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—fundamentalism? No, fundamentals!

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

Date unknown

[Editor's note: You may also read a briefer version of this paper.]


In the Undergraduate Handbook of the State University at which I teach, I often see the word “fundamentals.” One can take classes to learn the fundamentals of number theory, the fundamentals of optics, the fundamentals of surveying and the fundamentals of engineering. photo of Dr. BielfeldtThinking about fundamentals has lately got me thinking about theology. What are the fundamentals of Christian theology, or better yet, the fundamentals of Lutheran theology, without which Lutheran theology would cease to be Lutheran? Furthermore, it got me thinking about WordAlone and its particular theological orientation. What are the fundamentals of WordAlone theology, those principles without which WordAlone would itself cease to have theological grounding?

There are, of course, various answers to the question of the fundamentals of Christianity. A famous late 19th and early 20th century American trans-denominational Protestant response listed the following as essential to Christianity.

  1. Biblical inerrancy
  2. The virgin birth and deity of Jesus
  3. Substitutionary atonement
  4. The bodily resurrection of Jesus
  5. The physical return of Jesus Christ to earth in the Second Coming

Christian “fundamentalism” is a term coined by early opponents. While proponents identified the conjunction of these five as fundamental to the faith, the theology of “fundamentalism” has become identified mostly with the assertion that all the propositions of Scripture are true in their original manuscripts—even if they seem to be making questionable scientific or historic claims.

One can also speak of Lutheran fundamentals, the particular affirmations that identify Lutheran theology within the context of western theology. George Forell, professor emeritus of the University of Iowa and a member of the WordAlone Network’s Theological Advisory Board, has offered a particularly valuable list. Lutheran theology embraces the following:

  1. God confronts human beings in Law and Gospel
  2. Believers are simultaneously justified and sinful at the same time
  3. The true theology is a theology of the cross, not a theology of glory
  4. The infinite is mediated or carried by the finite

I think this is a particularly good list, and its specification is important when trying to determine whether there is any worth to the survival of the Lutheran tradition. The four affirmations do not, of course, constitute the sufficient or all of the fundamentals for being Lutheran, but rather the necessary ones. To state the former would be to consider Lutheran Christianity as such, rather than Lutheran fundamentals given the previous assumption of a Christian context.

Recently, I have been reflecting about whether or not WordAlone might have some theological fundamentals of its own, fundamental assertions whose identification would be useful and illustrative for understanding the many positions the Network has adopted in its six years of existence. I believe that just as Lutheranism has fundamentals distinguishing it from others within the western theological tradition, WordAlone has fundamentals distinguishing it within the context of the contemporary Lutheran theology in North America, particularly within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

At this point one might claim that this list of fundamentals has previously been specified as the “Ten Affirmations” published on the WordAlone website: for example, the particularity of the Christ, the authority of Scripture, the status of the Lutheran Confessions in norming belief and so on.i But I think that this set of affirmations does not constitute the theological fundamentals of the movement. This set has I believe, implications of a deeper (or more basic) set of theological affirmations, theological fundamentals that have determined theological thinking of the movement from its inception—whether or not it has been recognized.ii It is, of course, quite possible to subscribe to the “Ten Affirmations” in different ways, and it is quite possible to subscribe to them all without getting at some of the deeper theological and philosophical issues driving them.

The following list of fundamentals is my own, although the WordAlone Board of Directors discussed it during their October 2005 and January 2006 board meetings. This specification (paper) began as a simple WordAlone reflection piece that members of the board regularly write and post on the WordAlone website, and which are subsequently circulated through the appropriate list serves. The board thought, however, that this particular piece had such great implications for WordAlone self-definition (and perhaps future) that it has decided to circulate this list of fundamentals throughout the Network, and to seek from its constituency feedback and ratification. The present board of directors’ finds in these fundamentals some of the “deeper” issues driving the WordAlone critique of North American Lutheranism, and especially the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


The following list clearly carves out positions on some central ontological (metaphysical reality), semantic (meanings) and epistemological (knowledge) positions associated, I believe, with the WordAlone critique.

