Right now I am working my way through Lutheran Theology (Bloomsbury, 2011) by Steven D Paulson, professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN. As a new member of the ELCA, I find the work frightening. (Stay tuned. I have only just begun my work on Paulson’s book, so there is surely more to come from a project that spans so much of Christian thinking.) Paulson is at pains to maintain the old, contorted language of a faith that sought to distinguish the value of faith and works. The context of that distinction is all important. Indulgences and penitential manuals and politics had corrupted the understanding (and practice) of the order of justification. In order to restore that order, Luther and the Lutheran reformers took some bold steps to overthrow a legalistic vision of love. This resulted in some theology that ignored the perfectly acceptable place of Christian love as the crowning theological virtue. In fact, left on its own, Luther’s theology seemed to run contrary to James on living faith and Paul on the preeminence of love. The Lutheran claim that faith is primary in the Christian life and that, as Paulson has it, with her restored vision, the theologian of the cross can name evil as it is, is a position that is simply dead. “You believe God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder.” (James 2:19) Restored vision is not a product of faith alone, but faith working through hope and love. The holy life of the Christian is not a product of faith, as James tells us, but of faith working through love. All of Christian history testifies against the notion that faith alone is justifying or in any way gives rise to the good works that Paulson calls the fruits of faith. Only by blindly holding to a worn out and discredited theological vocabulary can Paulson maintain his vision of Lutheran theology.
Luther’s stand was a necessary move for reform. Paulson’s position is a retreat from reform into an impoverished dogmatism. Paulson fails to grasp the points of the reformers stances and places his own idea of how a system of Lutheran theology ought to hang together above demanding a new clarity and hewing to a commitment to real love. The ecumenical movement can save us from this horror. Agreements between Catholics and Lutherans ought to free us from this sort of dogmatic contortionism that bastardizes language and ignores history.
The understanding that is coming out of our ecumenical work is permission enough to adopt new language… as if we needed permission. We are Lutherans! Founders of the Reformation! As Christians, we Lutherans believe that God is love. Love is fundamental to reality, not faith, truth or being. Theology has had the pyramid of faith, hope and love on its head for too long. (Catholic theology did it too; it just added more elements to the articles of faith.) Faith alone is dead faith. Understanding that we are in an era that demands a revision of our theological language to take seriously the tragedy of the cross that scars the world, that is a mission for a true Church of the Reformation.