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Towards a More Robust Lutheran Theology: ...Response to Dennis Bielfeldt

by Mark C. Mattes (Grand View College, Des Moines, Iowa)

November 12-14, 2006


Dennis Bielfeldt raises the question of how theological discourse is true. For Bielfeldt the real crisis in the ELCA is one of truth. We do not seem to have a standard or criteria by which to test or evaluate theological positions and with that vacuum those positions that win are the ones that garner the most popular support. Of course, our church constitution assures us that the ELCA grounds it doctrinal stance on the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions as faithful and true witnesses to Scripture. De jure we are loyal to the Scriptures and the Confessions. De facto, however, we promote a pluralism of theological methods and teachings in ELCA-related institutions. In a sense, we are no longer a synod—meaning same path—but a poly-odoi—meaning many paths. Bielfeldt urges us back to a concern for truth in his quest to ground theological discourse in an epistemology of critical realism. My response will not disagree with the overall content or thrust of Bielfeldt’s work but hopefully will nuance it in light of my own reflections about the nature of theology and the mission of the gospel.

First, I think that we need to be clear that theology, following Luther, is not primarily about developing propositions about God, as is widely believed, but is instead evaluating discourse in light the truth that the human is sinful and that God is justifying. If theology is to regain the sense that it deals with truth, then we will have to challenge the centuries long tendency to reduce truth to measurement or mapping. One of the great achievements of the European and North American Enlightenment has been to seek to map all of reality. We see this evidenced in the cartographies of continents and galaxies, the periodic chart of elements, the proposed evolutionary history of life, the human genome, and the attempt to monitor and alter tastes and trends in economic and public life. Much good has sprung from the resulting technology that this quest for greater control over the forces of nature and even human behavior. There may also be significant drawbacks as many of us today worry about global warming, overpopulation, pollution of drinking water, and other environmental concerns. These remarkable technological achievements have been done in tandem with a view of truth that links truth to exact propositions confirmed empirically, through the senses.

The goal of philosophers has been to establish comprehensive systems to explain reality or, more humbly, analyses of the nature of language on the basis of “clear and distinct” ideas. Following Aristotle, reason is the monarch, which is to rule as we seek to understand our experience. The goal of modern philosophy, historically, has been to get our thinking to conform as much as possible to mathematics. The motive for this is that mathematics appears actually to help thinking progress. Through mathematics, mind is able to map matter. We see this confirmed in that scientific experiments result in projects that actually work. Research in atomic physics lends itself to the production of nuclear reactors or nuclear arms. These are tangible payoffs that confirm empirical method and confirm our intuition that we are able to map reality as such.

Thoughtful philosophers acknowledge that scientific method must presuppose a metaphysics. When I ask students, "can you touch, taste, hear, smell, or see a number? Or an electron?" they look puzzled. I’m urging them to think about the status of the reality of things of which we have no direct sense awareness. How are they real? My students do not want to give up the view that numbers or electrons are real, but they are challenged when they try to explain how these things are real.

Quite frankly, the fundamentalism to which Bielfeldt refers ironically accepts a view that truth is a result of exact mapping through measurement, the same view of truth adopted by many modern people. In that light, fundamentalism is not especially a conservative viewpoint. How so? Medieval views of truth tended to be less literal than modern views. Ancient and medieval views acknowledged the limits to literal approaches to reality. Mathematics was employed not only for exact measurement but numbers were also seen as highly symbolic. Just think of biblical numbers: 12, 7, 3, and 40. Quickly we are in touch with the symbolism—and acknowledge that there are multiple layers of symbolism in them. My students, who are less informed by a literary culture and more by technological and entertainment cultures, tend, unfortunately, to not immediately be aware of the symbolism. Fundamentalists adopt highly literalistic approaches to scripture, to the extent that they often cannot discern poetry, metaphor, and figure in scripture. They are hyper-modern with respect to literalness as a criterion for truth.

Metaphysical questions result when we ask, "why should every effect have a cause?" or even more basically "does every effect have a cause?" Surely, as David Hume acknowledged, we cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that every effect has a cause. As Hume tells us, this is a "customary association" that we make. It is not something that we can scientifically prove. What’s the point here? The truth about truth is that truth perhaps should not be limited to mapping, exactitude, or even "clear and distinct ideas." Even scientific method calls for a metaphysics, but metaphysics is limited in its ability to deliver clear and distinct ideas to the degree that it reaches greater generalizations about reality and experience.

Both modern ways of viewing truth, and Bielfeldt, prefer propositional ways of looking at truth. Such views tend towards seeing truth as correspondence between language and reality or coherence, trying to bring a unified conceptual scheme to experience and our reflections on experience. Luther’s reformation discovery does not easily or quickly mesh with these views. The reason for this is because the gospel is primarily a performative word. The form of the gospel is not language that describes reality as such or expresses inner feelings or directs behavior but instead is language that does something. For instance, sins are forgiven in the words of absolution, a blessing is bestowed in the benediction.

