American Lutheran Theologians I Have Known
*Note: If you wish to skip over all the autobiographical reports and reflections and go directly to my thoughts about Robert Jenson, perhaps America’s most creative and influential Lutheran theologian of the past few decades, go directly (way down) to the paragraph that begins with “My agreement with Jenson….”
This past week (October 31, 2017) some Protestants were celebrating and others “commemorating” the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century which, allegedly, began on October 31, 1517. So this was called the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. As I said here earlier, I am waiting to celebrate the Reformation until 2025 (the year Swiss Brethren began “re-baptizing” each other and began preaching and teaching believer baptism only). (All this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, so don’t take it too seriously!)
One thing this celebration/commemoration did for me was cause me to reflect back on American Lutheran theologians I have known. (Anyone who knows me very well knows that I studied under German Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg and through him, in Germany, met quite a few German Lutheran theologians. I’m not going to dwell here on that one year experience but rather focus on American Lutheran theologians One reason I write this for my blog is that I frequently meet Lutherans—especially—who simply assume that, as a Baptist, I know virtually nothing of Lutheranism and Lutheran theology.)
I grew up (teen years and later) in what I like to call “Luther Land.” The great Upper Midwest of the U.S. Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas have cultures very much influenced by Lutheranism. Those are states where many Scandinavian and Germany Lutherans settled when they immigrated to the U.S. Among those Lutheran immigrants were my grandparents, but as soon as they settled on the prairies to farm they left Lutheranism behind and joined a Holiness church (Church of God, Anderson, Indiana). They are buried in that church’s cemetery even though the church is long gone. That site is really out in the middle of “nowhere” (“fly over country”) and hard to find.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I grew up (from age 11 on) surrounded by Lutherans. Even the numerous Catholics and few Baptists and Pentecostals seemed Lutheran compared with what they are like elsewhere. Lutheranism is “in the water” of that Upper Midwest U.S. culture which, in some ways, is one place (culturally).
Of course, I had Lutheran friends at school and they urged me to read Luther and Lutheran books. So, once while a late teenager, I purchased just such a book—at the one used bookstore in town. I still own it. It is Christian Truth and Religious Delusions by North Dakota Lutheran pastor-theologian Casper Nervig. It was published by Lutheran publishing house Augsburg Publishing house in Minneapolis in 1941. In that book Nervig declared the “Evangelical Lutheran Church” (I’m not sure which synod that was back then and suspect he was just using that title for the historical-classical Lutheran tradition) “the church of truth.” All others he treated as at best mixtures of truth and error and many he treated as simply “religious delusions.” There I found my own tradition, Pentecostalism, labeled “Some Truth—Much Error.”
I don’t remember exactly how or when it first began to dawn on me, though, that not all Lutherans were so exclusive or ungenerous toward other Christians. My pastor father occasionally took me to a Lutheran bookstore in town where he purchased blank “bulletins” for our church. (Some of you may remember those with the nice color pictures on the front. Each church would then have the order of service for Sunday printed inside and announcements, etc. printed on the back—or whatever.) I browsed the books as he talked to the owner of the bookstore. I talked him into buying me a couple of books by Lutheran theologians and read them. (But they weren’t about Lutheranism per se; they were about existentialism.) I browsed the theology section of the local Lutheran college whose campus stood between my junior high school and home. I spent hours looking at books there. I’m sure the campus store manager wondered about that. I couldn’t afford to buy many books so I stood and read them in the store!
I became fascinated, possibly even a little obsessed, with denominations and Christian traditions—their similarities and differences. I remember during junior high school I was required to write an essay about an interview with a civic leader. I chose to interview the Catholic bishop in town and he treated me extremely kindly. (I had to ride my bicycle to his mansion beside the cathedral; I don’t think my father wanted to drive me there. At that time “we” were fairly anti-Catholic.)
During my seminary days in that same town—where I grew up from age 11 until I graduated from high school—I took two courses “by extension” at that local ELCA Lutheran liberal arts college. The courses were taught by professors from two different Lutheran seminaries. The courses were for graduate students only and several Lutheran pastors took them. One was on process theology and the other was on liberation theology. Both were extremely eye-opening for me!
So perhaps my first real exposure to a real, live Lutheran theologian was the professor of the course about liberation theology. He welcomed me into his class and was extremely kind and helpful to me. He was the director of that graduate studies center at the college and was (as I recall) on the faculty of Wartburg Theological Seminary in Iowa.
