Lutheran Theology

German Perspectives and Positions

Vol.1

What is Lutheran?

Lutheran Theology, Worship, Church Law, Congregations, Ecumenism in brief

Published on behalf of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany (VELKD) with the German National Committee of the Lutheran World Federation
(GNC/LWF) by Henrike Müller und Florian Hübner

Translated by Neville Williamson

Bibliographic information published by the Deutsche National bibliothek
The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliographie; detailed bibliographic data are available on the Internet at http://dnb.dnb.de.

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Foreword

In the 21st century, Lutheran theology is globalised theology. Just as the Lutheran communion has spread into all parts of the world, so too is theology now practised in a variety of linguistic and cultural contexts. International theological exchange and transcultural learning are therefore of decisive significance for a worldwide church.

For this reason, after the Reformation anniversary in 2017, the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany (VELKD), together with the German National Committee of the Lutheran World Federation (GNC/LWF), has initiated a new series of books in English, the first volume of which you are holding in your hand. These texts were originally published in German and have now been translated into English. The texts and opinions originating from the German-speaking context are intended to be a contribution to theological exchange and the reflection of Lutheran theology beyond national and language boundaries. In this way, the articles do not claim universal validity, but represent one voice among many in the concert of world Christianity.

The series begins with a collection of five texts published in 2017/2018 by the VELKD in German as booklets in connection with the 500th anniversary and commemoration of the Reformation. Five core themes of Protestant theology and the church are presented from a Lutheran perspective and published together here for the first time in one volume: »Given for You. Lutheran Theology« (Michael Roth), »Descent and Ascent. On Lutheran Worship« (Christian Lehnert), »Church for the People. Guidelines for Protestant Parish Work« (Martin Kumlehn), »Fellowship in Practice. Ecumenism from a Lutheran Perspective« (Bernd Oberdorfer) and »The Church and Its Law« (Hendrik Munsonius). The texts are short and compact, as were the original VELKD booklets in a handy pocket format, combining theological reflection with easy-to-understand information. They are suitable not only for theologians from university, church and parish background, but also for interested lay people. Since the individual booklets were written by different authors, they each have a particular style and approach to the topic concerned.

We hope that these texts will offer an international readership interesting, stimulating and theologically well-founded insights into these central subjects. For the Lutheran churches in Germany, this book also indicates how important it is that they are embedded in the worldwide context of ecumenism, and particularly Lutheranism.

Hanover/Schwerin, October 2018

Gerhard Ulrich,

Presiding Bishop of the VELKD and Chairperson of the

GNC/LWF

Table of Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Foreword

Michael Roth

Given for you: Lutheran Theology

1. Introduction: A booklet on accounting for faith

2. Faith in practice

3. The object of faith: sinful humans and the justifying God.

4. Freed into the present – life and action in faith.

Christian Lehnert

Descent and Ascent: On Lutheran Worship

1. An exotic metaphor to start with.

2. »The former ascends, and the latter descends«

3. The form of the Mass.

4. The opening

5. Kyrie eleison.

6. Glory to God in the highest

7. The Collect of the Day

8. The readings

9. The creed spoken together

10. Intercessions and collections

11. Holy Communion.

12. The river and the banks: the sermon

13. The blessing

14. The language of a church service

15. Music in worship

16. »A moment now here and then gone«

17. In conclusion: Luther’s ribald language.

Martin Kumlehn

Church for the People: Guidelines for Protestant Parish Work

1. Welcome!

2. How it all began – on the road with Jesus

3. Community of the baptised

4. Plurality of local church forms.

5. Institution of freedom – turning points of the Reformation

6. Religion in practice.

7. Lively diversity – diverse participation.

8. Occasional church

9. Church as a resource for the religious interpretation of life

10. Church as a companion

11. Church and social media

12. Free – and free of charge

Bernd Oberdorfer

Fellowship in Practice: Ecumenism from a Lutheran Perspective

1. Introduction

2. Unity and diversity – a historical overview

3. The ecumenical movement

4. The search for doctrinal consensus

5. What is ecumenism?

6.Denominational perspectives on church unity

7. Ecumenical models for the unity of the church.

8. Aspects of the cultivation of ecumenical connections

9. Outlook: A post-ecumenical age?.

10. Literature

Hendrik Munsonius

The Church and Its Law: An Introduction

1. Why is law necessary?

2. Church activity

3. Law

4. Church law.

5. Persons

6. Structures

7. Procedures

8. Literature

Authors

Editors

More Books

Endnotes

Michael Roth

Given for You

Lutheran Theology

1.Introduction: A booklet on accounting for faith

A comeback for religion?

