Monday, April 11, 2011

Is There Any Point in Reading Modern or Non-Lutheran Theologians?

I was recently involved in an online discussion regarding the question of whether or not there is any point in reading certain less than orthodox Lutheran theologians (in particular Gerhard Forde, Steve Paulson, and Mark Mattes). We could probably add others (Werner Elert came up in a big way). I think the consensus seemed to be no. What I discerned to be the major concern is the following (and I am open to correction if I got this wrong): The Seminex folks got too interested in modern theologians. This led to their liberalism and the Seminex crisis. We have Lutheran theologians who say pretty much everything right (Luther, Chemnitz, Walther, Pieper, etc.), so what's the point in reading someone who has it right only 80% of the time (actually one participant seemed to suggest it was more like 2% of the time, but the point remains).

In response, I don't really think that having an interest in modern theologians necessarily led to Seminex in and of itself. After all, Robert Preus and David Scaer (to just name a few) were/are deeply conversant with modern theology. Scaer even has a few nice things to say about Barth. So, I don't really think the two go together automatically. Personally, I think there is probably a more sociological explanation for why Seminex happened (this is not to be addressed here, but in a future post). I would also suggest that there some very good reasons to read people like Forde or Elert, as well as non-Lutheran theologians of various sorts. These are the following:


1. No Theologian is Perfect: Theology is always "theology of the way" as the Lutheran scholastics used to put it. In reading any theologian, no matter how orthodox, one must always be discerning. Gerhard thinks that a good argument against Catholicism is that several popes were wizards. Walther didn't like the Irish and makes some negative statements about them in The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. You might say: this isn't substantial, just an issue with folk beliefs of the day. Yes, but there also several substantial problems I would point to. The Lutheran scholastics mostly did reject Luther's and the FC's view of predestination, thereby making faith a work. As wonderful a text as the Proper Distinction is, there are still many Pietistic elements in it. Walther in my view is way, way too concerned about our personal discernment and introspection. Luther calculated the end of the world like he was some sort of Jehovah's Witness (he said we had 50 years to go!). Again, this doesn't mean that either are not valuable, it just means that they must be read with discernment like all theology.


2. Pastors, Laypeople, and Theologians Need Theological Dialogue Partners: Luther described the last stage of the threefold practice of theology as Tentatio=suffering or temptation. He meant two things by this. First, suffering in the sense of being persecuted by the world and the Devil. This would drive one back to Christ and the Spirit through prayer (the first stage Oratio). Secondly, he said that theologians need to be tested by attack from others. He said he became a good theologian by entering into discussion with and being attack by the faculties of Paris and Leuven. How else will we respond to modern challenges if we don't read the other side? As a Lutheran theologian, the best thing I did for myself in graduate school was to make a point to read all the way through Aquinas' Summa Theologiae and Summa Contra Gentiles, as well as all the volumes of Barth's Church Dogmatics. Why? Because Aquinas is the top Catholic theologian and Barth is the top Reformed theologian. How else could I learn to give the maximally correct response as a Lutheran theologian to the Reformed and Catholic traditions without reading them? Also, how else was I supposed to know that I was right about Lutheranism? Perhaps there is a challenge to Luther that I can't overcome! Reading the opposition confirms me all the more in my Lutheranism. Lastly, theology needs to engage with modern thought forms and challenges. This is one of the reason why I find the Erlangen theologian interesting and very much worth reading. Their attempt was to deal with modern thought-forms and challenges in a Lutheran manner. Now, many of their approaches were wrong and represented compromises with modern thought-forms (Thomasius on Kenosis, von Hofmann on atonement, the general abandonment of a high view of Scripture, etc- if my book ever comes out, bear in mind that I spend much time in chapters 4-5 attacking both of these fellows), but it at least tried to engage modern challenges. This is, I believe an important task and can be practiced in a more orthodox manner than they did. The intention was right, many of the methods were wrong!


3. Valuable Insights are to Be Gained from Different Thinkers: Certain theologians are good for different things. Gerhard is good for typological reading of Scripture and for discussion of the prolegomena to the dogmatics. He's also good for the doctrine of the divine essence and attributes. He's not very good for insights into the hidden and revealed God. Forde and Elert are good for understanding hidden and revealed God (for Elert, the first 100 pages of The Structure of Lutheranism, as well as his Glaubens Lehre are great on this subject!- I used Forde's book on Bondage of the Will for my Luther class. It is an excellent text), they are not that good on the third use of the law or on the doctrine of Scripture. Forde is good on a lot of things, but not wonderful on atonement to the least. Bayer is good on the orders of creation, the hidden and revealed God, but again, is very vague about the prolegomena to dogmatics, etc. The point is that theologians of all stripes have all sort of different strengths and weaknesses. One just needs to read them with discernment in light of the Scriptures and the Confessions. Again, the fact that one needs to do this does not denigrates their insights. Neither are there any theologians out there who one can be absolved from error.


