A First Reading of Steven D Paulson’s “Lutheran Theology”

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.

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2 thoughts on “A First Reading of Steven D Paulson’s “Lutheran Theology”

  1. Micah,

    Really, you have put things in much too stark terms. The faith v. works thing isn’t that stark. You should be reading the works of the Lutheran Pietists of the seventeenth century. And Luther, himself. Here is a quote from his preface to the Epistle to the Romans.

    O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing this faith, and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises it has already done them and is always at the doing of them, etc.

    (You may recall that I was ordained as a pastor in the ELCA, though I am not currently on the clergy roster. )

    I know that Luther does not run contrary to James or Paul. Another clew to Luther’s understanding can be found in Tyndale’s remarks on the Book of James.

    • Robin,

      Wonderful to hear from you. I appreciate your taking the time to read and critique my article. You offer a lot there to think about, and I haven’t got anywhere near the handle on Luther as you have…. but I will try to explain my position a bit further and see if I can hew to the orthodox line.

      The first thing that comes to mind is that you may be misreading my critique as an attack on Luther when the intended target was Paulson. Luther’s emphasis on faith was necessary to repair an error which was killing the hearts and minds of believers. To make his case, he sometimes sounded as if he was running counter to Paul and James on the importance of love… only “as if,” nothing more.

      Paulson maintains the exaggerated approach to distinguishing between faith and works as I sometimes see Luther pointing to. To do so, Paulson talks about a concern for works of love, for instance, as legalism. He is clinging to battles that have been fought and won. Christian love is not legalism, properly understood. We live in an ecumenical age now, so we can drop the polemics and start looking for points of agreement. The Catholics have given in on justification by faith; we can give ground on the crowning value of love, especially since that is what we actually believe.

      The quote from the commentary on Romans is quite interesting. I am inclined to argue that that is a case in point of exaggerated attention on faith. Faith, according to James, is made alive by love. So Luther’s contention that “O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing this faith, and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly,” does not square with James insofar as James’s theology has a category of dead faith which does not seek to do good works incessantly. The scriptural picture is of faith growing into love, which is Luther’s picture, but sometimes his statements lose their subtlety. What we cannot do is claim faith gives birth to good works. Faith operating through the Spirit-infused love in our hearts is what gives birth to good works. (Is my Catholic background showing?)

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