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Why a Lutheran

—House of Studies?

by Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (Chair, WordAlone Lutheran Theological House of Studies Task Force)

News: January 6, 2006

A wise person once said that wisdom is the gift of understanding the obvious. photo of Dr. BielfeldtI have talked with many Lutherans who are concerned about the future of theological education in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Congregations sense that newly ordained pastors often think quite differently than those joining the clergy rosters 40 years ago. But granting this is so, why is it so? What understanding of this problem is available to us?

I recall three recent conversations that exemplify the problem.

In the first, a woman was talking to me about the sexuality issue confronting the ELCA, "How can my pastor be for allowing someone engaged in homosexual behavior to be a pastor? Doesn't it say in the Bible that we aren't supposed to do that, and hasn't Christianity always taught that?" I remember trying to explain to her how it had come about that Bible and tradition were no longer thought to clearly decide the issue. She was not impressed with my reply.

In another conversation a man said to me, "Why is everyone coming out of the seminary these days so politically correct? It seems like they care more about fixing society than they do about preaching the faith." When I told him about the justice perspective of the prophetic Biblical faith, he responded, "I am not against talking some politics in church, I just want to make sure we also talk about church in church, because we don't talk about that anywhere else."

Finally, I recall the words of an older gentleman who remarked, "When I was young, the pastor definitely had authority in our congregation. It was not just his word against ours. But when pastors get all agitated about stuff they don't know about—our last pastor was convinced that large, multi-national agribusiness was the work of the devil—then it makes us think they maybe don't know as much about what we are paying them to know about." I didn't know what to say to that because I remembered my own synod's passing a resolution directed against Cargill even though members of the economics faculty at our state university claimed those voting hadn't a clue as to what they were voting about.

The three conversations clearly display the problem. As a church what is our authority? If it is no longer Scripture and tradition, then what is it? As a church what is the focus of our message? If it is not the crucified Christ, then what is it? As a church what is our competence? If it is not the proclamation of the revealed Word into the concrete situation, then what is it?

It is obvious that things have changed in Lutheran theological education in America. Precisely what have changed, I think, are the teachable assumptions about authority, message and competence. Underlying these is an even more fundamental presupposition that confessional theological statements cannot be true—at least not in the way we had previously believed.

WordAlone, along with many other Lutheran reform movements, perceives that the classical loci of the Lutheran tradition have been de-emphasized within ELCA seminaries over the past 40 years. The following are my speculations as to why it is that we find ourselves in the current situation. Hopefully, there will be some gift of wisdom in my attempt to understand what, to many, is obvious.

One cause of the problem is economic. We must recognize that ELCA funding for its seminaries is much lower than the funding of the previous Lutheran bodies towards their seminaries. This change in economic policy has had tremendous repercussions. In order to survive and prosper, the seminaries have had to become more autonomous in their self-understanding than previously had been so, and they have thus had to offer curricula that can appeal to a broad range of students seeking theological education. As the de facto mission of the seminaries changed from the "in house" task of preparing Lutheran students for Lutheran ministry to the more general task of providing academic theological education to a broader constituency, the explicitly confessional nature of theological education was accordingly de-emphasized. (I am not claiming that anyone set out intending to do this.) The result has been that the ethos of Lutheran identity and confession no longer prevails in the student body of the seminaries. Many students today neither know the Lutheran tradition nor wish to adopt and advocate for it. This state of affairs is simply an unarguable fact about our current context and the economic realities that underlie it.

Secondly, the decline in teaching classical Lutheran theology is attributable in part to a change in the theological direction of ELCA leadership and significant numbers of the ELCA rank-and-file.

We live in a time in which the "truth-conditions" for theological language are routinely considered to be problematic. In an age of cultural relativism that often breeds ethical relativism, there is a profound awareness of the multiplicity of religious options and a sincere desire on the part of many not to be ethnocentric with respect to their own fundamental beliefs and world views. This awareness has tended to conflict with the prima facie particularity of Christian confession. While in previous times one could say "confessional proposition x is true because the state of affairs denoted by x obtains external to human awareness, perception, conception and language," this option seems to many today to be provincial, parochial, na´ve and misguided. How can one's own confessions be true in this way without saying at the same time that everyone else's are wrong?