4. Reading Certain Theologians Gives Us the Right to be Critical of Them: It's very hard to criticize a theologians with much credibility without having read them. I realize that I'm hypocritical on this point, since I've not read Rob Bell (actually I found out I'm going to have to do so, since I've been asked to teach an adult education class on his errors!). Nevertheless, for example, when I read people on the internet being critical of a theologian and it's clear that they haven't read them, it make me take their criticisms less seriously. Also, actually reading a theologian makes your criticisms more nuanced. For example, a person could say: "Forde is an Antinomian because he doesn't have a third use of the law!" Well, he doesn't- that's true and it's problematic as well. But a number of things have to be taken into consideration like: what concept of the third use is he rejecting? Is it really the one that FC teaches? Does Forde actually think the law has no role in the Christian's life? I address all of these questions in my article for CTQ on the subject which is supposed to be coming out this month (maybe!) and I find the answer is much more complicated. Ultimately I conclude that Forde isn't Antinomian per se, but that doesn't place him beyond criticism (you'll have the read the full article). The point is that yelling "Antinomian" when a more nuanced reading is necessary doesn't help the state of theological discourse. Reading theologians we don't like helps us fairly criticize them. If we don't like a person theologically, it doesn't mean they are guilt of every theological crime. Neither does thinking that some idea sounds like some other idea make it the same idea. We have to read people on a case-by-case basis in terms of their overall theological system.

8 comments:

  1. Well said. Thanks. Really appreciate this.

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  3. At issue (in my experience) is the level of scholarship brought to bear on those theologians which are 'disagreeable' w/one's own profession of the Christian faith. Too often one (a scholar in the field of systematic theology or church history, for example) read a (very small) piece of an author/theologian's work then base their entire critique of that person on a remedial understanding of their overall theological confession. They conclude by constructing a project based on that reading, tailored to suit their need to appear theologically articulate, well read, etc., which they then pass along to others as if it were a highly critical position they have come to through much thought and work. This is not only misleading others, it's irresponsible and lazy scholarship.

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  4. I think you're correct D. I've encounter this to a certain degree. It's unfortunate as well in light of the fact to those who are less theological literate, these persons have a tendency of coming off as more erudite than they are. This has the other unfortunate effect of poisoning theological discussion and discourse. It can also rob layperson of valuable theological resources which they have been turned off to.

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  5. I agree with your reasons, especially #2, which I have had to do personally, in defending the sacramental presence of Christ in the Supper with a former member of the congregation I serve who still had Reformed tendencies when it came to the Supper and Baptism. That discussion forced me to read several books I had "skimmed" in seminary (don't tell the profs!), only this time I read them with much more concentration. The Lord used that time spent in study to solidify the Lutheran understanding of the Lord's Supper, and it helped me to have a better grasp of how to articulate Lutheran theology with more than just proof texts.

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  6. NT Wright for instance speaks of Luther and uses the term Lutheran often and yet seems to have little understanding of what Lutherans believe.

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  7. The argument of your interlocutors advocating "Lutheran only" seems a bit reactionary. After all, Walther read Schleiermacher, and praised him for his piety, if nothing else (if I'm not mistaken), Pieper certainly read Charles Hodge (although he rarely has something good to say about him!), Sasse read Barth (and seemed to get most of his patristic quotes from the Ch. Dog.), and Robert Preus wrote quite a bit on Barth too in the old CTM out of St Louis (not all of it condemnatory either). At the least, if we're going to use non-Lutheran theologians as a foil to highlight Lutheran doctrine, we need to read and understand their works. And on a positive note, there are also many valuable insights found in the orthodox Anglicans and Reformed on various subjects in the theological encyclopedia, not to mention Aquinas, the scholastics and the church fathers, among whom not even the great Augustien could pass the orthodox Lutheran test!
    [Btw, Jack, I think there's more than a few confessional Reformed folk out there who would take issue with you saying Barth is the "top Reformed theologian" ;0)]

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