Secondly, this is because paradox is an inescapable center to how Luther operates. Quickly we can think of such paradoxes. Whoever would live must die. A specific man Jesus Christ is God. Only the sinner is justified. And the list could go easily on. At its core, this fondness for paradox is grounded in a view of God, quite radical by any standard or measure, in which God puts to death not only our sins but also our righteousness. Faith means, for Luther, to agree with God’s promise against the evidence of the accusing law or the threat of God’s indifference as divine hiddenness.

Yes, this is realism indeed! The reality of God is crushing us through the drive of the law; you must fulfill your potential. Or, it is crushing us in the terror that we as insecure creatures face with the prospect of chaos or the void. In fact, this is the strongest case for realism—human passivity coram deo. All people are suffering divine things. We are ultimately recipients with respect to God. Even the call for human authenticity, apart from any objective criteria by which to test that self-actualization, as Jean-Paul Sartre urged us, simply means that we are "damned to be free." Damned if you do; damned if you don’t. Either way, Luther’s take on Sartre’s perspective is that the theologian is forged through such damnation. And, for him, unlike Sartre, there is a clear criterion by which we are measured, God’s law. Counter to Sartre’s existential autopoiesis (self-making), we must claim that the freedom to think or do is dependent on this prior gift of God’s creating us.

The truth of reality at its core as being paradoxical also implies that the quest for a total system, a grand unified theory of reality, is not likely wise. Experience is itself much too big for theory. Theories become refined as we seek greater conformity to experience. Think of how our picturing the atom has changed over the last century. It changed from being a "raison pudding model" to that of a "planetary orbit model," while now we find it hard to picture it given quantum theory. What will our view be like another century from now or a millennium from now? The quest of reason to be a monarch—almost like Sauron’s ring, “one ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them” is thwarted by the fact that God’s disquieting hiddenness and revelation, the accusing law and the promising gospel, and providential order are not harmonizable into an overall system this side of the eschaton.

For Bielfeldt, there is a tendency to see truth in terms of true propositions, which either designate what is the case as correspondence, or which picture how all experiences can cohere. Following J. L. Austin’s view of language, we can say that he sees theology as tied to constative propositions, language seeking to describe states of affairs.

There is a place for this approach. It is aligned with the scholastic approach to theology, which confirms theology as an academic discipline whose primary method is disputatio. However, with Oswald Bayer, we must ever keep in mind that theology primarily begins and ends with the worship service. That is, it is reflection between yesterday’s proclamation and gifts and today’s. More fundamental to the task of theology per se is the need to analyze the performative character of the language of proclamation and worship, particularly an analysis of how law and gospel are used in language. The point is: the liturgical, monastic approach to theology is to be done in tandem with the academic, scientific approach to theology. Both need to be intertwined if our theology is to be faithful to Luther’s and the Confessors’.

Bielfeldt’s affirmation of realism is driven by the deep-set psychologizing trends that we see adopted in theology so much since Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher was not concerned that theological propositions conformed to reality but that they corresponded to the deepest religious sentiments of the Christian. Schleiermacher’s attempt to make theology conform to the viewpoints of the bourgeoisie "cultured despisers" of religion actually makes theology evaporate into anthropology as Bielfeldt points out: the human write large as Barth put it.

Schleiermacher’s perspective adopts a view of the human in which the core of the human is, as Gilbert Ryle describes it, a Cartesian "ghost in the machine." The self as such is thinking and non-extended in space and the body is non-thinking and extended in space. The self as thinking is prior to language, culture, and history—exactly those factors to which Bielfeldt appeals when he tells us that our perception of reality is historically-conditioned. Hence, for Schleiermacher, we deal not with a word that transforms the affects, the emotions, and the imagination—but all such is a result of a pre-linguistic substratum. If I read Bielfeldt right, though, it is language all the way down with respect to human reality and experience.

Such Romanticism is experienced in today’s seminary education. When I was a senior at Luther Seminary twenty years ago we were expected to develop our own theology, which we then submitted to the seminary faculty, who evaluated it on behalf of The American Lutheran Church to establish our fitness for ministry. We were actually urged to be expressive, explore our creativity. We were not urged to be orthodox and confess the faith of the church established in Scripture, the ecumenical Creeds, and the Confessions. Hundreds of candidates for ministry were concocting their own theologies. One can imagine: Barth, Tillich, Bultmann, and me! The result is a plurality of confessions within an allegedly confessional church. How can we have loyalty to the cause in the ELCA when we do not share a common faith? Indeed, we find ourselves fighting each other over securing a particular political agenda. Here, it is not knowledge that gives power, as Francis Bacon would tell us, but power that gives knowledge.