I should add here that during my seminary years (at a Baptist seminary during the 1970s) the charismatic movement was growing among Lutherans in the Upper Midwest and really throughout the U.S. and the world. Our little Pentecostal church changed to being “charismatic” and many Lutherans began attending without joining. We welcomed them as they visited on a regular basis especially on Sunday nights when our church services were extremely ecumenical (speakers of many traditions) and very informal and enthusiastic. We, of our growing (but never really large) newly-charismatic church, traveled often to Lutheran charismatic “meetings” in the Twin Cities and other places in the Upper Midwest. And some of the leaders of the Lutheran charismatic movement came to our church to speak—much to the chagrin (I think) of some local Lutheran pastors.
(I heard Pentecostal evangelist David Wilkerson, founder of Teen Challenge, speak at a large Lutheran charismatic gathering in Minneapolis in about 1975 and I got to know, through our church, a few Lutheran charismatic ministers—“movers and shakers” of the large Lutheran charismatic movement—including Larry Christenson.)
Back to the main story here: Somewhere during that time—while in seminary—I began reading a few Lutheran theologians of a more “traditionalist” Lutheran bent (non-charismatic). I remember reading Carl Braaten’s book The Future of God which I bought at the Lutheran college’s store. That was probably my initial experience of so-called “eschatological theology” and probably set my “feet” on the “road” toward studying with Pannenberg and writing my dissertation about his theology. (Braaten was an early American promoter of Pannenberg’s theology and the two became good friends.) Sometime around then I also bought (at the town’s used bookstore) a book by a Lutheran friend of Braaten’s named Robert Jenson (who died this year after a stellar career as perhaps America’s most gifted Protestant theologian). The book was Alpha and Omega and was a study of Karl Barth’s Christology. Then I discovered Jenson had published a much enlarged and revised edition of that book entitled God after God: The God of the Past and the Future as Seen in the Work of Karl Barth (Bobbs-Merrill, 1969). So I had to buy that and read it.
I can confidently say without any doubt that that book “turned me on” to a new way of thinking about God—as “historical.” The book contained several pages about Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jenson said there that Pannenberg’s theology was similar to his own. So…I had to buy or borrow (I don’t remember which it was at first) Pannenberg’s Theology and the Kingdom of God. The rest is history. I began to devour everything I could get my hands on by Braaten, Jenson and Pannenberg. Later, much later, I also discovered Lutheran theologian Ted Peters who was writing from within the same basic perspective—“eschatological ontology” in which God is perceived to be in some sense historical and yet also, borrowing a Peters title, God—The World’s Future.
But it was Jenson’s God after God that really captured my attention and imagination because there he seemed to be presenting an alternative to process theology, which I knew I didn’t like, that still emphasized the livingness of God. I had come to regard process theology as too far from Christian orthodoxy and classical Christian theism as too far from the living, historical God I read about in the Bible.
My memories of Braaten and Jenson are more complicated. (And they and Peters, as I recall, had a falling out of some kind about their journals. Braaten and Jenson founded and edited Pro Ecclesia in which I was also published.)
Eventually I got to know Braaten personally. He and I attended the same twice-yearly American Theological Society (Midwest Division) while he was teaching at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. The society often met there, but he was usually at the meetings which were fairly small. Through that society and its meetings we became well acquainted.
Sometime during the 1980s and 1990s (as I recall) Braaten and Jenson established The Center for Evangelical and Catholic Studies which, for a time, was headquartered at (Lutheran) St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. I was teaching theology at Bethel College and Seminary (Baptist) in St. Paul. Braaten and Jenson also founded the journal Pro Ecclesia which was devoted to dialogue between Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and various Protestants. They invited me to participate in two weekend-long inter-faith dialogue events. I drove down to Northfield to participate in one at St. Olaf. The other was held at St. Thomas University in St. Paul. Present at these dialogues were theologians from many different Christian traditions. I remember especially George Lindbeck (Lutheran), Gabriel Fackre (Congregational), Timothy George (Baptist), and Stephen Sykes (Church of England).
I enjoyed these conversations very much. Robert Jenson was usually the moderator. He was very strict about who could speak when—keeping a running tally of who raises his or her hand first, second, third, etc. I was impressed by his gravitas both as a theologian and as a leader of these dialogue events. However, I must say, he was not easy to know. Either he was extremely introverted or arrogant or both. I would like to think only the former. I found it impossible to have a conversation with him. When I spoke to him (several times) he would not even look at me. Braaten was very friendly to me, up to a point. Then everything with them fell apart—for me.
Finally it was my turn to speak to the gathered inter-faith group. There were about twenty around four large tables in a rectangle. I prepared my text for the allotted five to ten minutes and read it. During the previous day I heard Jenson say (with Braaten’s nod of agreement) that if the Bishop of Rome would simply admit he’s not infallible he would join the Roman Catholic Church. (I was not sure at the time but this may have been an exaggeration.) It became abundantly clear that the goal of these dialogue events was to set a stage for the coming of “visible and institutional unity” of Catholics and Protestants in one church led by bishops with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, at its head (under Christ, of course). I simply tried to be honest. I said that Free Church evangelicals and Baptists would never embrace such a universal church with episcopal authority within it and over it. I explained Free Church Protestant and Baptist ecclesiology and told them that they were already all free to take communion at my church (a Baptist church) and even preach from my church’s pulpit. (This was not the case for many of them among their churches.) I stated that we already have true ecumenism that way and see no need for “visible and institutional unity” of all Christians—before the return of Christ. In the meantime, I said, we can enjoy spiritual unity. I thanked them for including me in the dialogue events, but admitted that, given the statements made earlier, I was probably a “dog in the manger”—at least to those who actually envisioned Free Churches joining in with such a vision. (And how could such a vision really come to pass while not including Free Churches?)
There was a hush after I finished speaking and then Anglican Bishop Sykes launched into what I can only call a tirade against everything I had said. Quoting here: “You Baptists have bishops; you just won’t admit it!” I was not permitted to respond. (I would have said, of course, that we have influential pastors and leaders but each congregation is autonomous in every sense, so he was using the word “bishop” in an idiosyncratic sense.) After that I was dropped from the list of invited guests and not even allowed to attend the closing banquet.
I felt this as a most unfortunate and even painful rejection, but, at the same time, I understood why they would not invite me to anymore of their events. What I could not understand then or later was the animosity I felt toward me personally just for speaking honestly about Free Church and Baptist ecclesiology.
However, I want to say that Jenson’s death came as a disappointment to me. I agree with David Bentley Hart who declared Jenson perhaps the most important but largely ignored American theologian in a very long time. It was he (Jenson) who really revolutionized my thinking about God. I still consider his book The Triune Identity one of the best books on the Trinity ever published. With Jenson’s passing this year America and the world lost one of its most erudite and creative theological minds.
I can’t say that any of these men really informed me that much about specifically Lutheran theology. They were Lutherans, to be sure, but it seemed to me their contributions to contemporary American theology were ecumenical. (I have read more traditionalist, conservative Lutheran theologians also and have invited them into my classes to speak about Lutheran theology.)
My agreement with Jenson was/has always been that God is historical; God is what God does and God’s being is active and temporal. There can be no separation between who and what God is and what God does. In effect, there is no God hidden behind the God of revelation. My qualms about Jenson’s doctrine of God is and always has been about the possible voluntarism implied there. God, according to Jenson, is entirely self-determining even as to his being (not whether he exists but how he exists.)
Theologian Helmut Gollwitzer tackled this conundrum (of God’s being and action) in a classical but much neglected monograph entitled The Existence of God as Confessed by Faith (1964/ET1965) (Westminster Press, 1965). There he defended belief in a “God-in-and-for-himself” against Fritz Buri, a “left-wing Bultmannian.”
At the center of this whole conversation stands Karl Barth who seemed to speak out of “both sides of his mouth” about God-for-us and God-in-himself/economic Trinity and immanent Trinity. To be sure, Barth’s whole project in Church Dogmatics revolved around a denial of any divorce between them; Barth’s “actualism” in the doctrine of God is well-known. On the other hand, Barth also strove to defend God’s unlimited freedom from dependence of the world. If God is what he does among us and his eternal election of himself in the Person of Jesus Christ is part of God’s own eternal being, how then is God not dependent on the world (history)? The great ghost of Hegel lurks in the background of so much of this discussion.
Jenson seemed to want to have a metaphysic in which God is what happens in the event of Jesus Christ and has no “being-ness” outside of and apart from that history. (Pannenberg’s early theology, by the way, strongly moved in this same direction!) And yet, whenever the ghost of Hegel began to appear Jenson (like Barth, like Jüngel, like Moltmann, like Pannenberg) escaped from it by appealing to God’s freedom vis-à-vis the world. But of these (non-process) theologians of God’s historicity Jenson seemed the most bold in denying any “substance-like,” “thingy” (objective) God-in-himself before or apart from what happened in and with Jesus Christ. According to him, agreeing with Pannenberg in Jesus—God and Man, “As this man, Jesus is God” so that there never was or ever will be a “Logos asarkos”—a Son of God not identical with the man Jesus. For Jenson as for (the early) Pannenberg, the Trinity is Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit. Exactly how this can escape entangling God with history in a dependency-relationship (Hegel-like) is still unclear.
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