Theological statements have truth-conditions

In a culture that routinely understands religious and theological statements as expressions of the self, its attitudes and orientations—or a theological culture that conceives them to be regulative statements of a religious community—WordAlone dares to suppose that theological statements have definite truth-conditions: statements are true or false as a function of states of affairs that exist outside the self, that is: its awareness, conceptions, language and values. WordAlone assumes that the truth-value of these statements is logically independent of the psychological or phenomenological (experiential) states of the one holding them. Concomitant with this realist construal of the semantics of theological language is the assertion of theological realism: God is real, that is, God has an existence outside human experience. Over and against many within the ELCA, WordAlone claims that theological language ultimately is about God, and not finally about human beings. (It was the great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, who said that one does not talk about God by speaking about man with a loud voice.)

This realist affirmation is entirely consistent with the thinking of Luther and the Lutheran Reformation. Luther clearly presupposed realist semantics, believing in his many theological controversies that truth was at issue. He held that Zwingli was wrong about the presence of Christ in the bread, that Münzer was wrong about receiving special knowledge about the propriety of the Peasant’s Revolt and that the Catholic Church was wrong in teaching that it itself was a means of God’s grace. Luther believed that God was real and that God stood over and against him in judgment and grace. This God whom Luther confronted was clearly not merely an idea, a feeling of absolute dependence, or an ethical mandate. Over and beyond human thinking, feeling and doing, God exists as an eternal being; God’s existence is logically independent of human being.

God is causally related to the universe

In a theological context that regularly assumes that good theology begins with Kant’s notion that since there are no perceptions falling under the concept of God, and that God cannot be a substance entering into causal relations with other substances—God is instead an ideal of human reason—WordAlone assumes that God exists out and beyond human subjectivity, and that His creative acts do truly actualize the universe into different states than it would have been had those acts not been achieved. God is an agent that causally effects the distribution of natural events. Over and against many within the ELCA, WordAlone claims that God really does causally influence events in space and time; his “mighty acts in history” are not mere metaphors of human existence. As Luther says in his explanation of the First Article in the Small Catechism: “I believe that God has created me together with all creatures.” WordAlone claims that “created” must here be understood causally. The necessary condition for proper application of the term “created” in “God has created me” is that God causes me to be.

WordAlone further claims that a noncausal understanding of “created” does not (and cannot) make sense to the vast majority of Lutherans today. Contemporary Americans seeking religious sustenance are not willing to affirm a compatibilism in which God’s “mighty acts” and His causal isolation exist simultaneously. Americans are practical people who generally assume that being real entails having causal power. A God that is causally inert can, by definition, make no causal difference in the world, and cannot then be real.

One need go no further than Luther’s Small Catechism in the Kolb/Wengert edition of the Book of Concord to be convinced of the causal efficacy of Luther’s God. Review again his explanations to the first article of the creed, and note the causal terms: “I believe that God has created me together with all creatures. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: . . . God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing . . . along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil.” It is difficult to understand all of the highlighted terms noncausally and merely symbolically.

But Luther doesn’t merely use causal language at the point of the first article. In the explanation to the second article he writes: “He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person.” In the third article he continues: “. . . but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. . . . abundantly forgives all sins . . . On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life.” A semantics that does not understand the highlighted terms causally has to give an account of their meaning by somehow pointing to human experience and claiming something like this: “The Holy Spirit called me” if and only if I have a particular discrete experience x or a series of such experiences. In other words, the experience is made necessary and sufficient for the calling. But, of course, this is deeply problematic because Luther himself was always deeply suspicious of any human experience vouchsafing the presence of the divine. This same kind of analysis would have to be done with respect to the apparent causal terms of the first article if one were to succeed in giving them a nonrealist semantics.

