Confession: on negotiating my ecclesial identity

This past week, Amy and I became new members (or as they would rightly prefer to say, new disciples) at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church—no doubt to the chagrin of many friends, colleagues, and professors. This is the first time either of us have ever belonged to a mainline denomination, having spent our lives primarily in non-denominational evangelical churches. And I always assumed, being at Princeton Seminary, that we would end up as Presbyterian, not Lutheran. But we feel really good about this decision. It represents the culmination (for now) of a long transformation in our theological commitments and ecclesial identity. While we still identify ourselves as “evangelical”—taking advantage of the term’s ambiguity, diversity, and multivalence—we also identify with many of the concerns and traditions of the mainline churches.

Because most of my friends and colleagues are of the Reformed persuasion, I want to use the remainder of this post to make explicit where I stand in terms of my Reformational identity. Before I outline in detail where I agree and disagree with Lutheran and Reformed theology, let me begin with a biographical note. I knew next to nothing about Lutheran or Reformed theology prior to coming to Princeton Seminary. I had read Bonhoeffer in college and fell in love then with Christian theology, and I read extensive amounts of Eberhard Jüngel between college and seminary. But I had only the faintest notion of them as “Lutheran” theologians, and I really didn’t know what distinguished them confessionally from someone like Karl Barth.

All that’s to say, I was a theological and ecclesial neophyte when I came to seminary. I approached these and other figures with no confessional agenda, no preconceived notion of what was “right” or “wrong” regarding the Reformation. I have always been and always will be a “free church” theologian, in the sense that I serve no particular confession or denomination, but rather serve Jesus Christ alone. I do not engage in theological work in order to bolster or defend a particular ecclesial identity. I am always ready to rebel against a tradition, institution, or theologian when I have reason to go in a different direction, but I am equally ready to make alliances in the most unusual and unexpected places (e.g., Barthian-liberationist or Anglican-Anabaptist).

Those trained to see Christian identity as the rigorous and faithful extension of a secure tradition will no doubt see this as a kind of radical voluntarism, the kind born of a Western spirit of individualism that leads precisely to today’s self-centered, seeker-sensitive, church-hopping culture. In response, I would reject both the notion of a “secure tradition” that only needs to be extended (rather than reinterpreted and renegotiated anew every day) and the notion of a traditionless voluntarism that refuses all norms apart from the sovereign preference of the individual will. Instead, I seek to embody a missionary openness to the claim of the moment, to the word of the gospel that addresses me here and now with God’s sending command. Our identity is never a secure possession, never a settled fact; ecclesial identity has to be discovered ever anew as we encounter the word of God today.

With this preface, let me now identify where I stand in the debate between Lutheran and Reformed theology. I will proceed as follows: (a) agreement with the Lutheran tradition over against the Reformed, (b) agreement with the Reformed over against the Lutheran, and (c) disagreement with both in favor of other ecclesial options.

