Among many in contemporary Christianity (particularly those in the so-called "Emergent Church") it has been fashionable as of late to preach a doctrine of what is often called "radical grace." One finds this in Brian McLaren and of course, our old friend Rob Bell. If you want the "Lutheran" version of this (and yes, the scare quotes are intentional), check out the website of the now trendy (at least for another 5 years or so) "Rev." Nadia Bolz-Weber:
Very trendy indeed!
Anyways, as less than pleasing as I find the trendiness of this whole thing (doubtless this will come off as weird and dated in 10 or 20 years. To see what I mean, check out some of the bizarre stuff that CPH published in the late 60s and early 70s- that's what its going to be like!) my real trouble with "Rev." Nadia is that she (and the whole Emergent Church movement) has a false understanding of grace.
If you read her sermons (available there and all over the web- also on Youtube) the concept of grace that emerges is one of "affirmation." By "affirmation" I mean that she tends to see the gospel as the good news that God is loving and has unilaterally accepted human beings as they are. Implicit in this understanding and her entire program, is the notion that this acceptance is not being fully realized in the contemporary Church. Hence the need for someone with tattoos and Gen X/Y sensibilities to go out and tell all the unchurched hipsters that God accepts them as they are. The mainstream of the Church is being too judgmental and so these unchurched folks are being driven away. This theology is particularly pronounced when it treats the contemporary issue of gay marriage, ordination, and the like in the ELCA. For "Rev." Nadia, it is axiomatic that homosexuality should be accepted by the Church. Why? Because failure to do so cuts against how she understands the essence of Lutheranism's radical grace. To tell homosexuals that their behavior is not acceptable is to reject radical grace in favor of an un-Lutheran legalism and judgmentalism. She has made this argument quite explicitly on a number of occasions. I recall her making it in a sermon at the ordination of a homosexual in the Denver area a few months after the August 2009 ELCA convention.
About this theology of grace, allow me to make three points:
1. As radical, avant-garde, and edgy as she (and the others in the Emergent Church movement) seem to think this theology is, in point of fact, it is little more than a repackaging of the standard operating theology of the ELCA and other mainline Protestant denominations. The deeper question is: Why is this the standard theology? My suggestion would be a sociological and cultural explanation. Americans are a middle class capitalist society that works from a myth of self-affirmation. We believe in what Charles Taylor famously called the "punctuated self" or what Thomas Sowell calls the "unlimited self." The self is most authentic when it is seen as unlimited and can autonomously work out its will. The sky is the limit. Capitalism in particular encourages people to affirm their own desires and think about their own interests. Of course the problem with this view of the self is that it doesn't correspond to reality and it leads almost inexorably to massive levels of selfishness (hence high abortion and divorce rates in America post-1970!- We can look forward to the entitle crisis for the same reason!). Since reality will eventually kick in and the self will have to recognize its limitations, this leads to a sense of being a godling trapped within structures out of the godling's control. This is why every new American religion is ultimately a form of Gnosticism (Scientology, Mormonism, Nation of Islam, etc.)- the Gnostic myth is that we are sad gods trapped in the limitations of matter! To meet the need of the disappointed gods, the mainline Protestant churches have constructed a theology of affirmation. Although the world may not be affirming of you as the little god you are, God is constructed theologically as the ultimately affirming one. Jesus is portrayed in most mainline Protestant sermons preached since 1965, as having a mission of simply walking around Palestine and affirming everyone he sees (BTW, see the hilarious scholarly version of this thesis, see John Dominic Crossan's The Historical Jesus- i.e., the concept of the "brokerless kingdom"!). Jesus died because people didn't like his affirmation and the Father raised him to show how affirming he is after all. And so, basically, the Emergent Church and Nadia Bolz-Weber, as edgy and contemptuous of middle class values that they claim to be, is basically a mirror image of them. After all, they appeal not to the real poor and downtrodden, but to upper middle class white hipsters!
2. As far as historic Biblical and Confessional Lutheran theology goes, grace as affirmation is a big failure and a total misunderstanding of Lutheranism. As I stated in my previous post: Grace and law must be preached side-by-side in their most real and unconditional forms. As Luther puts it in the Smalcald Articles, Law is an absolute: We are absolutely guilty coram Deo. When we wake up in the morning, we are already sinning. Conversely, the gospel is an absolute as well. We are absolutely free from all guilt through the gospel because of what Christ has done. Again though, this can only be understood in light of God's first word of law. Grace isn't really grace if God isn't relenting from something, namely wrath and judgment. Moreover, God's relenting from wrath and judgment is, as Bonhoeffer was fond of saying, "costly." The cost of grace is one that God himself pays, namely, that of judgment. God in Christ suffers the infinite judgment of the law against sin. When we recognize this, we also die, through repentance and faith. God judges our old being and we are "crucified with Christ" (as Paul puts it). Anything less than the judgment and grace of justification and sanctification is affirmation and not grace. Since in the theology of affirmation bypasses judgment, it becomes (as Bonhoeffer again says) the "justification of sin, rather than the justification of the sinner."
3. This brings us to our third point: Why not affirmation rather than grace? Why not just have a God who loves us as we are? Because a God who affirms, rather than judges (and only then gives grace) means a God who makes the law the last word. As I observed in the last post, antinomianism is in a sense the impossible heresy. If the law and its total judgment are bypassed, then human being still find themselves under a demand. In the case of postmodern culture, this is the demand to do everything one can to reject the law in order to be free. One continues to acknowledge the reality of the standards of God's law by being forced to live up to the new standard of not obeying it! Likewise, if, in our theology, we establish a God who is in all times and all places affirming and loving, then this way of thinking about God becomes an ideal which we conform to. The main message of the Church will become: "God is nice, so you should be nice as well." Telling me that "God is nice" is not a promise, it is a law which I must live by to gain life from it. Grace is only grace because it is a reaching out to someone who has been judged. It must by its very nature have an "in spite of" quality to it to be real. If no real judgment has taken place and only an ideal is affirmed, then no matter how friendly the ideal is, it is still a kind of law which I must conform to. We are informed by the Emergents about how things are (God is affirming) and then we are told to conform to it (be affirming also!). Hence the great irony of "radical grace" is that it is not grace at all! In trying to magnify God's grace, these folks ultimately destroy it. They simply give a new law of affirmation which they then bid people to conform to.