All temporal structures, institutions and conceptual frameworks are historically-conditioned

WordAlone realizes that all things temporal are causally affected by other temporal things, and that this is true of thought as well. There can be no thought or affirmation, no creed or confession that wholly escapes the historical context in which it originates. Because every epistemic (knowing) apprehension of the other is an event within history, every epistemic apprehension too possesses the same historicity, the same historical-conditionality, as past epistemic attempts at such apprehension. Not only is every confession conditioned by the historical conditions in which it arises, so is every knowing of that confession conditioned by the historical conditions of the apprehension. Theology’s function is to bridge the gap between the eternal Word of God and the concrete temporal situation. WordAlone rejects any effort to “absolutize” for all time particular interpretations of Scripture, creeds and confessions.

WordAlone, however, follows the dominant theological tradition up until the time of the Enlightenment in claiming that ontology is logically prior to epistemology (epistemology recapitulates ontology). While our claim to know x is historically-conditioned by the social/political/economic/cultural tenor of our day, the truth of x is not so conditioned. Our theological systems and theological doctrines are fallible, human attempts by historical human beings to grasp God and His relation to us. But we now see through a glass darkly; our knowledge of God has no sure foundations this side of eternity except in the revelation of God’s Word in Christ. Scripture, written by human beings inspired by the Holy Spirit, is conditioned by its historical context and the theological agendas of those who wrote and edited it. Just as the incarnate divine Son of God is wholly human at the same time, so too is the written, divine Word of Scripture wholly human at the same time.

Nothing finite is infinite

Because everything temporal is historically-conditioned, nothing temporal can be infinite, that is, without limits. To be without limits is not to be conditioned by anything else; it is to be unconditioned. Because everything temporal is finite, no finite structure can be replaced fully by an infinite reality. WordAlone strongly rejects any effort to transubstantiate wine into blood, or to transubstantiate the human association gathering around Christ (the church) into the very Body of Christ Himself. The church has no unambiguous display of divinity within it. Neither its structures, offices, nor people are “holy” in the sense of presencing the divine. WordAlone thus opposes those in the ELCA who would claim that the holiness of the church constitutes holiness beyond that of the justified faith of its members.

The True Church is not visible, but remains hidden

WordAlone holds with Luther, Melanchthon and the early reformers that the true church consists of those with “faith and the Holy Spirit in the heart,” and that this church appears when believers gather around Word and Sacrament. Against the ELCA notion that the church can have “expressions” at the churchwide and synodical levels, WordAlone claims that the church is only manifest when and where people gather around Word and Sacrament.iii This happens primarily within the local congregation. The being of the church is found in the justified being of those wearing the external righteousness of Christ. Organization and structuring of the institution are affairs of God’s Left Hand (the earthly realm), not His Right (the heavenly realm).

This notion of the hidden nature of the church is wholly consistent with the notion that nothing infinite is finite. If the church’s being is constituted by its being peopled by justified believers, it is a natural object among other natural objects, and is governed by reason in its organization.iv God’s left hand rules the institutional church according to the canons of rationality governing the adjudication of truth in politics and organizational management. The fact that the church is a sociological reality concerned with eschatological matters (death, judgment, resurrection) does not change the earthly nature of it as an institution.

The basic human orientation is to turn away from God in pride, sin and unbelief. Original sin is the condition of humanity’s freely, but inevitably, turning from God toward something finite.

Over and against culture (and against many within the ELCA) imputing a basic goodness or innocence to human beings, WordAlone asserts that human beings are by birth enemies of God. Consequently, there is nothing worth saving in human beings; simply put, the status of our being makes no claim upon God. All redemption is by God’s grace alone. The sinfulness in which we are fallen affects all of our faculties, even the operation of our reason. Because of this also, all our knowledge is conditioned and fallible. While reason is the highest gift of God to human beings, it is wholly susceptible to sinning, particularly when it thinks its power grand enough to know the ways of God.v It is for this reason that Luther could call reason “the devil’s whore.”

The Holy Spirit works monergistically, not synergistically, upon sinners effecting saving faith.

WordAlone claims that the Holy Spirit’s work is primarily to illuminate and call human beings to the grace available in Christ. It assumes that human beings have no free will to cooperate with grace. Over and against many within the ELCA, WordAlone claims that God and God alone saves; humans can do nothing—not even agree with God’s saving action. WordAlone endorses the general Augstinianism of the west, and the Reformation rediscovery of Augustine, in its claim that human beings cannot causally effect their own justification. [Editor’s note: Monergism, in theological terms, is when the Holy Spirit acts alone. Synergism means God and an individual work together for that individual’s redemption.]