My response to Bielfeldt is that constative and performative are or should be more intertwined. As Oswald Bayer notes, academic tools are regulative for theology but liturgical spirituality is constitutive for theology. The former makes theology to be scientific while the latter guarantees that it is theology, tied to the worship service. The proposition, "God creates the world," as Bielfeldt notes, is a proposition and calls for assessing its truth in terms of its correspondence to reality. Hence, Bielfeldt is so concerned about divine causality. However, his concerns need to be nuanced. Are the days of Genesis chapter one to be understood literally or is Genesis more of a confessional or liturgical narrative? But as much as such questions of a constative nature arise, the sentence also carries liturgical freight. That God creates the world may be a threat: if God creates then I’m ultimately not in charge and I’m also beholden to God for my existence. As God addresses me in creation—masked in it—I am comforted in his rainbow of promise that he will provide. Talk of creation is propositional and commends itself to the academy. It is also—and primarily—creedal and fosters the life of faith and the community of worship.

Bielfeldt is adamantly opposed to the subjectivistic trend in theology. However, that trend is to be distinguished from a cultural-linguistic approach to ecumenism. Subjectivism tends to make theology into a product of the imagination. A cultural-linguistic approach to theology tends to say that the imagination is a result of linguistically, culturally, and historically conveyed signs and symbols, which are not granted sense by a community but conversely, give sense to a community. The apparent similarity is that neither seems to endorse realism. We should be careful in evaluating this perspective, however. Lindbeck does not rule out realism on principle. Rather, he is skeptical of our ability to get there. The "critical" in critical realism is the reservation that in our quests for knowing, we bring something to our perceptions. Such are often distortions.

Again, my suggestion of a case for realism is that following Luther, we suffer divine things. That is, God is ever working upon us as he is mediated in creation, scripture, and the sacraments. Through such means, God accuses, comforts, threatens and provides. This God gives us freedom in his very promise of life. Our realistic position is embodied in a narrative—for that is exactly how the promise of the gospel is conveyed. If we ask, "how do you know that God claims you as a sinner?", we must answer, "look at what Jesus did for me (and the entire world [objective justification])." And, this can only be said because God raised Jesus from the dead.

The faith is both story-based and accountable to the best academic research available. We need to honor both poles in our theologizing. This has many repercussions as Word Alone anticipates supporting a Lutheran House of Studies. Theological education has tended, in this country and Europe, to dichotomize head and heart, the liturgical-spiritual moment of theology from the academic moment. All too many seminary professors are too beholden to the American Academy of Religion or the Society of Biblical Literature, the "guilds" if you will. The tendencies in theological education, affecting both seminaries and church-related college Religion Departments, has been to be too enamored with the secular modes of thinking that translate faith into either a knowing as we see in the philosopher Hegel and his followers (Biedermann, Pannenberg, Robert Jenson), or doing, as we see in Kant and Marx and their followers (Ritschl, Moltmann, Liberationism, Feminist theologians), or feeling as we see in Schleiermacher and his disciples (Existentialism and all "hyphen" theologies). When our ancestors established seminaries and colleges, it was not that they were unfamiliar with these ways of doing theology. They knew them first hand in Europe. Rather, they intentionally avoided these approaches as counter-productive to the mission of the gospel. The institutions they established were far more akin to the European mission schools than the universities. Theologically, they tended towards orthodoxy, for the most part. While much can be said against a wooden and stale proof-texting approach to theology and mission, theological leaders in our seminaries and colleges back in the late 1950's through the 1970's intentionally felt that the wave of the future for Religion would be away from the proof-texting that they had received in their education by a previous generation. That presentation of faith came across as dead for them and unable to address the needs of an increasingly secular world. But that led to the situation that Bielfeldt criticizes today. These leaders whether knowingly or not adopted those very secular, accommodating theological methods of knowing, doing, and feeling that our ancestors knew were not serving Europeans at all well. That move entailed an increasing secularization of Theological Seminaries and college Religion Departments. Theology became less tied to real parishes and more attuned to the secular university—an audience that is not sympathetic with the gospel. If a wooden orthodoxy was no longer viable, the solution was even worse. The promise of the gospel was transformed into ethical agendas, psychological explorations, or grand unified systems. The interconnection between scripture, worship, doctrine, and pastoral conversation was lost. WordAlone stands now in a position to reclaim a more holistic approach to ministry and faith. Ought not this topic to serve as our theme for next fall?

More than anything, the theological task is fundamentally a pastoral task of distinguishing law and gospel. Apologetic tasks, which we see heightened in Bielfeldt’s work, are legitimate and necessary. However, they are subordinate to this primary theological task. The task of theology as pastoral is grounded in the narrative of the Holy Scriptures (the "historical a priori" as Oswald Bayer calls it), done in discussion with the wider ecumenical, catholic heritage of the church as a discussion and sometimes disagreement about the interpretation of the Scriptures, with an eye to evangelical outreach and social mission. Luther taught us that all are theologians since all are Christians. Some are very good theologians and others not so good. But we are all condemned to be theologians in one way or another, and it is only through being damned that one is made into the best kind of theologian, a theologian of the cross.

Bielfeldt is right to highlight critical realism as an alternative to Schleiermacherian subjectivism, which reduces theology to anthropology. He is right to affirm theological propositions as conforming to states of affairs in so far as we, as sinners and creatures, all suffer divine things. Theological language, however, analyzes not only constative forms of discourse but even more importantly performative discourse, words that convey God’s reality impinging upon us primarily as either command or promise.