Sunday, May 15, 2011

Divinity Nostalgia III: 9.5 Evangelical Catholic Reads towards a Post-Liberal Lutheranism

As I begin to reflect on my time at LTSS after having been declared by her a Master of Sacred Theology, a major theme to which I continually returned throughout the year was the interface between the evangelical catholicism with which I was inundated here, and the so-called "post-liberal" "Duke theology" of my previous institution. As I've posted previously, while the post-liberals have in part built their identity on the declamation of Lutheranism, the movement as a whole is highly indebted to a number of Lutheran writers. My belief is that the sum of post-liberalism and Lutheranism is more than its parts. The former provides a robust view of communally-based sanctification; the latter, a strong, existential, "for me" view of the centrality of Christ's justifying work. Lutherans also bring a robust doctrine of creation and a Chalcedonian Christological realism that anchors narrative theology to that creation. Finally, the doctrine of the two-kingdoms, properly conceived and run through a program of incarnational worship as an extension of that creation, enables a bold and prophetic witness "in the midst of things," rather than retreat into sectarian enclaves or idolatrous co-optation. In all this, the love and lordship of the Crucified Christ remains foundational. There is much work to do here, but also, I think, much promise.

I offer the following both as a catalogue of my favorite (Lutheran) reads of the past academic year, and as an initial recommendation of some thinkers and works I think provide the most robust expression of an evangelical catholic Lutheranism capable of both contributing to and decisively shaping the post-liberal theological movement. Admittedly, they are all by white males of a European persuasion - but then, in the current climate of the ELCA, they are some of the least likely to be recommended or read. To see them both engage in and be engaged by a more diverse conversation would prove exciting and fruitful - and is one of my goals as I move on from LTSS. (Alphabetical by author)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer - Creation and fall - An important work by a radical disciple and martyr of the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer here tacitly confronts his mentor Karl Barth with the imperative of a more robust doctrine of creation and of sin, thus furnishing the necessary protology that is antecedent to any truly world-affirming vision of Christian faith and practice. In the midst of things, whoever controls the beginning controls the end. A call to return to the roots of things, and so become truly "radical."

Peter Brunner - Worship in the Name of Jesus - Sadly, the powerful works of Brunner have mostly escaped translation into English. Like Bonhoeffer, Brunner spent time in a concentration camp for his resistance to National Socialism, but his later ecumenical catholicity, his construal of Law and Gospel in narrative terms, his unwillingness to surrender the historical reality of the resurrection, and his strong emphasis on the formative power of the church, have led to his being largely ignored. His vision lives on, however, in the work of his most famous doctoral student, Robert Jenson. This selection is a good introduction to Brunner, as well as a powerful exposition of the centrality of worship as "the service of God," both for and by Christians.

Engaging Luther: A (New) Theological Assessment - ed. Olli-Pekka Vainio - The so-called Finnish School of Luther Interpretation has been turning heads for the past two decades by asserting the centrality of the reality of "union with Christ -" aka divinization - lies at the heart of Luther's understanding of justification. In this volume by the second and third generations of the movement, various Finns explore diverse facets of Luther's thought, from Trinity and anthropology to sex and music, to further unfold the surprising and astoundingly dynamic possibilities of the Reformer's thought in both a post-liberal and catholic-ecumenical context. What emerges is a Luther not of the existentialists or the sloganizers, but one thoroughly rooted in the Christian tradition while proposing a radical, transformative, and unconditionally accepting Gospel of the grace of God that does not leave us where it finds us, but rather, fulfills our humanity by transfiguring it. In my opinion, the best and most important book on Luther to come out in recent memory.

N.F.S. Grundtvig - Selected Writings - My most pleasant discovery of the year (see this post), the Great Happy Dane was not only a prolific composer of hymns and fecund source of progeny (he fathered his final child well into his seventies) but also the genius behind the folk school movement, a scholar of myth and folklore who furnished the prime inspiration for Tolkien's epic trilogy, and an advocate for a robust, catholic Lutheranism that nevertheless championed the centrality of joy, wonder, and vivaciousness. Sadly, most of Grundtvig's vast corpus remains untranslated. To dip into his vast ocean of life, the old Danish hymnal is a great place to begin, as is the less fulfilling Grundtvig Anthology. If you can find a used copy of his Selected Writings, these provide the best introduction to this thought, as does the recent collection of essays, Grundtvig in International Perspective: Studies in the Creativity of Interaction. However, the absolute best volume on the Danish legend is Allchin's pricy yet thoroughly worthwhile theological biography NFS Grundtvig: An Introduction to His Thought, which contains plentiful translations of his poetry and prose, and is highly readable. Like the Finns, Grundtvig's maxim "first human, than Christian" calls for a grace that transfigures - not destroys - nature, and with it, a doctrine of creation capable of sustaining an affirmation of all creativity and life.

Johann Georg Hamann - After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary (by John Betz) - If you can not only read, but also decipher, the writings of the man who David Bentley Hart proclaimed the most humorous of philosophers, as well as the only Lutheran included as a model of theological-aesthetic style by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his The Glory of the Lord, then there may be something wrong with you. For the rest of us mortals, the place to go is to Betz's illuminating and timely study of this friend and opponent of Immanuel Kant and chief inspiration of Kierkegaard. Hamann is cryptic - most would say, borderline insane - yet, his deep Pietistic faith and prophetic critique of the reductionistic idolatry of much of Enlightenment thought anticipated by two centuries the current moves and dynamics of post-liberal theology. As with Allchin's Grundtvig's book, your best bet to access this costly volume may be to visit the local seminary library. But getting to know this surprising mad genius, who Berlin dubbed "The Magus of the North" and who even Goethe venerated, is well worth the investment.

Robert Jenson - Systematic Theology (2 vols) - Jenson needs little introduction, particularly given the proliferation and popularity of his ideas in post-liberal circles. While not without major flaws, Jenson's masterwork seeks to revive awareness in the on-ongoing creative work of the entire Trinity - particularly, the Holy Spirit - by engaging in dialogue with Aquinas, Barth, and with Eastern Orthodoxy. Along the way, he calls for an embodied, witnessing church visible in history, demands ethical enactment, reconfigures Law and Gospel, revels in the erotic love of God for humanity and humanity's co-creative passionate response, argues for the suffering of God without falling into patripassionism, all in the service of the elegant assertion that "God is a fugue." Important not only for Lutherans, but for all subsequent Protestant-evangelical catholic theology.

George Lindbeck - The Church in a Post-liberal Age - Like Jenson, Lindbeck's name is well known throughout contemporary theology, particularly as the propagator of the "cultural-lingustic" model of understanding doctrine, as well as in developing the stem cells of narrative theology as part of the Yale School which would eventually grow into the broader post-liberal movement. In this collection of essays, we receive a broad sample of Lindbeck's ecumenical and theological works. Of particular interest is the piece in which he compares the method of the Luther of the catechisms to that of the medieval rabbis, showing that the Reformer, far from merely prescribing an antinomian "sin boldly," in fact went to vigorous and creative ends to foster a sense of playful engagement and transformative holiness in those to whom he was both pastor and teacher. This volume shows Lindbeck doing the same, as a Lutheran, for the whole church.

Kaj Munk - Five Plays/By the Rivers of Babylon - Like Brunner and Bonhoeffer, Munk was no friend of the Nazis - a fact that cost him his life at the hands of the SS during the German occupation of Denmark. A disciple of Grundtvig and one of the greatest Danish dramatists, Munk sought throughout his whole career to assert the centrality of a belief in miracles in the midst of a rationalistic age. His most powerful play, "The Word," explores this theme in striking though never cloying portrayals of peasant life. Once the Germans arrived, Munk became widely known and admired for his defiant sermons in which he proclaimed "the Christian answers to no one." Vehemently denouncing the complacency of the cultural Christianity which led to accommodation of the invading ideology, Munk urged his hearers to follow Christ even by the rivers of Babylon, calling for a "Christian rage" matched only by the passion of love shaped, empowered, and sustained by the Gospel. Like Grundtvig, translations are hard to come by, though can be found at affordable prices on most used book sites.

Bernd Wannenwetsch - Political Worship: Ethics for Christian Citizens - Admittedly, I have not quite finished this book yet. Which means I am still in the midst of enjoying, and being blown away by, the sheer force of Wannenwetsch's argument. Steeped in Bonhoeffer, Hauerwas, and various debates in German Lutheranism foreign to most of us this side of the pond, Wannenwetsch argues that worship is always a public, political act, of the kind that enables not only prophetic witness to the world, but also shapes, enables, and demands concrete and embodied action. For him, the church is not an option among many, an institution of the private sphere of values, but rather is that public, foundational polity upon which all other values are built, and by whose faithful and ongoing worship any truth, justice, or politics is possible in the first place. For those still deceived by false presentations of Lutheran Two-Kingdoms-Theology, Wannenwetsch provides a striking alternative which returns us to the roots not only of the Reformer's, but also the Gospel's, vision of the church during the world.

David S. Yeago - "The Spirit, the Church, and the Scriptures" in Knowing the Triune God - In my opinion, David Yeago is one of the most important yet most underrated theologians of any tradition writing today - and not just because he is my teacher! While Yeago's massive, catechetical systematic theology textbook is still being prepared by publishers after over two decades of anticipation, his various essays on the Catholic Luther, theological exegesis of scripture, the church as embodied, historical polity, on union with Christ, sanctification, and holiness, as well as his various and profound engagements with fathers from Maximus the Confessor to Johann Gerhard to Hans Urs von Balthasar can be found in various journals and Braaten/Jenson collections. I've recommended this particular essay as a gateway into Yeago's thought since it is both the most accessible, as well as the most comprehensive for his vision for a truly evangelical catholicism. Having studied under Jenson and Lindbeck, Yeago is the heir to the writers of this list, as well as the future of post-liberal Lutheranism.

Additional LTSS Resources:
Despite the recent arrival of Michael Root on the opposite banks of the Tiber, LTSS remains the primary seat of evangelical catholic theology within American Lutheranism. I've included below three resources - one document and two blogs - that contain additional, highly accessible, and easily engaged instances of the diversity within this movement. The LTSS formation statement provides a glimpse of the movement's vision as a whole; Lutherans Persisting shows the more conservative side of the ECs, while the Columbia Statement outlines a robust, multi-faceted defense of a more "progressive" evangelical catholicism. Finally, Richard Cimino's Trusting the Spirit: Renewal and Reform in American Religion, provides an historic overview of the development of EC over the past fifty years in the context of broader post-Vatican II liturgical and charismatic movements:
Spiritual Formation Statement
Lutherans Persisting
Columbia Declaration

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