Tag Archives: Charles Wood

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.

Charles Wood on Acts of God

That there is a God who acts at all is not something a careful observer of the world’s occurrences is inescapably driven to conclude. [95] …

It is therefore from God that we first learn of the acts of God. That is, it is the word of God that identifies and interprets to us the acts of God, which are otherwise indiscernible in events. This priority of “word” over “event” in our coming to apprehend the acts of God must be respected in any adequate account of God’s self-revelation. God is not “revealed in history,” if history is understood as the course of events. God does indeed act in events…but the events as such do not betray that fact. We do not arrive at a knowledge of God by noticing the Godly features of certain events and following God’s footprints through history, so to speak. Even “God is revealed in acts” is an abbreviated and therefore potentially misleading statement of the order of knowing involved. The acts of God themselves must be disclosed as God’s acts. God is hidden in events and is revealed as acting only through the word that renders the acts as God’s acts to us. [96] …

Thus, to describe an occurrence as an act of God is not to indulge in pious overdescription of the events involved, justified perhaps by their impressiveness. It is instead to place the occurrence within a different context of description, on the basis of the agent’s own self-disclosure. It is to acknowledge a God who not only acts, but also speaks. [97]

from An Invitation to Theological Study (Trinity Pr Intl, 1994).

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

A. On Formation

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

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

B. Standing Questions for Lutherans

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

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

C. One Strand of the Received Wisdom

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

from Martin Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, 1517.

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

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

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

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

D. A counter vision

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

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

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

Pictures of Doctrine

A picture held us captive. (Wittgenstein, PI §115)

  1. Doctrines as Propositions
A. Unrestricted.

Thesis: Doctrines explain reality. Doctrinal supply should meet explanatory demand.

Advocate: Alister McGrath

Within the context of a scientific theology, the Christian network of doctrines is conceived as a response to revelation, in the belief that such doctrines will possess explanatory potential. [136]

The point is that a scientific theology is impelled, by its vision of reality, to attempt to offer an account of the totality of all things, believing that the Christian tradition both encourages such an enterprise in the first place, and in the second, makes the necessary resources available through its understanding of the economy of salvation, particularly its doctrine of creation. … at this stage, our concern is to note that a theologically grounded compulsion to offer such explanations is to be seen as an integral component of the Christian view of reality. [194, Scientific Theology. Vol. 3, Theory. (New York: T&T Clark, 2003)]

B. Minimalist.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they should be kept to a minimum.

Advocate: Gordon Graham

True piety, we might say, does not require a degree in theology, and, conversely, a degree in theology can be obtained in the absence of piety. If we are to hold fast to this principle, we must be theological minimalists, forever seeking to keep to a minimum the theological content of the “truths necessary for salvation.” … Correspondingly, we will be keenly alive to the possibility, and the danger, of “theological overreach,” which is to say, claiming the status of “saving truth” for what is in fact no more than a theological construct. (Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, Oxford: Oxford UnivPr, 2014, 197-198.)

C. Eliminative.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they’re dispensable.

Advocate: Ludwig Wittgenstein

Is talking essential to religion? I can well imagine a religion in which there are no doctrinal propositions, in which there is thus no talking. Obviously the essence of religion cannot have anything to do with the fact that there is talking, or rather when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory. (Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations Recorded by Friedrich Waismann, ed. Brian McGuinness. Oxford: Blackwell, 117)

  1. Doctrines as Questions.

Thesis: Doctrines are prompts to self-interrogation, generative of lines of theologically articulate suspicion.

Advocates: Rowan Williams, Peter Dula

dogma reflects a commitment to truth…at whose centre lies…not a theoretical construct, but the abiding stimulus to certain kinds of theoretical question. [80]

The theologian’s job may be less the speaking of truth…than the patient diagnosis of untruths. [196] (On Christian Theology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.)

According to Williams, we too readily treat dogmas and other theological propositions as answers to “the essential questions;” whereas true theological thinking seeks instead to be brought into the vicinity of truth by opening and re-opening these questions, by agitating the doubts and conflicts behind accepted answers. [from Robert Jenson’s review of On Christian Theology, in Pro Ecclesia (11.3), 367.]

  1. Doctrines as Rules

But what do they regulate? Or, what metaphorical vehicle do they employ?

A. Doctrine as Grammar

Advocate: George Lindbeck

For a rule theory, in short, doctrines qua doctrines are not first-order propositions, but are to be construed as second-order ones: they make…intrasystematic rather than ontological truth claims. (The Nature of Doctrine, Philadelphia: Westminster Presss, 1984, 80.)

B. Doctrine as Protocols against Idolatry

Advocate: Nicholas Lash

creedal confession is the declaration of identity-sustaining rules of discourse and behavior governing Christian uses of the word ‘God.’ (Three Ways of Believing in One God, London: SCM Press, 1992, 9.)