To some contemporaries, religion seems to be a relic of old, pre-scientific and pre-enlightened times, something that should by rights have no place in the modern world. Therefore, even a few years ago, the so-called theory of secularisation was the centre of heated debate, claiming that religion will disappear from the modern, secular world. It forecast that it was only a question of time before religion would disappear completely from the modern world.

This picture has changed significantly in the last few years. From a range of different perspectives it has been pointed out that the resurgence of religion in modern culture clearly shows that religion also has its legitimate place there. »Comeback of religion« is the slogan often employed. In his world-famous book »The Clash of Civilizations« the Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote: »In the modern world, religion plays a central, perhaps even the central role that motivates and mobilizes people.« In the meanwhile, terms used are »respiritualisation« (Matthias Horx), »de-secularisation« (Peter L. Berger) or a »post-secular society« (Jürgen Habermas).

But what is religion?

Now it is possible to be sceptical in welcoming the renaissance of religion, or at least be cautious about measuring all such phenomena prematurely with the same yardstick. Even if we agree that a there is real evidence of a renaissance of religion, that does not necessarily mean that religion and modernity are compatible. It could be that anti-modern forces are rearing their heads for the last time before disappearing completely, in a last major offensive before surrendering. Religion could also be the shadow of reason, the monster produced by the »Sleep of Reason« in the painting by Francisco de Goya. And there is another question. What about other trends which are also described by sociologists, the ones that relativize the renaissance of religion, such as the progressively increasing secularisation and a habitual atheism that is no longer militant, but lives a life without God as a matter of course without feeling that anything is missing? Above all, when speaking of the »comeback of religion«, one should look closely into the phenomena which are all subsumed under the label of »religion«. What exactly is enjoying a comeback? Does it warrant the title of »religion« or should it be classified as diffuse religiosity in distinction to religion as such? Can one say that lighting a joss stick is really equivalent to a trusting confidence which lasts a lifetime? To speak of transcendental energies or a cosmic spirit, or to take part in a religious event like the »Kirchentag« or World Youth Day, can that already be the foundation of daily religious practice?

Educated religion?

The phenomenon of »resurgence of religion« leads to another issue, namely the resurgence of fundamentalist forms of religion. This tendency is also evident in Christianity. It is not uncommon for faith to be seen in opposition to reason; Christian fundamentalism demands that the Bible should not be the object of rational understanding, but of obedience that renounces reason. The rejection of modernity in these circles is expressed, for example, by the demand that the theory of evolution should be replaced in the school curriculum by the theory of »intelligent design«. Like the spiritualisation of religion, fundamentalist Christianity also thrives at the expense of traditional religion.

Spiritualisation and fundamentalisation present themselves to us as two »solutions« in determining the relationship between modernity and religion – and thus the relationship between faith and reason. Evaporation of religion on the one hand, farewell to modernity on the other, or to put it another way: abandonment of the claim to truth on the one hand and fundamentalist claim to truth on the other. Is there a third way?

Purpose of this booklet: Theological reflection on the faith and its foundations

This booklet is an attempt to account for the faith – to reflect on the form and manifestation of the Christian faith to which the Lutheran Church is committed. Such reflected accountability seems to be typical for Christianity as a whole, which by means of theology has always taken care to account for faith in a scientific discipline.

The term »theology« does not come from the Bible, but from Greek antiquity, and means in the original sense of the word »speaking about God«, that is to say, singing and reciting stories about gods, first of all orally and later in writing. In this way, Plato made use of the term theology, albeit critically. Unlike Plato, Aristotle uses the term theology not to refer to the narrating of stories about the gods, but rather to the philosophical question about God, seeking to reveal through rational thinking how the myths transport falsehood in their tales of God. Christianity has adopted the term »theology«, using it as a term for the considered reflection on the Christian faith. This means that it is committed to both elements in the concept of theology: reference to history on the one hand and reasonable accountability on the other. Since the founding of universities in the Middle Ages, theology, this reflection on the Christian faith, has become one of the established university disciplines (alongside medicine, jurisprudence and philosophy).

It is to be hoped that this booklet will provide an understanding of what faith is all about: not a rigid belief in statements about the world and God, but a »life perspective« empowering people to conduct their daily life in the present, rather than remaining fixated in an unresolved past, or losing themselves in a fantasized future. That can succeed simply by trust in this promise: »Take and eat, it is given for you!«

Method and structure of the booklet

First of all, we want to look closely into the phenomenon of religious faith. The central question here is »What is faith?« In a second step we shall focus on the central contents of the faith. And thirdly, we want to investigate Christian life.

