WordAlone - The Fundamentals Revisited: A Response to Sundberg
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The Fundamentals Revisited

—A Response to Sundberg

by Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (Professor of Philosophy and Religion, South Dakota State University; WordAlone board member

12-14 November 2006

I thank Professor Sundberg for his lucid remarks. He has, as usual, brought considerable light to the question.

Skip is right about the first fundamental being the crux of the matter, for it is that fundamental that identifies the ontological and semantic commitments separating WordAlone Lutheran theology from "generic liberal Lutheranism." photo of Dr. Dennis BielfeldtNo matter what phrases are used when proclaiming, or reflecting upon, law and gospel, these phrases mean quite different things to the one who asserts that God exists external to human awareness, perception, conception and language, and to one who does not.

The example of Sherryl Kleinman illustrates this well. If one gives up the rather messy notion of God existing, then one can quite easily adopt the values of secular culture. One merely adjusts the hermeneutic of one’s religious ways of speaking so as to bring the commitments of that speaking into consonance with the secular world.

Sundberg is also correct when he quotes Steve Bruce. Religion has always operated to give certainty in the face of the transience of temporality. If this is so, then how can liberal generic Protestantism survive when it is based upon human reason, "the agenda of the secular world," and pluralism? How can liberal Protestantism survive when it holds that it is but one option among many? How can one :sell certainty with uncertainty?"

The problem with certainty today is that it is but one option among many. Our postmodern age easily peddles religions that are tolerant and religions that are intolerant. We have a choice among the various kinds. We can seemingly choose a religion that is exclusivist or one that is inclusivist. We can select the exclusive claim of Christ while admitting that others may with equal rectitude choose more tolerant faiths. We do these things without even noting how absurd it is. How can one with equal rectitude "choose" contrary faiths? The answer is despairingly simple: We assume such relativism in religious claims if and only if we do not believe that religious claims are factual.

Imagine the following scenario:

Bob says to John, "The cat is on the mat." John responds to Bob, "The cat is not on the mat." (This is the textbook example of a constative claim.) They disagree about the truth of the claim. Now imagine that the cat was in another room that they could not access. Would it not still be true that the cat either was or was not on the mat, even if one could not check out if it were so?

Now imagine the Bob and John were arguing about whether God could have saved human beings without the cross. Bob says, "yes," followed by John saying "no." Now neither Bob nor John can check out whether it is true. But does it really follow from this that there is no fact of the matter? Could it be coherently held that God really does save humans without the cross, and that he at the same time only saves humans through the cross? No, of course not. What then is the effect of tolerance on this question?

The answer is obvious: Here, despite appearances to the contrary, there really is no fact of the matter. Accordingly, the two expressions really are doing something else, something that is not a stating of facts at all. The only way that the two statements can be uttered without contradiction is if they make no factual statement, but rather express something about their utterer or about how the utterer’s community uses language.

It is an unfortunate situation about tolerance that the more tolerant one is to other positions, the less determinate the other positions become. Absolute tolerance is total indeterminacy. To paraphrase Hegel’s critique of Shelling, absolute tolerance is the "night in which all cows are black." Complete tolerance dissolves into an anarchy, which makes the very claim of tolerance impossible.

So let us all here strike a blow for clear thinking. Ask your pastor or professor to be very precise in explaining the meaning of what he or she says when speaking theologically. Moreover, pay particular attention to his or her openness to other positions. If he or she really believes that “both are right,” then assume he or she has not, in fact, uttered anything factual at all. While it may be an interesting psychological fact about the ones who argue, the dissonant expressions make no statement of fact about the world. But if there is no fact being stated, then what becomes of salvation? What precisely then are we doing when using words speaking of salvation if we are not talking about a real being having the power to save?

My friends, is it not time to reclaim some fundamentals again? Are we Lutherans going to remain so committed to the immediacy of proclamation that we lose site of what can possibly be meant by the proclamation? Can we continue to use the language of the tradition when we no longer connect the language to that tradition from which it emerged?