On the Role of Justification in Lutheran Theology

Today’s post is prompted by the following remark from the contemporary American Lutheran moral theologian Gilbert Meilaender.

However much some contemporary Lutherans have attempted to think of Lutheranism as a freestanding theological system, it can really be understood only as a correction within the Catholic tradition. It degenerates rapidly whenever its theologians attempt to build an entire system of Christian thought on ideas thought to be characteristically Lutheran (e.g., law/gospel, justification, paradox). [from The Freedom of a Christian (Brazos, 2006)]

Here are some questions Meilaender raises for me: what normative role should signature Lutheran doctrines like the law/gospel distinction or justification by faith alone play in Lutheran theology? That is, what sort of authority should they exercise? Additionally, to what extent is confessional Lutheran systematic theology just an elaboration of its doctrine of justification? Does justification in fact set the only proper point of departure for theological exposition, the limit of its scope, and the goal of its task?

The reason this is a live question for me is my standing regard for both Luther and Meilaender. I still believe Luther was right to teach that justification is an article by which “the church stands or falls.” At the same time I also think that Meilaender is on to something that’s not always so easy for Lutherans to acknowledge. This post, then, will attempt to preserve both of their insights.

It strikes me that the kind of logic that motivates a stricter deployment and emphasis of Lutheran distinctives can be observed in other theological disputes. (I’m not going to claim there’s a causal link, just a resemblance in logic.) I have in mind a question like the nature of scripture’s authority in theology. One proposal on this subject, that of the Protestant Reformers, was distilled through the slogan of Scripture Alone. Scripture, that is, on its own, without the supplementation of church tradition, was said to be a singular and sufficient norm of doctrine and practice. With so much I won’t take issue. The next step, however, gets trickier. And that’s because the notion of “lone norm” is still a bit ambiguous. For one, it can mean “sole source of knowledge” –- the only fund from which knowledge may be derived. Or it could mean “supreme canon” — the final measure of a proposal’s validity. This distinction between source and canon is crucial for this post, so I’m going to let Charles Wood belabor the point:

Canon does not mean source, and even though scripture may in fact always remain the primary source of our thought, its function as canon is not to supply all our ideas but to enable us to judge their adequacy, their likelihood of usefulness within the language and life of faith. [from An Invitation to Theological Study (Trinity Pr Intl, 1994), 102.]

With this distinction in place, here, then, is my suggestion. What’s objectionable about the practice of strict Lutherans – those Meilaender censures – is that they’ve opted for a “source” model of authority. In this understanding, the characteristic notions of Lutheran theology function as the controlling source of theological knowledge, analogous to the way some think scripture alone is supposed to fund theology. It’s precisely the shibboleths that are supposed to be the only spring from which the system is to be derived.

I wonder, though, to what extent a “canonical” approach to the authority of Lutheran constructs (see note 1 below) might forge a more promising path for Lutheran theology, and much for the same reason that I think it offers a superior conception of the relation between scripture and theology. (I inventory gestures toward something closer to what I imagine as theology’s canonical use of scripture here.) The first reason is this: a source model risks generating reductive and clichéd theology, which in the long run only threatens to limit theology’s imaginative reach, diminish its assimilative power, and discredit its capacity to sustain and train our intellectual appetites. These are flaws you should want to avoid! (At present I will forgo elaborating on my reasons for these allegations.)

A second reason is my suspicion that a source model actually works against itself, undermining one of the key lessons it’s meant to serve in this particular case. We can see this played out in the Lutheran / Reformed dispute over principles of worship. A distinction is drawn between the normative and the regulative principles of worship. The normative principle states that anything not prohibited in scripture regarding worship is permitted; and the regulative — the stricter of the two — that anything not prescribed is prohibited. The Lutherans opted for the former principle, and the Reformed the latter.

Here is a confessional Lutheran articulation of the normative principle of worship:

We believe, teach, and confess … that no church should condemn another because one has less or more external ceremonies not commanded by God than the other, if otherwise there is agreement among them in doctrine and all its articles, as also in the right use of the holy sacraments, according to the well-known saying: … Disagreement in fasting does not destroy agreement in faith. …

Accordingly, we reject and condemn as wrong and contrary to God’s Word when it is taught: … when these external ceremonies and adiaphora are abrogated in such a manner as though it were not free to the congregation of God to employ one or more in Christian liberty, according to its circumstances, as may be most useful at any time to the Church. [Ep-FC. 10.7, 12. (1577)]

And here is a confessional Reformed articulation of the regulative principle of worship.

The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures. [Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1 (1646)]

One concrete illustration of the fallout of this divergence is the Lutheran authorization and the Reformed prohibition of the use of images, vestments, and the like in worship.

When these two principles are juxtaposed to one another like this, their different emphases stand in sharper focus. I read the Lutheran principle as aiming to secure “Christian liberty” in worship. The Reformed, on the other hand, I read as aiming to secure “purity of liturgy.” (It’s not a coincidence, after all, that it was the Puritans who seized on this principle in their opposition to the Anglican church.)

Now to translate this digression back to the point at hand, the Reformed regulative principle is another example of a “single source” model of authority at work, insofar as the only permissible forms of worship must be derivable from scripture alone. For the purposes of theological discourse, this regulative principle would be well primed to serve theologians who are also chiefly concerned about preserving doctrinal purity and the succession of tradition. So in a theological use of the regulative principle it would be the distinctive categories of a tradition functioning as the source otherwise assigned to scripture in analogous disputes.

For theologians, however, who have truly imbibed the spirit of the Lutheran doctrine of justification, I would think they’d prize liberty over purity, as the Lutheran normative principle prioritizes it (though I’d immediately concede this will require continued thinking on my part). This is what I mean when I say that a source model of Lutheran theology risks undercutting the very lesson it’s meant to instill: if signature doctrines like justification are treated, not as canons of judgment, but as the sole permissible sources of theological exposition, we’ll only lose a measure of the liberty justification was meant to afford us in the first place.

If any of the above tracks, I hope enough ground has been cleared to permit us to affirm both that Luther is still right that no ecclesial theology should dare contradict or mute the doctrine of justification by faith, and that Meilaender is also right that we Lutherans are freer to exercise some more imagination than we might typically indulge ourselves.

If we’re at a loss trying to conceive what this sort of theology might look like, let me suggest that there are already instances of it in existence. We needn’t look any farther than, say, the two-volume Systematic Theology by Robert Jenson. There is a work that fundamentally affirms the confessional Lutheran law/gospel distinction, and yet is not slavishly driven by it materially, but can countenance at the same time a program of broader sympathies and a wider frame of reference.


(1) To be clear, in this sense of “canon” it refers not to the scope of the norm’s jurisdiction — Lutheranism’s identifying categories don’t share scripture’s status as an ecumenical or global norm but rather confessional and local — but to the manner in which its authority is exercised.


3 thoughts on “Justification in Lutheran Theology

    1. llwilmoth Post author

      Sorry for the gross delay of my reply. I am familiar with that article. It is vintage Webster, and well worth reading. I do suspect though that he’s still operating on the terms of a source model, only he’s swapped justification for the Trinity. But even the Joint Declaration on Justification allows that justification stands as one “indispensable criterion” among others (18). Webster’s picture is less “roomy,” as it were.

      Another work in this same ballpark is Mark Mattes’ The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology, if this topic is of particular interest to you.


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