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.


Alva Noe on Art

Alva Noë thinks the arts can actually teach us about ourselves, our lot in life, and our experience of the world around us. While this might seem like an unremarkable claim, among philosophers of art, this is no trivial thesis. As one kind of aesthetic cognitivist, Noë is thereby denying that the arts are primarily about, say, expressions of private taste or articulations of emotion.

The reason I’m drawing attention to this conversation at all is because I wouldn’t want to see others neglect aesthetics as I did in my undergrad philosophy days. This branch of philosophy stands to make an appreciable contribution to one’s general philosophical sensibilities if students would attend to its concerns and discursive practices — particularly if one’s previous exposure to philosophy has exaggerated its proximity to the sciences.

If you’d care to follow up, Noë further elaborates his take on art in an article here.

And for those specially intrigued, Noë also airs his thoughts in book-length form here.

Readings in the Doctrine of God

Works like the following, I’d submit, would make for a fascinating course on the doctrine of God in contemporary theology.

Required Reading

I. Classical Theism: David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (Yale UnivPr, 2014)

II. Questioning Divine Realism: Don Cupitt, Taking Leave of God (1980)

III. Questioning Divine Simplicity: Paul Hinlicky, Divine Simplicity (Baker, 2016)

IV. Questioning Divine Eternity: Ed. Dempsey, Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology (Eerdmans, 2011)

V. Questioning Divine Impassibility: Eds. Keating and White, Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering (Eerdmans, 2009)

VI. Questioning Divine Hiddenness: Joshua Miller, Hanging by a Promise: The Hidden God in the Theology of Oswald Bayer (Pickwick, 2015)

VII. Questioning Divine Action & Providence: Maurice Wiles, God’s Action in the World (1986)

Suggested Further Reading

  • Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge UnivPr, 2013)
  • James Dolezal, God without Parts (Pickwick, 2011)
  • Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity: God according to the Gospel (1982)
  • Eberhard Jungel, God as the Mystery of the World (Eerdmans, 1983)
  • Frank Kirkpatrick, The Mystery and Agency of God: Divine Being and Action in the World (Fortress, 2014)
  • Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God, Volume 1 (Fortress, 2015)
  • T. F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons, 2nd Ed (T&T Clark, 2016)
  • William Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology (WJKP, 2007)

In Defense of a Hymn

Or, when was the vice of worldliness dropped from our vocabulary?

There is a hymn that I’ve witnessed a number of times now, and for the same reason each time, get short shrift among theological compatriots of mine. This is something of an unhappy occurrence for me. The hymn is one I grew up with. Moreover, it’s a hymn that I think harbors more Christian wisdom than we might at first glance appreciate — which is why I’ve taken to writing in its defense. I don’t think it’s as easy a target as its detractors let on. The criticism leveled against it strikes me as unfair: mainly because it situates the hymn in the wrong conversation, making the hymn say more than it means, all the while there’s another context of intelligibility in which its point would be perfectly germane and edifying. If only we would contextualize its counsel here and not there, our misgivings would be dispelled. As I see it, to object to this hymn for the reason I keep hearing is to fail in imagination, and so too in sympathy for the hymn’s speaker.

The hymn in question here is Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus. You can revisit its lyrics here and sample a country rendition of it here.

The supposedly objectionable portion of this hymn is the latter half of its refrain. The speaker tells the troubled soul that if they would look to Jesus, then “the things of earth will grow strangely dim / in the light of His glory and grace.” What’s worrying to some is the notion that the light of Christ has the effect of dimming the things of earth. It’s feared that the hymn is subtly condoning ecclesial retreat from society. Why, they ask, would Christ’s glory eclipse the glitter of the world and its genuine goods rather than bring them into sharper focus? After all, doesn’t Matthew 25 teach that service to Christ is to be identified with care for the world? Wasn’t it an achievement of Vatican II’s spirit of aggiornamento to exhort, in Gaudium et Spes, that “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age…these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ”? Is it not patently clear that Christianity values solidarity over solitude, this-worldliness over other-worldliness, activism over quietism? Is it not the gospel message that Christ is saving the world rather than saving us from it?