C. Doctrine as Stage Directions

Advocate: Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Doctrine…resembles “stage directions for the church’s performance of the gospel.” Doctrines are less propositional statements or static rules than they are life-shaping dramatic directions. (The Drama of Doctrine, Louisville: WJKP, 2005, 18.)

4. Doctrines as Capacities

Thesis: Concepts are skills, and doctrines are constellations of concepts. Indoctrination is formation in religious know-how.

Advocates: Paul L. Holmer, Charles M. Wood

Most concepts are “enabling”; and one learns a concept by getting in on some aspects of what it enables one to do. The richer the concept, the greater the enabling. Some concepts–e.g., that of the “round world”–mean so much because they enable one almost indefinitely. No limit can be drawn around the number of things that are sayable and thinkable with that concept. This is part of what is meant by saying that such a concept is open-textured, though this does not mean that it is ambiguous or vague. Instead, it is to say that the concept is very powerful and hence exceedingly meaningful. [141] … Again, it is the competencies, the abilities, the enabling for a variety of tasks, that is the complex of a concept. We do not read concepts from a printed page–we ordinarily acquire them as we would a skill or a technique. [142] … We are indebted to concepts for changed dispositions, for creating and sustaining emotions, for enlarging sympathy, for stimulating passion, and even for creating the virtues. [143] … Having the concept “God” is also to have a certain set of functions in one’s life. If one knows how to use the word God in prayer and worship, then one has the concept. One can do all sorts of things with that concept “God”– for example, one can explain, praise and curse. One can even attain peace of mind and forgiveness of sin. The concept is crucial to a way of life and a view of life. … “God,” as a concept, has a location and place in our lives. [152] (The Grammar of Faith, San Francisco: Harper&Row, 1978.)

I’ve posted previously on Wood’s conception of doctrine — here.


This scheme doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive of all options. The representatives highlighted may fit into multiple categories, but I have tried to gesture to their respective centers of gravity. Option 2 I think is easily subsumable into Option 4, as would be expressivist accounts of doctrine. A standing question for me is how to correlate options 1, 3, and 4; all presumably have some contribution to offer, but what are they?

When it comes to my citation of Wittgenstein, I think this is an example where he’s less helpful on religious matters. A religion in which there’s no talking … really? Here’s my gripe: though Wittgenstein does well to undermine intellectualist pictures of religion, the alternative picture many of his explicit remarks on religion tends to conjure strikes me as more Jamesian and, ironically, not Wittgensteinian enough, not consistent with where you’d think the thrust of his Investigations would lead him. His last clause, “when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory,” is closer to the mark, but exceptional. More representative is, “faith…is what Kierkegaard calls a passion” (CV 53e, emphasis original). Wittgenstein more often than not roots religion in human passion, not action and reaction. This is despite his own more characteristic efforts on other fronts to remind us of “our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing” (PI 25), that is, as fundamentally acting beings, animals, not thinking or feeling beings first. To follow up on this, do see Graham, Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, 95, 121-24.

Charles M. Wood on believing with doctrine

Concepts … are essentially capacities. To have been taught a concept and to have mastered it is to be capable of doing something one could not do…before. The wisdom that comes with the absorption of Christian teaching is in large part the possession and deployment of a distinctive set of concepts. Those concepts form the understanding of self, world, and God that permits the practice of Christian life. They are close to the heart of what was once called “piety.” …

A Christian who lacks a significant Christian doctrine — let us say, the doctrine of creation — is therefore not simply uninformed about that point of Christian teaching. She or he is, in a way, unformed as a Christian, lacking in a range of conceptual abilities germane to Christian existence and practice. She or he does not know what it is to understand oneself as a creature of God, or to understand the other inhabitants of the environment as fellow creatures, or to understand God as creator. One might well take this to be a fairly serious gap in Christian understanding, with correspondingly serious consequences in practice. … One substantial clue to the meaning as well as to the importance of any doctrine can be found by asking what, if anything, this doctrine equips its holders to do: How do the concepts pertaining to this doctrine enable those who have learned it to apprehend things differently, to reflect differently on their experience, or to conduct their lives differently? What would be the consequences of the doctrine’s disappearance from their lives? …

We speak of Christians and adherents of other faiths as people who believe the doctrines of their respective traditions. That is surely right. It might, however, be still more adequate to say that they believe with their doctrines. In the latter version, of course, “believe” is used in its fuller sense, to denote not mere assent but also the more existential dimension of faith. In the Christian community, doctrines achieve their proper function when the insights they carry and the concepts they contain help to enable that relationship of trust in and loyalty to God that “faith” in its complete sense normally conveys.

The believing associated with doctrine, then, is misunderstood if it is taken to be no more than a matter of believing the doctrines themselves. Doctrines help to shape a faith by providing concepts that give their adherents distinctive capacities for understanding “the setting of human life” and for conducting their lives accordingly. To believe a doctrine is more than to assent to its truth; it is to accept its resources for the shaping of one’s understanding and thus one’s faith.

from The Question of Providence (WJKP, 2008), 6-8.