It knocks everything out of
    kilter. We simply do not know how to deal with it, so we are thrown
    into confusion. Is it really true? Can anyone announce it just like
    that? No strings attatched? Do we not have to be more careful about
    whom we say such things? It appears wild and dangerous and reck-
    less to us, just as it did to Jesus contemporaries. The best we can
    do is try to draw it back into our conditional understanding—so all
    questions and protests come pouring out. Surely we have to do
    something, do we not? Do we not at least have to make our decision
    to accept? Isn’t faith, after all, a condition? Or repentance? Isn’t
    the idea of an unconditional promise terribly dangerous? Who will
    be good? Won’t it lead perhaps to universalism, libertinism, license,
    and sundry disasters? Do we need to insist on sanctification to
    prevent the whole from collapsing into cheap grace? Does the Bible
    not follow the declaration of grace with certain exhortations and

  20. Dave B. Says:

    If one reads the above section of Forde and considers it to be a valid proclamation of the Gospel after the preaching the Law, I have no problem. His explanation of the Gospel can then be considered the proper understanding of justification, i.e. a forensic declaration of “not guilty” to a sinner. But, if one understands the above to be a proper exposition of the gospel without the prior preaching of the Law in all its severity, the above gospel (as described by Forde) cannot be understood as a verdict of “not guilty” to a sinner, but a simply a nullifying proclamation to an innocent victim whereby absolution is dispensed prior to the declaration of guilt and prior to confession. This is the counterfeit Gospel which likes to precede Law, preclude it, and to serve one’s pre-determined agenda. It also becomes the ultimate stopper to shut down one’s opponents.

    And so it is in this way that many disciples of Forde in the ELCA simply forgo the preaching of the Law altogether and just get into a proclamation of the Gospel (in the narrow sense of the term). . For without the Law, they reason, one can’t be a legalist. . . And it is in this way that Forde’s writings are dangerous becasue they are/have been usurped for very unsavory antinomian purposes.

  21. Paul L. Knudson Says:

    I do not know those “disciples of Forde.” Yes, I understand there may be some folks who misuse his thoughts, just like many have done with Luther. The folks I know clearly understand the necessity of the law’s spiritual function to drive us to Christ. Indeed, however, the very unconditional promise without a first demand for repentance can also undo the sinner and cause the surrender, the letting go and becoming that new creation in Christ Jesus. Consider Zacchaeus. You may want to read an article in the last Lutheran Quarterly on the effect of the encounter of Jesus with Zacchaeus that brought that sinner down out of that tree and caused his transformation. Not every sermon has to have a certain order: law first with its call to repentance and then the unconditional promise. Me thinks you read Forde and miss the point. Of course the unconditional promise is dangerous. It got our Savior crucified. It will mess with your self-centered life and drawn to the cross put it to death, one day at a time, as they say.

    • Dave B. Says:

      It may be, Paul, that you do not know any “disciples of Forde”. But I am simply sharing my parish experience of dealing with pastors who were enamored with Forde and would use his writings to press their agendas. These pastors would also give lip-service to the Law’s spiritual function, but in reality, nary a word of Law could be heard from the pulpit.

      Here’s how our pastors liked to use Forde. Lets say I took you to the top of your church and asked you to jump, quoting God’s words of grace, comfort and promise that he will give his angels charge over you so that you won’t dash your foot against a stone. Let’s say you object. Well, I’d pull out Forde and say, “Oh Paul, you are such a legalist, such a biblicist! Don’t you know that your objection to God’s unconditional promise is the death rattle of the “Old Adam?” You’re simply clinging to your self-centered, conditional thinking. . .refusing to have faith in God’s radical message of grace. . .You need to let the spirit work, my friend, and be true to your Lutheran roots!”

      Now, your objection could be what Forde asserts. . .the death rattle of the Old Adam, and it could be that your ego won’t let go of its conditional thinking. But it could also be that your reluctance to jump is your conscience telling you it is wrong. You might also recall some words of Scripture preached years ago by Lutheran pastors who used to preach Law from the pulpit in order to resist the temptation to put God to a foolish test. . .that is, if you have not already been berated for adhering to contextually irrelevant and biased words written thousands of years ago by unenlightened bigots.

      These same Fordian tactics were used when the subject of Infant Communion and Homosexuality were discussed in my former congregation: 1.) Identify a “victim”; 2.) Preach a Law-Free Absolution and call it “Gospel” (the ultimate “Lutheran” weapon); 3.) Declare that any objection (from conscience and/or Scripture) is really self-centered synergism, pure and simple.

      I still find it fascinating that back in 1994, when the 2nd Human Sexuality Draft hit the press, neither the Lutheran leaders and theologians who wrote the document nor the membership repudiated this blanket antinomian statement, “This Church’s ‘Confession of Faith’ begins with the Gospel, instead of sequence implied in the phrase ‘Law and Gospel. . . .” For surely, Paul, I hope you understand that attempts to invert the Law/Gospel order is antinomian.