2. Faith in practice

How can one talk about God?

It is by no means the case that people are not interested in questions about the existence of God. Therefore, talking about God is not condemned to failure from the start. But the main point is, in what way should one talk about God?

The reason why it is not easy to talk about God is that people associate very different interests with conversations about God. Some people want to talk about God in an abstract fashion, speculating on the reasons behind the world, while others can only talk about God from a position of existential concern. For them, speaking about God always has to do with liberation and hope in their own lives. This difference became clear in a conversation which I overheard while travelling in an Intercity train from Bonn to Erfurt.

Conversation on the train

The conversation took place between two young men who obviously knew each other well. At any rate they were aware that one of them regarded himself as an atheist, while the other was a professing believer. I did not gather anything about the first part of their conversation but I pricked up my ears when I heard one of them say, »No, I am indeed an atheist but I really enjoy arguing with believers about the existence of God.« He was sitting quite relaxed with crossed legs, looking at his opposite number in a friendly and expectant way. Then he went on cheerfully: »Up to now, I haven’t heard any convincing arguments for his existence. Above all, when you look at all the suffering and injustice in the world, it seems to me quite absurd to believe in the existence of a good and righteous God.« The other man looked at him uncertainly. He was obviously reluctant to enter into the discussion his friend had opened, and very clearly did not appear to share his enthusiasm. »What’s the matter?« said the latter. »You really don’t have to worry. I would really like to argue with you about the existence of God, exchanging the reasons that speak in favour of his existence or against it. And you ought to enjoy it, too – after all, you do believe that God exists. Do your best to convince me he exists. I’m looking forward to hearing what you can bring forward.« After thinking for some time, the other man answered: »I am not really interested in wondering whether God exists. That is not my question.« Now it was the turn of the avowed atheist to be consternated: »All right, but if you are so convinced of God’s existence that you do not even call it into question, then you should not find it difficult to present some arguments in favour of it.« Then he was given an unexpected answer: »You want to argue about God just as you would argue about the existence of the yeti. But I can’t talk about God in the same sort of way!« When asked why not, the one who was being questioned about his faith replied: »Because it’s not the same thing – you want to talk about God without getting involved personally! I can’t do that!«

Belief in God and belief that a yeti exists

This conversation between the self-confessed atheist and the man who professed his religion makes it clear why it is often so difficult even to start a conversation about God. One does indeed have the feeling that many people want to talk about God’s existence in the same way as they would talk about the existence of a yeti in the Himalayas. You discuss the existence of a yeti by considering what reasons speak in favour of its existence and what grounds there are for refusing to believe it. But if you were to speak about God in a similar way, you would take leave of the existential dimension which is essential for the language of faith. Does talking about God not entail more than just discussing a theistic object whose existence we either do or do not believe to be true? Is it even possible to talk about God without talking about oneself and one’s own hopes and expectations?

Religious talk of God

It would be a misunderstanding of religious faith to see it as »being convinced« of the existence of God. Religious talk about God is quite different from the belief in the existence of a yeti, not only by content, but also by category. You cannot have a debate on faith by arguing about God as an object, as one might argue about the existence of a yeti-object. A dispute between people supporting the hypothesis of the existence of a yeti and the adversaries of such a hypothesis is quite a different matter to the dispute between believers and sceptics. This dispute does not concern theoretical knowledge about a particular being, but rather the conflict between differing ways of life.

What is faith?

If religious belief is distinct from »being convinced« of God’s existence, and therefore from theoretical knowledge about a particular object, then the question arises: what is faith? We want to try to put together some aspects of faith which help us to answer that question.

Different usage of the term »belief«

First we should take a look at the everyday language use of the term »belief«. Ordinarily, we use the term »belief« in the sense of »accepting the truth« of a statement, meaning »I believe this, that and the other«. I might be using the word in this sense, for example, when I say »I believe the table is two metres long«. But although the concept of »belief« is commonly used in this sense of »accepting the truth«, that is not the only way it is used. When I say »I believe you«, then I am using the word in a completely different way.

In this case, I mean »believe« in the sense of »trust«. It is important to distinguish between the use of the concept of »belief« in the sense of trust (»I believe you«) and the use of the same word to mean »accepting as true« (»I believe that …«). In many languages different words exist for these two different concepts, so that English, for example, makes the distinction between »belief« and »faith«.