The result of this has been a general movement away from understanding confessional assertions realistically, and instead understanding them as mere expressions of one's own cultural values. Thus, a "theological irrealism" has taken up residency within the ELCA. Of course, to claim that such an irrealism is the only alternative to the robust realism of earlier generations is itself to commit the fallacy of false dichotomy. The denial of one simply does not entail the truth of the other, even though it may often seem that way to people in the pews. (The problem bequeathed by the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant was to try to give theological language truth-conditions without having to understand them realistically. The next 150 years of theological development tried to grant objectivity to theological propositions without making them about metaphysical objects. The problem today is that there has been a general loss of confidence in this entire project. Objectivity itself has become subjectivized, and normativity is customarily regarded as an expression of the self embedded in its immediate cultural context.)

Thirdly, with the loss of particular truth-conditions to theological language, there has resurfaced in our time the problem of authority.

While Lutherans once believed that Scripture itself could adjudicate conflicting claims, contemporary Biblical scholarship assumes that the sensus of Scripture is not easily located. Given the conflicting claims in Biblical scholarship about the real meaning of particular texts, a retreat to the letter and authority of the confessional documents has also seemed wrongheaded. Moreover, the real meanings of these documents are themselves open for scholarly debate. Given this present vacuum of authority, it is small wonder that voices have emerged urging a ratcheting up of the authority of the Church. When Scripture and Confession can no longer function to grant authority to the particularity of Lutheran theological affirmations, then something else is requisite, and that hoped for "something else" is identified by many as "the Church."

The paradox of the present ELCA participation in the ecumenical movement is this: Lutheranism began in the particularity of its theological affirmations over and against Catholic, Reformed and Anabaptist theology. Now, the ELCA is putatively, or supposedly, to "get over" these particularist affirmations in order to find unity with others within the Church catholic. Those holding to the particularity of these former affirmations are understood by many as undermining the unity of the Church. In a time when form prevails over substance, unity smells sweeter than truth.

There is a final point worth mentioning. There has been a widespread attenuation, or lessening, of emphasis on the scandal of the Cross in favor of a preoccupation with social justice issues.

The reason for this is not difficult to ascertain. Citizens of America generally embrace the traditional American values of individual rights and dignities. Advocating for social justice and individual dignity, while part of the Biblical prophetic tradition, is thus clearly consonant with the prevailing ethos of American culture. To speak for peace and justice is to state the deepest and noblest values of our civilization. But proclaiming the foolishness of the Cross is irreducibly counter-cultural. Advocating an ultimate eschatological, or end times, empowerment before God that does not entail immediate temporal empowerment is a position that has been, and will continue to be, criticized by enlightened, cultured despisers of religion. But Lutheranism must always find its center in the second article of the creeds, the scandal of the Cross.

The WordAlone Network's House of Studies project wishes to establish a structure for theological education that assumes the following:

  • The authority of Scripture and Confessions
  • The centrality of the scandal of the Cross
  • The truth and particularity of traditional Lutheran affirmations
  • The notion that the Church is primarily the hidden gathering of the faithful and not a visible means of divine grace
  • The value of theological competence and student mastery of Scripture and other primary texts of the Lutheran theological tradition

We are at a crossroads. The WordAlone Network wishes to establish and implement structures that can perpetuate Lutheran confessional teaching in the face of contemporary social, cultural and theological resistance. The structural shape of the Lutheran House of Studies has not been determined. We remain at the preliminary stage of seeking input and interest in such a project. While we do not know the "hardware" particulars of the House of Studies, we do, however, have an idea of the "software" we wish to create. In creating the "software," we wish to begin with its critical component: good faculty willing to teach in the House of Studies and an attainable vision. Because we believe that good software can run in different hardware environments, we shall begin our efforts by identifying faculty and planning curriculum.

WordAlone is a "grass roots" organization that values "grass roots" input. We sincerely seek e-mail from the grass roots. If you wish to dialog on this, e-mail the WordAlone Network office at