      Unfortunately, I have not read the Zacchaeus story in LQ. But I vividly remember a bible study at my former congregation which introduced us to a new interpretation of the Zacchaeus story. It went like this: Zacchaeus was not moved to repentance by Christ’s unconditional love and acceptance. He was in the act of being a pharasaical hypocrite when he said he would give half his possessions away and four-fold to those whom he cheated. . .Nevertheless, Jesus pronounced salvation unto him. We might want to object to this, cause it disagrees with our conditional thinking (a la Forde), but that’s how the Gospel works. Absolution precedes confession. Isn’t it radical?

  22. Carol Weist Says:

    When Dave B. speaks of preaching the severity of the law first and then the gospel, I did not hear a rigid formula. One never quite knows what the listener will hear as law and simultaneously the next listener will hear the very same thing as gospel. One can know how one personally hears law and gospel in a text and how one hears that as a representative of a particular community serving a particular office, at least to a certain extent. I don’t hear Dave B. saying that one cannot open a sermon with a grace note, but that the preacher’s movement from the text to sermon has a law-gospel movement. I assume that means that a sermon is not limited to one law-gospel movement. There might be two or three, a dozen probably means the sermon has gotten way too complex.
    I read the Zacchaeus article in LQ. I am not willing to equate all the people in the crowd to conditional theologians preaching a conditional gospel. Something he heard about Jesus, drew Zacchaeus into climbing a tree. So the people see this traitor up a tree, someone who is aiding and abetting the foreign oppressors while getting rich on the side. That is my understanding of what native tax collectors were for the Roman government, and no wonder the crowds of locals considered tax collectors unforgiveable. If it were the religious leaders doing the grumbling and not the crowd as a whole, then having the religious leaders preaching a conditional gospel might follow from the text. But then I could be wrong and the last time I was asked to come down out of a tree was either during some debate with my siblings or because it was time for lunch or to do some chores, and that was when I was a kid. I think it is interesting that we are not told that Zacchaeus was asked by Jesus to stop being a tax collector. At the very least, he became a more ethical one even though some would always consider him impure because of his working for the Romans.

  23. Lance Says:

    Good comments, Carol. In the beginning of Luke, the tax collectors ask John the Baptist what they should do to prepare. John tells them to take no more than their rightful share.

  24. Paul L. Knudson Says:

    Correct me if I am wrong. It is my understanding that Forde’s book, “Theology Is for Proclamation,” is presently being used in classes at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. This was the word I heard from some time back. Some there must think he does not push aside Walther.

    • Adam Koontz Says:

      Paul, I believe you are correct that Dr. Forde’s Theology Is For Proclamation is read in the introductory Lutheran Mind class. But the St. Louis seminary especially, under the influence of Dr. Kolb, Dr. Arand, and those whom they’ve taught, also stresses the notion of “two kinds of righteousness,” which has an incredibly strong but entirely non-Thomistic doctrine of creation. Civil righteousness is an active righteousness and expected of all creatures for good of their fellow creatures. Into the bargain, the dogmatics courses still use Pieper’s Dogmatics and everyone reads Walther’s The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel at least once, if not twice or three times during the four years.

      I am a gigantic fan of Forde, but as a LCMS guy, I also find that he makes the Law conditional and the Gospel unconditional, rather than upholding both firmly, as Walther does, and distinguishing between the realms in which they apply. This is what causes the ELCA confusion about the place of the Law in the church’s life, so that no one can be held to his confessional commitments because the Law is seen as being eclipsed by the Gospel. This isn’t present everywhere in Forde (the essay “Luther’s ‘Ethics'” is helpful), but I don’t find that he properly distinguishes between the Law as our guardian/schoolmaster until the Gospel and the Law as how creation runs. But I think that this confusion has been much more evident in the life of the ELCA than in Dr. Forde’s writings.

  25. Paul L. Knudson Says:

    I guess I am not tracking all that well with you, Dave. I share your concern if any word preached leaves sinners unscathed. In my years of hearing Forde lecture and in my reading I have never sensed he in any way wanted to diminish the function of the law. Indeed he argued against Barth’s reversal of law/Gospel into Gospel/Law. Forde’s argument repeatedly focuse on what could deliver the goods, put to death the old and raise up the new creation in Christ Jesus. He never sought to diminish or blunt the force of the law. He simply did not believe the Scriptures speak of the law being capable of freeing, delivering us who are in bondage to sin. It was Forde who got those words in our ELCA Lutheran Book of Worship. He takes sin ever so seriously and in no way would teach or proclaim a message that minimizes our need for a Savior. Luther’s explanation to the Second Article of the Creed in his Small Catechism is foundational for his thinking. I do not know how those you know twist all of this up, but that’s not what has shaped my preaching. I have a friend who acknowledges some have screwed this up, but I would say that is there problem, not Forde’s. That does not mean he supported third use of the law talk. For him the third use is understood within first use. I’ve been on the blog go around on third use, and I am not prepared or interested in another endless go around on that.