Belief as trust

When the reaction to God’s promise in Christ is described as »belief«, then the term is not used in the sense of »accepting the truth« of a statement, but rather in the sense of trust (»faith«). This is of great importance, because otherwise it is not clear what Christianity is. It may lead to a distorted notion of what it means to be a Christian. It is not the essence of Christianity to be convinced of certain propositions which are denied by others, but rather to trust in them in a certain way.

The Reformation understanding of faith

In the Reformation tradition, there is a particular emphasis on the character of belief as trust (fiducia). Thus, in the Large Catechism, Luther refers to faith as a »trust of the heart« directed toward Christ. When Luther formulates, »Faith remains purely and simply attached to the word alone, turns its gaze not away, nor looks for something else«,1 then it is clear that faith is understood as a movement shaping and determining one’s entire life – in all its facets. This is unmistakably clear in Luther’s exposition of the first commandment in the Large Catechism: »To have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart; as I have often said, that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust be right, then is your God also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust be false and wrong, then you have not the true God; for these two belong together, faith and God. That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your God.« Thus, Luther understands faith as the fulfilment of the first commandment; because he trusts in God’s promise »I am the Lord, your God!« In the Large Catechism, Luther interprets this promise as follows: »I, yes I, will give you enough and help you out of every need; only let not your heart cleave to or rest in any other.« The appropriate response to such a promise is not to »know« it, to »recognize« it or »be convinced it is true«, but to make it effective in one’s life by a trusting attitude. In a nutshell, the appropriate response to God’s promise is to confide in him with one’s whole being, or in a single word: trust. Thus, God’s promise and human trust belong together.

Faith and existence

Now it has become abundantly clear that declared belief is not about some more or less irrelevant objective facts that one considers to be true, but about one’s own existence. Therefore, faith is not about questions concerning particular facts in the world. Questions such as whether the town of Kiel lies to the north or to the south of Hamburg, or whether or not rabbits are ruminant animals. Those are not existential questions, but simply matters of fact. Faith, on the other hand, is not about factual issues, but about questions of one’s own existence. Faith is also not about individual questions concerning the world of experience as a whole, for example the question of how far away the moon is from the Earth, or whether the Earth was created in six days or six million years. Such questions also only deal with the position of the Earth in the planetary system or its age, they are not existential questions. Faith deals with the question: »Who am I?«

Requirement of faith

If the Christian faith is understood as holding certain factual statements to be true, it is in danger of becoming shallow because it is deprived of the existential dimension. Faith is about one’s own existence. On the other hand, people who speculate on such questions as to whether or not the world was actually created in six days are not talking about their own existence. They are not making any reference to their self-understanding or to the grounds of their lives and hopes. They are talking about something without taking any risk or getting involved personally. But in this way they remove themselves from the requirement of faith, which does not consist in holding on to some strange statements or hypotheses about the world of experience which are unacceptable to any rational thinking person, but in living a life of trust in God. Faith confronts me with the question: how do you want to live? What is your consolation in life and in death? It does not confront me with the question: do you think it is true that rabbits are ruminants?

Reformation understanding of the belief in creation

Luther’s interpretation of the creation may serve as an example of the indissoluble connection between faith and existence: »I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true.«

If we take a closer look at the text, it strikes us straightaway that Luther emphasises the presence of the creator and his actions. This emphasis is closely related to a second distinctive feature: when giving his interpretation of the Apostles’ Creed, the speaker does not remain distant from his subject, referring in an abstract fashion to »something«; rather he talks about his own person and existence: »I believe that God has made me«, »my body and soul«, »without any merit or worthiness in me«, »for all which I owe it to Him to thank …«. Though the believer does not appear in the text of the Apostolic Creed, which only presents the pure facts (»I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth«), Luther’s interpretation relates these facts to the life of the individual believer.

Existential meaning of the creation statements

Therefore, it would diminish Luther’s interpretation if one were only to see in it statements about the world which the person reciting the Creed acknowledges to be true. Rather, it is an expression of an attitude to life that relates to the perceived world in order to find its place within it. Everything obtaining to human life, every sphere of activity which constitutes a person’s being, is understood to be a gift of creation. This is also evident in the enumeration of individual gifts of creation, reminiscent of the list language in Old Testament wisdom literature. This is not intended as a designation in scientific accuracy. It may be seen as a conscious selection; the series of items leaves gaps which can be individually filled by the imagination of anyone who recites or hears the text. The people who join in speaking the Creed are invited to express themselves as subjects in the perceived world – each in a particular way and at a specific place.