While one might add more assumptions to the list, these seem to get at the basics. I have argued that WordAlone eschews a subjectivist and expressivist semantics for a realist interpretation that dares to grant truth-conditions to theological language based upon the existence of extra-linguistic, extra-subjective objects, events and states of affairs. Accordingly, WordAlone assumes realist ontology of God, claiming that the epistemological question of how we might know God’s connection to the world is not logically prior to the ontological claim that He is so connected. Simply put, one can meaningfully assert God to be causally connected to events within the universe, even while admitting that no current epistemic avenue or body of knowledge for confirmation of this causal relationship exists. In other words, WordAlone allows for the possibility of evidence transcending truth-conditions that judge our theological judgments, even when we temporally and historically conditioned men and women cannot wholly identify these conditions.

Moreover, our epistemic access to the divine is limited by the historical-conditionality of our conceptual and interpretive frameworks. God is hidden. Our historically conditioned standpoint is consonant with our assumption that the finite is not infinite, and that all finite structures—including the church—are finite, and that a basic waywardness characterizes all things finite. To speak of the church in this life is, properly speaking, to speak of its hidden character as the association of all those possessing Christ’s imputed righteousness. This righteousness is granted through the sole agency of the Holy Spirit without any merit or worthiness within us.


i. See the website, 1) Jesus is the only way to salvation, 2) The Bible is the final authority over the faith and life of the church, 3) The Lutheran Confessions are a faithful interpretation of Scripture, 4) The Church’s ministry is centered in the priesthood of all believers, 5) Congregations call pastors to serve with them in ministry, 6) The local congregation is the heart of Christ’s mission, 7) Faithful Christian worship keeps Christ at the center, 8) Church governance should be representative and accountable, 9) Christian unity is given by and centered in Jesus Christ, 10) Biblical norms establish the boundaries and proper use of sexuality.Back

ii. I am certainly aware of the potentially problematic nature of the claim I am making. Can one speak meaningfully about hidden assumptions having implications? One is reminded of the distinction between acting “in accordance with a rule” versus acting “due” to a rule. One acts in accordance with rules when playing a game whose regularities of play arise without normative formalizing of the rules. One acts due to rules (or follows them) when explicitly consulting them in order to proceed in the play. The first allows that there are customs of play that are not normatively established. I am suggesting that there have been certain customs of theological reflection within the WordAlone movement, rules of proceedure that have not, up until now, been explicitly formulated.Back

iii. See Article VII of the Apology in Kolb and Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. “However the church is not only an association of external ties and a rite like other civic organizations, but it is principally an association of faith and the Holy Spirit in the hearts of persons. It nevertheless has its external marks so that it can be recognized, namely, the pure teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments in harmony with the gospel of Christ” (175:5). “It [the church] consist rather of people scattered throughout the entire world who agree on the Gospel and have the same Christ, the same Holy Spirit, and the same sacraments, whether or not they have the same human traditions” (176:10). “We teach that this church truly exists, consisting of true believing and righteous people scattered through the entire world” (177:20). “We are speaking about a true unity, that is, a spiritual unity, without which there can be neither faith in the heart nor righteousness in the heart before God. For this unity we say that it is not necessary to have similar human rites, whether universal or particular, because the righteousness of faith is not a righteousness tied to certain traditions, as the righteousness of the law was tied to Mosaic ceremonies” (179:31).Back

iv. Luther held that reason was the highest gift of God to man, and that reason had authority over all things below it: all political and institutional structures. The church, however, is also the collection of those wearing through faith the alien righteousness of Christ. Only because of this righteousness can the church be called “holy.”Back

v. WA 39 I, 175.9-10: “Et sane verum est, quod ratio omnium rerum res et caput et prae caeteris rebus huius vitae optimum et divinum quiddam sit.” (“It is truly said, that reason is head over all things, and in comparison with other things of this life, the best and something divine.”) Back