  26. Timothy J. Swenson Says:

    I’m with you, Paul.

    Forde’s robust theology has been misused by shallow theologians. The resulting caricature is then attacked by opponents proof-texting Forde’s writings.

    I know that current usage likes to say God has two words for us: Law and Gospel. And, along with that, comes our responsibility to distinguish them. Thus arises the difficulty: division rather than distinction–some preach “law” and others preach “gospel” while others try to balance the two or to apply them properly. Just so, we become the “users” of God’s word, standing over it as the active subject, an interpreter of the text

    More helpful (and I read this in Forde) is that God uses his one word on us as both Law and Gospel. Preacher’s have the responsibility to proclaim this Word of God which God–the active subject–then uses to interpret its hearers to themselves. The preacher’s job is to rightly distinguish Law and Gospel, avoiding their commingling, and keeping straight the division between divine and civil righteousness; that is, before God and before neighbor.

    What I hear so often as an answer to the “cheap grace” of the “gospel” of tolerance, inclusion, and hospitality, is the imposition of some sort of divinely granted Christian ethics that will make the life of the “saint” visible for this creation in direct contradiction of Colossians 3:3-4. Our divine righteousness–for the time being–is a matter of faith–and assertion against all evidence to the contrary. Our civil righteousness, though, is the constant demand of our neighbors upon us, demanding evidence of our better behavior as sinners.

  27. John D. Koch, Jr Says:

    Dear Paul,

    Your experience and understanding of Forde mirrors mine exactly. IMHO, he is almost unique in his way of navigating between Scylla and Charybdis: the straight jacket of the ordo salutus and a retreat (advance?) into, for lack of a better word, a realized ecclesiology (ie. Jenson) respectively.

    Anyway, this has been a fascinating discussion. Thanks for allowing and “ecumenical observer” a little room!


  28. Evers Says:

    Having studied under Forde, I find this post’s assertions laughable.

    If anything, what should be lamented is that spiritually (and emotionally) shallow would-be theologians of the cross find what they want in Forde – an excuse to be antinomian. (I saw this plenty in seminarians, alas.) I would expect a thinker of Dr Root’s repute to see this for what it is.

    But to point to Forde as a source for the mess we are in? Borderline absurd. Abusus non tollit usum. Does Forde make it easy to justify antinomianism? Sure, if you play fast and loose with him. But then, look at how much effort Paul had to spend defending himself (using those “me genoito’s”) from the same charge!

    I suspect that those who were embittered against Forde and other Luther Seminary theologians in past controversies might be a bit over-eager to paint him with a less-than-fully-charitable brush.

  29. Evers Says:

    I would add to my comment above that a much more fruitful line of inquiry, I suspect, would be to ask why it is that so many who are shaped by ELCA congregations, undergraduate schools, and other institutions are so quick and content to read Forde in a sloppy, curvatus in se manner.

    Because realistically, the people who use Forde to justify gnosticism / antinomianism also use Paul and the Gospels to do the exact same thing. I am fairly certain they are abusing the canonical sources. So why should I trust their reading of Forde?

    Sorry to speak so harshly. It pains me to see one of “the good guys” being blamed for something so far outside his piety and devotion.

    The peace and righteousness of Christ be upon you all!

  30. Paul L. Knudson Says:

    It is so heartening, John, to have an Anglican digging into and profiting from the theological perspective of Forde. My present reading of Oswald Bayer seems complementary to me. Preaching is so often so weak among today’s proclaimers. To know a bunch of Anglicans are strengthening their preaching is fabulous. Power to you.

  31. Jim Wagner Says:

    I didn’t have Dr. Forde as a professor, but I have heard him lecture and have read nearly everything of his I could find. I too find some of the above comments laughable. Would to God more of our pastors had read and understood what he meant by “proclamation.”

    Frankly, I have never, ever, met any of the so-called Fordeans mntioned above. In my experience very few of our younger pastors have even been exposed to him, except in the LCMS.

    I think there are shortcomings in Forde, especially in liturgy and ecllesiology. I also think Dr. Root’s comments lead to an interesting level of inquiry that I would like to see pursued – but without the acrimony.

    Interestingly, I myself was nurtured on Prenter’s “Creation and Redemption” at Wartburg nearly forty years ago and spent much of my free time in those days reading Wingren – recommended by Dick Jensen.