These statements are not statements about the world, but about my own place in the world, they are not motivated cosmologically but existentially. The believer who praises the world as God’s creation is making a statement about his place in the world and the world as the place where he lives. The world is described as a God-granted habitat. The language of the Christian religion does not express theoretical knowledge about the world, but makes statements about human beings in the world: they have been freed by God to live.

Creation faith in contrast to a cosmological theory

The belief in creation is therefore something other than being convinced of the truth of the cosmological statement »God is the originator of the world«. The statement that the world is the product of an uncaused cause is a descriptive statement about the world. I can believe it to be true or false, without stating anything about my own life. Thus, the statement that the world is the product of an uncaused cause lies on the level of belief in the existence of extra-terrestrial life; it is a matter of speculation – whether meaningful or simply transcending the capabilities of human cognition is not the question here. It is therefore not surprising that there are certainly people who are willing to believe the statement that the world owes its existence to an uncaused cause, but have nothing else to do with a religious life. It is not problematic that people are to be found who (merely) believe that the world originates from an unmoved mover, an uncaused cause or the like – no more than that there are people who, on the basis of their observations of the world, consider it likely that a yeti exists in the Himalayas. In religious terms, both positions are unspectacular. However, it does become a problem when such intellectual fantasies about the unmoved mover as the origin of the world are confused with the Christian belief in creation. When the Christian faith speaks about creation, it is not making a purely objective statement about the world (neither about the structures of the world of experience nor about the cause of these structures), isolated from statements about itself.

The predication of the world as creation also poses the question »Who am I?«, which expresses how the speaker leads and interprets his life – but not what theory about the origin of the world he believes in.

Faith as a guideline for life

When we look at the different aspects of belief, one misunderstanding stands out clearly: a widespread misconception about faith is that knowledge related to faith is equivalent to empirical factual knowledge. On the contrary, it should be noted that the word »faith« signifies a certain »conduct of life«, a particular attitude to living. It should be repeated here: Christians are not distinguished by the fact that they are convinced of the truth of statements that others consider to be false, but rather by participating in a certain way of life which determines the course of their entire life. Faith does not entail a particular form of confession, but a particular form of living. Faith means a special kind of awareness of the world, a special kind of conduct in and towards this world.

Faith and talking of God

Faith is a certain attitude to life which cannot avoid speaking about God whenever it expresses itself. The word »God« is inseparable from this context – indeed, the expression »God« really finds its definition in the daily conduct of faith. When there is mention of God in the context of this attitude to life, then he is not something I might speak of purely objectively, isolated from any reference to myself. The use of the term »God« is an expression of a person’s own place in the world. The term »God« cannot be perceived and reflected upon in isolation. God is not the name for something which might be considered or discussed on its own, removed from the specific conduct of life and then analysed. Statements employing such words as »here«, »now« or »today« are not related to some kind of factual »here«, »now« or »today«, but rather indicate where and when the speaker sees his own place in the world. In the same way, when talking about faith, statements using the word »God« do not relate to God-facts, which might be understood independently of the concrete use of the words. Talk about God can also not be isolated from this concrete use of the word without being rendered incomprehensible and meaningless, and above all not without losing their significance for the concrete life of the person speaking in prayer. The believer talks about God by speaking about himself, and talks about himself by speaking about God.

Religious faith in contrast to theism and atheism

We have said that faith is something other than the conviction that God exists, but we can obviously not ignore the fact that there really is such conviction. This is the case in rational theism. Rational theism is a theory. It is not a living faith, nor factually a religion. It is therefore necessary to distinguish faith from rational theism, with which it is often confused.

Rational theism is the conviction that a god exists who is almighty, all-wise and all-good and created and sustains the world. Rational theism is a theory claiming to demonstrate that the hypothesis of God’s existence provides a better explanation for the observations of the world and its phenomena than the hypothesis of his non-existence. Theism assumes that rational insights can prove the existence of God and it makes use of philosophical, empirical or scientific arguments to this purpose. Atheism has a certain resemblance to rational theism in that it assumes that God is simply a theory to explain the world. Unlike rational theism, atheism assumes that God is not a suitable model to explain reality, either because this hypothesis has been made superfluous by the results of scientific research, or because the problem of theodicy renders this hypothesis unlikely.

Faith is clearly distinct from this rational theism – if faith is understood as a form of life conduct. It is important to realise that the term »God« functions differently in different contexts, and that the meaning is not always and everywhere the same when reference is made to GOD. It makes a difference whether the term »God« is used in rational deliberations on the way the world is experienced or whether it is used in the language of faith.

Confusion of religious faith with theism