To all of these questions I’d respond that they raise valid points. There will be conversations where their insights are decisive. Nevertheless, they don’t tell the whole story, nor do they apply in every contingency. It is still the case that “the world” is not a univocal theological category. If we’d survey scripture, we’d discover that its senses and uses are multiple, and it’s connotations ambiguous.

Let’s compare just two of its value-laden senses, one affirmative and another negative. First we might think of the world as God’s creation and possession. Consider the following:

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. [Gen. 1:31]

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it. [Ps 24:1]

From this vantage, our hymn will certainly seem a mystery. Why would we ever want to lose sight of the things of earth when our world is a gift God means for us to enjoy and to garden? On these terms, the relevant precedent for engagement with the world just might be set by Jeremiah’s instruction to the Jewish people exiled in Babylon:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. [Jer 29:4-7]

In the city’s welfare is your welfare. It’s not to be denied, here’s an image that captures one scriptural impulse on the theme of nature and grace. This theme of course has various permutations to which this world-affirming thread in scripture might speak, e.g., questions over the conventional binaries of church and state, Christ and culture, theology and philosophy, divine and human action, the analogies of being and faith, the value of the environment and the material world, etc. (I hope it’s clearer that more could be broached on the basis of this line of inquiry than the recovery of a single hymn.)

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, though, I should introduce a second biblical evaluation of the world. In the more pronounced apocalyptic sensibilities of this conception, the world is neither a benevolent nor innocent habitation. It is instead a source of temptation. Consider the following:

Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. [James 4:4]

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. [1 John 2:15-16]

At this point it’s probably clearer now which sense of “the world” our hymn is taking for granted. It’s “the world” that church tradition has long deemed one of the three, along with the flesh and the devil, perennial tempters of the faithful. Maybe it’s less objectionable that this world be obstructed from view? In any case, we might well ask, is our welfare still to be found in the welfare of this Babylon too? Revelation’s answer, at least, is a resounding no!

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, … He called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, … Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, … for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. [Rev. 18:1-5]

Come out of Babylon, my people! Given the directness of this message it would be difficult to deny that scripture also harbors a separatist impulse as clear as any other. (Knowing when to invoke either Revelation’s or Jeremiah’s Babylon takes more than a little tact, cultural literacy, and sensitivity to the Spirit.)

For my purposes here, I’m willing to leave it an open question whether we can or need to resolve the tension between these two incongruous senses of the world — though it will be noted that the sense of world we foreground in our imaginations will have its share of repercussions. Mainly all I’m trying to accomplish with this post is the recovery of a context of intelligibility in which our disparaged hymn might once again be heard as profitable instruction — lest we needlessly self-impoverish the range of our piety. I think there is such a context. And it has scriptural precedent. If we fail to see it, the problem lies, I’d suggest, not in the hymn’s theology, but in the standing limits to our lives. If only we could expand the reach of our imaginations and the breadth of our sympathies, we’d begin to find room enough for our estranged hymn.

Heinrich Müller on Little Sins

You only combat the great sins and do not want to be called a murderer, thief, or adulterer, so that you have no shame before the world. Meanwhile, little sins, which you do not observe, put your flesh to the test. You love the company of people, follow the example of their elegant, costly clothing, share with them a friendly joke about this or that thing, thereby being wounded in your heart, though you are not aware of the wounds. Your former zeal for Christianity decays gradually, dies away within you, until finally it happens that you die an eternal death from the wounds. See then how many great calamities arise more from little sins than from great ones. You consider great sins to be sins and avoid them, but you do not consider little sins to be sins and do not give them proper attention. I advise you to consider no sin little. However little they may appear, they offend God, wound your conscience, and become a root for many great sins.

from Spiritual Hours of Refreshment (1664), in Seventeenth Century Lutheran Meditations and Hymns, edited by Eric Lund (Paulist Press, 2011), 214.