  32. Carol Weist Says:

    Today the copies I had requested of the Yeago articles mentioned in the article at the start of this string of comments arrived. So in between things I read them over along with some Forde on Sanctification and Justification. I had begun to wonder where my definition of sanctification was coming from. Was it something I learned in Methodist confirmation or some modification along the way to eventually being approved for ofdination as a Lutheran pastor. The Methodist definition of sanctification I learned was not something powered by ourselves. And it was not something that consistently progressed smoothly forward and upward. I honestly could not remember how that compared or contrasted with the Lutheran definition. So I went to the Book of Concord which appears to me to separate out justification and sanctification more than Forde does, but I could be wrong.

    The Formula of Concord : Solid Declaration, article iii: (par. 39) 3. That neither renewal, sanctification, virtues, nor other good works are our righteousness before God, nor are they to be made and posited to be a part or a cause of our justification, nor under any kind of pretense, title, or name are they to be mingled with the article of justification as pertinent or necessary to it. The righteousness of faith consists solely in the forgiveness of sins by sheer grace, entirely for the sake of Christ’s merit, which treasures are offered to us in the promise of the Gospel and received, accepted, applied to us, and made our own solely through faith. (par. 40) In this way, too, the proper order between faith and good works is bound to be maintained and preserved, as well as between justification and renewal or sanctification. (par. 41) For good works do not precede faith, nor is sanctification prior to justification. First the Holy Spirit kindles faith in us in conversion through the hearing of the Gospel. Faith apprehends the grace of God in Christ whereby the person is justified. After the person is justified, the Holy Spirit next renews and sanctifies him, and from this renewal and sanctification the fruits of good works will follow. This is not to be understood, however, as though justification and sanctification are separated from each other in such a way as though on occasion true faith could coexist and survive for a while side by side with a wicked intention, but this merely shows the order in which one thing precedes or follows the other. For Dr. Luther’s excellent statement remains true: “There is a beautiful agreement between faith and good works; nevertheless, it is faith alone which apprehends the blessing without works. And yet faith is at no time ever alone.” This has been set forth above.

  33. vindicating elert Says:

    In your pulled quote from Elert’s Morphologie you do not make the distinction which Elert does internally. Elert takes seriously the totus homo as new person (as opposed to the totus homo as old person). The only person who hears in faith is the new person. The old person would disbelieve the good news and flat out reject or ignore it, ie. unbelief. Elert is attempting to describe the “I” of the new person. Granted I’d have to read the context to see if he is consistent here. “Faith, which hears this Word, has no other function than this hearing …”

    Your reflection on the quote misrepresents the issue of entanglement.
    Entanglement does not mean disembodied nor an ‘I” external from history (empirico-psychological). Elert in his other works, clearly grounds both the I of the old person and the I of the person of faith within history not separate from it. Even though Elert may be talking about a transcendental “I” it is not an “I” which exists separate from all the groundedness and aporias of history.

  34. vindicating elert Says:

    “…sheltering of the new self in Christ from life in the world (the ‘gnostic’ move in Forde that David Yeago has identified) is one element in the mix that has produced our present mess.”

    This is a false conclusion of Elert’s (perhaps even Forde’s) theological anthropology. Once again, the so-called “transcendental I” is not not grounded in history. I challenge the writer that he has not read around his quote from the Morphologie. The context around the referenced quote speaks to different conclusions than the writer of this blog has penned here. The new “I” exists only within the faith relationship with the Lord Jesus. There is no possibility for this relational act to be placed outside of history. If this was in fact the case, Christ, the exalted Christ, would not be a part of history and would equally be unavailable to my own personal fate as a historical person. This would negate what the confessors were trying to articulate in the Formula when they approach the subjects of Christology right next to that of the Lord’s Supper in successive articles.

    Please, the misrepresentation of Elert and authenctic Lutheran confessionalism must stop, esp. by those who teach systematics at the seminary level.

  35. vindicating elert Says:

    Root says: “…they each allow little place for that person in this world. For Elert, the righteousness of Christ is only appropriated by the transcendental I, an I distinct from any ‘empirico-psychological’ reality. ”

    I’m assuming from the above statement that your qualified use of the term transcendent I is not grounded in history. Elert would disagree. This transcendental I is shaped by Galatians 2:19ff. St. Paul’s non-use of a specific noun to describe the new “I” is shaped by the article ‘ho in the Greek: ie. “…that which I now live…” St. Paul doesn’t even describe this as empirico-psychological yet nonetheless it is something which is lived right within history. Life in faith in Christ is life lived right within the changes and chances of history. Or would you even deny that Christ’s body which was raised on the 3rd day and made himself to be seen by the various witnesses was not grounded in history nor continues so within the power of his Holy Spirit?

    It is you and some of your colleagues at LTSS which are lifting these matters into a so-called gnostic realm.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: