by Prof. Mark Harstad
We have something distinctive to offer. It is the chief themes and emphases of Confessional Lutheran theology which make this project a worthy endeavor. Let our theology inform the content of the venture. Offering more of what is already “out there” is not worthwhile doing. A goal of simply trying to do better what is already being done by “evangelicals” of the Reformed tradition is not a goal worth pursuing. A temptation will be to assimilate to cultural norms in both content of theology and manner of communication. Let the clarity of the content of Confessional theology be our chart and compass.
We have unique ways of talking about specific issues in theology. Special attention is required in connection with each of these things. For purposes of discussion here, we can focus on seven key theological categories in which the beacon light of confessional theology will shine brightly and guide us in providing a distinctive message.
1. The authority principle in theology.
Many will claim to offer a Bible-based message. Conservative evangelicals may use terms like “inspired,” “inerrant,” and “infallible” in their rhetoric about the Bible, and those expressions can be helpful in getting at some issues. Confessional Lutherans offer these emphases regarding Scripture: The Bible really is revelation from God, the disclosure of things otherwise unknowable, but essential for our salvation. The Bible possesses authority which determines what is to be believed even when that is a challenge to human reason. It manifests clarity in all things we need to know for our salvation. It operates with divine efficacy which enables us to believe it. It possesses sufficiency which renders all other claims to revelation from God unwarranted.
We work with this Word of God employing principles of interpretation which are derived from the Word itself. Scripture interprets itself for us. The key to sorting out its meaning is the distinction between Law and Gospel. The person and work of Christ permeates everything in it. Interpretation systems based on ecclesiastical authority, dominant human reason, or additional revelations to charismatic individuals are not connected to Lutheran theology. When we think of the interpretation of Scripture, we would do well to give the position of primacy to how the Bible interprets us in our need and Christ in his redemptive work, rather than our explanations of it.
The clarity, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture lead to the implication that it is not only possible, but also necessary for the faithful to state in clear propositions what teachings they derive from Scripture. The formulation of creeds and confessions on vital issues is not optional. It is irresponsible to dodge theological issues by the assertion “We believe what the Bible teaches,” accompanied by the denigration and disparaging of creeds and confessions as unworthy things of merely human origin.
2. The problem of the human condition.
How we speak of the essential problem of the human condition on the basis of the authority of Scripture is vital. Much of “evangelical” theology today reveals the underlying influence of the social sciences in discussing what it is from which we need redemption. The problem of the human condition is not rightly defined when it is discussed simply as a set of problems for which we need some help or solutions, whether those problems be psychological, social, economic, political, or physical. Our human difficulties in these areas are reflections of the greater and deeper problem of the alienation of humankind from God, and all which that implies. The rebellion of the creature against the Creator, and the sentence of death in all its dimensions on that rebellion constitute the backdrop against which the Christian Gospel is presented. Communicating the full dimensions of the helplessness and hopelessness of the human condition apart from the grace of God is vital.
Just as our exposition of the problem of the human condition is radical in nature, so also is our presentation of the message of redemption.
3. How salvation has been won for us.
One of the distinguishing marks of Lutheran theology is its thorough exploration of the Biblical teaching concerning the incarnation of the eternal Son of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Lutheran theology has not shied away from confessing with clarity and depth the fullness of what Scripture reveals about the person and work of Christ. This is not dry and academic material, but teaching that is vital to the understanding of how our redemption has been achieved.
In the incarnate Son of God the natures of God and man are united in such a way that the attributes of both God and man belong to his person. In this personal union of the divine and the human, the man Jesus of Nazareth possesses and exercises the powers and prerogatives of God. He carried out his work of redemption as one who fully possessed the attributes of God and man.
His work was not merely exemplary, but vicarious in nature, done in the place of us and for our benefit. He fulfilled all righteousness and provided satisfaction for our guilt before God. He won a redemption that is far greater than providing solutions to certain human problems. His incarnation, life, death, and resurrection constitute the divine answer to the problem of the human condition. The Father’s giving of his Son for our redemption is the deepest expression of the grace of God extended to the helpless. He won for us a verdict of justification, and deliverance from death, the devil, and the curse of the law. These are objective realities which require no conditions for us to fulfill.
4. How salvation is given to us.
A teaching that clearly differentiates our message from that of contemporary, American “evangelicalism” is the theology of the Means of Grace. This will be a scandal and offense to many. A clear confession that the Lord of the Church has instituted the Gospel in Word and Sacrament as powerful means for imparting to humanity the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work is not found in theological systems outside of Lutheranism. It is offensive to many that the work of God the Holy Spirit should be attached to a word of absolution spoken by a man, water connected with the Word of God, and bread and wine of which it may be truly said, by virtue of the consecration which Christ has commanded, that they are the body and blood of Christ. A temptation will be to soft-pedal the theology of the Means of Grace to make the message more palatable to some. Let a clear confession concerning the Means of Grace shine brightly.
5. How salvation is appropriated by the individual.
The theology of “faith alone” as the means by which the individual comes to benefit from Christ’s redemptive work is one of the most commonly recognized features of the theology of the Lutheran Reformation. Other branches of Protestantism may lay claim to the “faith alone” principle, but upon examination significant differences emerge. Faith is commonly regarded as the contribution from the human side toward salvation, the result of an exercise of human will and intellect, a necessary condition which must be fulfilled from the human side in order that a person may claim to be “saved.” This misunderstanding will need to be addressed again and again. Faith, too, is a gift of God’s grace, worked by the Holy Spirit, through the Gospel which comes to us in Word and Sacrament.
6. The nature of the Christian life.
How we present and discuss the nature of the Christian life in this world is another key issue which will set our message apart. Confessional Lutherans recognize the paradoxical nature of living the Christian life in anticipation of the Lord’s return. The guilt free saint under the verdict of justification for Christ’s sake appropriated by faith alone carries with him the sinful nature down to the grave. Lutherans have expressed this truth under the adage “Simul justus et peccator,” “At the same time just (righteous) and sinner.” This realistic assessment of life under the cross in a fallen world in hope of glory stands in sharp contrast to various forms of explicit or implied perfectionism emanating from “evangelical” circles. Under the Gospel we have freedom from the guilt and punishment of sin, but we contend with its enduring presence in our human nature and its consequences down to the grave.
The doctrine of the Two Kingdoms also ties in here. Under the Gospel we hold citizenship in the Kingdom of God and live in anticipation of our full redemption in the resurrection. In our earthly vocations we function as citizens in this fallen world. The two realms are distinguishable. Each functions according to its own principles and for its own purposes: the Kingdom of God for our eternal salvation, the kingdom of this world for the providential care of humankind and all of God’s creation. Lutheran theology has carefully preserved the demarcation between the Kingdom of God where “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” prevail under the Gospel, and the Kingdom of this world where law and rationality function to preserve life and liberty and make civilized existence possible.
7. The Christian hope: Resurrection and life eternal.
How we present and discuss the nature of the Christian hope is also distinctive. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. This hope stands in contrast to the various perfectionistic and millenialistic alterations of the Christian hope which flourish in “pop Christianity.” Our theology does not allow for the confusion of the hope the Kingdom of God with the hopes of the Kingdom of this world.
These 7 categories give shape to a distinctive message. May they be our guide.