The Challenge of “Radical Lutheranism”

John Ehrett
Tuesday, August 4th 2020

For those Lutherans of a generally traditionalist theological bent, it is an unfortunate fact of life in 2020 that perhaps the most prominent Lutheran in America today is none other than Nadia Bolz-Weber, who recently drew headlines when she unveiled a large sculpture of the female genitalia forged out of old purity rings. Unsurprisingly, Bolz-Weber’s brand of Lutheran theology is characterized by a broadly laissez-faire attitude toward sanctification, or human movement toward righteousness. On this view, since human beings cannot (as Lutheran theology rightly teaches) contribute to their own salvation, the heart of the Christian message ought straightforwardly to be understood as radical acceptance, in particular self-acceptance.

Ideas, as Richard Weaver reminded the world in 1948, have consequences; influential theological movements lead to real-world fruit. And as Lutheran pastor Christopher Jackson has pointed out, there is a logical connection between Bolz-Weber’s theatrics and the curious branch of Lutheran theology that has come to be known as “Radical Lutheranism”—even if defenders of this branch would be disturbed by the ends to which their work is put.

Radical Lutheranism draws its name from a 1987 journal article by the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde. Forde defines the Law as “a general term for the manner in which the will of God impinges on Man,” including even “the ‘natural law’ of the philosopher.”And for Forde, Christ’s fulfillment of God’s Law for human beings entails the overthrow of the Law altogether: in his words, “the cross is the end of law.” Full stop.

This means that, in turn, “faith means . . . to die to the law, to wrath, to all the abstractions, the tyrants, the accusers—to await the resurrection begun in Jesus.” The task of Christian theology thus becomes the proclamation of “unconditional absolution,” or simply the declaration that God is fully satisfied with man at this moment in time. The allegedly “antinomian” implications of this principle were not lost on Forde: as he put it in criticizing the courage of preachers unwilling to proclaim this version of the Gospel, “[w]e tremble on the brink of freedom.”

Defenders of Radical Lutheranism claim to derive this theological paradigm from currents present in Martin Luther’s own thought, most notably The Bondage of the Will, which argued against Desiderius Erasmus by advancing a deeply negative view of human beings’ capacity to save themselves or otherwise cleave to God. For Forde, any talk of a “Third Use of the Law”—which, for Lutherans, means the role of God’s Law as a faithful guide to right living—inevitably slews in the direction of Erasmus’s overly sanguine view of human capabilities. As Forde put it, any latent assumption “that the law can really be domesticated so it can be used by us like a friendly pet” must be rejected, lest the law “rise up and attack in all its fury.”

In the same vein, Radical Lutherans tend to hold a rigid version of Luther’s distinction between theologies of glory and the theology of the cross. Theologies of glory, the argument runs, are those theologies purporting to consider God in Himself and His relation to the created order, as opposed to a theology that begins with the person of Jesus Christ and draws conclusions from there about what God is like. (Jackson has recently challenged this dichotomy as an over-reading of Luther’s own claim.) This distinction helps explain why Radical Lutherans conceive the Law in such a negative way. On this view, to speak of a Third Use of the Law or otherwise see it as somehow integral to God’s nature is to turn one’s eyes away from Jesus, impermissibly attempting to peer into the “hidden things” of God.

Hence, Radical Lutheranism—a theology that accepts the radical incapacity of man to save himself, and so chooses to begin and end with the experience of grace alone. The Law not only always accuses—Lex semper accusat—but is an active and persistent threat to Christian flourishing.

But, accepting for the sake of argument Forde’s axiom that all “theology is for proclamation”—that is, theology must always be meaningfully preached into the lives of Christians and other hearers—an important question necessarily presents itself. Is “the end of Law”—understood as boldly as Forde defines the term, an end to created “order” as such—a message that really needs to be proclaimed to today’s world?

Perhaps the central intellectual crisis of the modern world arises out of its inability to offer any account of law, order, or authority that is not ipso facto denounced as oppressive. It’s now commonplace to hear that political law qua law is, as the critical legal studies movement has been happy to argue over the decades, merely a mask for illegitimate power. Biological laws of behavior fare no better: after all, Michel Foucault famously argued that the distinction between sanity and insanity is really just a matter of perspective. The goal of a truly perfect world, the argument usually runs, must be the end of any need for law or limitation altogether. And so, for all intents and purposes, we are all Radical Lutherans now.

But absolute liberation from law, of course, is impossible. By virtue of his status as a creature, the human person is a law-governed being. Natural limitations press in at every turn, because the experience of finitude and constraint—the inability to part the sea, move mountains, survive extremes of heat and cold, know all things, and so on—is endemic to human existence. Nor will all of these limitations be lifted in the eschaton: in John 5:28–29, Jesus promises that the dead will be raised as human beings—transformed, surely, but not disintegrated or altered beyond recognition.

A theology that severs any connection between God and Law, to the point of attempting to transcend Law altogether, is ultimately a theology oriented toward the deconstruction of humanness as such. Bolz-Weber’s embrace of the disruptive and transgressive as integral aspects of “Lutheran” thought is a natural development of this tendency. What is created “human nature” but an expression of Law that must be overcome in the end? Surely, not all who find Radical Lutheranism compelling will take its logic to such an extreme conclusion. But the seeds are there nevertheless.

The Formula of Concord defines the Law as “the eternal and immutable righteousness of God,” placing historical Lutheranism firmly in the mainstream of Christian thought regarding the goodness of God and the unity of His providential work. And this means that the good news of the Gospel is not that there is no Law, but rather that the Law is satisfied. It is quite difficult, on the Radical Lutheran framing, to make much sense of Jesus’s admonition to “[t]hink not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17)

In other words, the work of the Law is part of creation’s fabric, but it is no longer a threat to those who abide in Christ. And that is good news worth proclaiming, indeed.

John Ehrett is executive editor of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

Photo of John Ehrett
John Ehrett
John Ehrett is an STM candidate at the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a Commonwealth Fellow at the Davenant Institute.
Tuesday, August 4th 2020

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