A. Lutheran against the Reformed
  1. The first point to make is simply that I identify with Lutheran theologians far more than with Reformed. To be honest, apart from Barth, Schleiermacher, Calvin (and Calvin only read in light of Barth), and the Heidelberg Catechism, I would have virtually no interest in the Reformed tradition. While I have certainly learned much from Reformed theologians (though almost exclusively from “Barthians”), I have been under the tutelage of Lutheran theologians. These include Eberhard Jüngel, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gerhard Ebeling, G.W.F. Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, and Robert Jenson. The fact is that I read Barth in the light of what I have gained from these Lutheran thinkers, particularly Jüngel and Bultmann, though of course the influence is mutual.
  2. Of the two central theological points of agreement with Lutheran theology, the first to note is the emphasis on the concrete and present-tense over against the abstract and past-tense. Put differently, I agree with the Lutheran emphasis on the present proclamation of the word as the decisive event over against the Reformed emphasis on God’s abstract, pre-temporal predestination (Barth, I want to say, represents a complicated via media that is neither Reformed nor Lutheran).
  3. The second central theological point concerns christology. Historically, of course, this is what separated the Lutherans and the Reformed. Here my views are quite complicated, since I both agree and disagree with both Lutheran and Reformed views on Jesus Christ. In terms of agreement, I side with Lutheran theology in emphasizing the radical unity of divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ. That is, I see myself as standing in the so-called Alexandrian tradition of Athanasius and Cyril, though perhaps more accurately in the neo-Chalcedonian tradition of Maximus the Confessor. Of course, I submit this tradition to a thoroughly historical-critical revision in the wake of Schleiermacher, Strauss, Troeltsch, and Bultmann. So I would prefer to speak of a non-competitive “paradoxical identity” of divinity and humanity in Christ, rather than speak in terms of a logos-sarx relation as favored in the ancient church. And I would start “from below” with the concrete human person, Jesus, rather than “from above,” with the Logos, as did the Alexandrian tradition. It is the human Jesus who is identical with and constitutive of God, not a metaphysical Logos who then assumes human flesh. But I nevertheless rigorously reject the quasi-Nestorian christology manifest in the Reformed tradition, which is so concerned about protecting the sovereignty and majesty of God that it all-too-often forgets that Jesus redefines divine majesty in the form of a humble servant who suffers and dies. For this reason, I cannot accept the concepts of logos asarkos and extra Calvinisticum without serious reinterpretation.
  4. Less important, but no less true, is my rejection of the Reformed opposition to art and iconography within the church. On this point I stand with the Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, and Anglicans, in addition to the Lutherans. Theologically, of course, this is derivative of the christological point made above in #3.
  5. Liturgically and sacramentally, I firmly believe that the eucharist should be celebrated as often as the community gathers. For this reason, the Reformed practice of at least once every quarter (or as often as monthly) simply does not suffice.
B. Reformed against the Lutheran
  1. Returning to the christological debate, I agree with the Reformed against the Lutheran doctrine of ubiquity—both the Swabian doctrine of absolute ubiquity and the Martin Chemnitz’s relative ubiquity or multivolipraesentia. This means I also reject the Lutheran use of the genus maiestaticum (genus of majesty), which involves a communication of attributes from the divine to the human nature as part of the perichoretic union of the natures. Against this, I hold to a kind of genus tapeinoticum (genus of humility) in which human attributes are communicated to the divine. The point is: I do not accept the Lutheran christology that undergirds its eucharistic theology. (But neither do I accept the Reformed christology that threatens the unity of deity and humanity in Christ. My christological moves are possible within a broadly Lutheran framework, even if I disagree with standard Lutheran orthodoxy.)
  2. Along with my rejection of the Lutheran genus maiestaticum, I also side with the Reformed in terms of eucharistic theology. The Lutherans, holding to the ubiquity of Christ’s body, advocate a kind of consubstantiation, in which Christ’s body is substantially given “in, with, and under” the eucharistic elements. My view would be closer to Calvin on this point, who argues instead that the Holy Spirit makes Jesus Christ present in the elements, but without substantially localizing him on the basis of a doctrine of omnipresence. I prefer the Reformed view primarily because of its pneumatological orientation and its actualistic character: Christ is present in the Spirit and in this concrete moment of word and sacrament. I prefer to ground the eucharistic presence of Christ in the pneumatic epiclesis than in the priestly consecration. Having said that, I would still construe my theology of the Lord’s Supper in modern Lutheran terms as a visible word-event (Wortgeschehen) in which the elements become the tangible signs of God’s kerygmatic presence in the moment of word and faith.
  3. Finally, because of the genus maiestaticum and other tendencies, Lutherans tend to favor notions of deification and mystical union. While there are strands of this in the Reformed as well, by and large I agree with the Reformed in rejecting all notions of divinization. Of course, figures like Jüngel and Bonhoeffer are quite adamant on this point as well, so the problem is not the Lutheran tradition per se but certain contemporary versions of it.
C. Against both Lutheran and Reformed
  1. I stand against both of these traditions in their Constantinian legacy. Both Lutheran and Reformed churches failed to break free from the catastrophic church-state partnership that has characterized the Christian faith since Constantine. While the Reformed have been more successful than the Lutherans in this regard, I actively stand with the Anabaptists in their non-conformist rebellion. This coincides with my views on mission and missiology. A Constantinian church believes that mission takes the form of extending the structure of the church to unreached people groups. A “free church” missiology recognizes that the church has to be freely translated from one culture to another. Mission is translation, not diffusion and expansion. Here I would borrow from Bultmann and Barth, along with contemporary voices in the field of missional theology (e.g., Guder, Flett, Sanneh, and Newbigin).
  2. Along with the rejection of the heresy of Constantinianism, I also reject the tendency and temptation to turn a particular confession, such as Augsburg or Westminster, into a norm of orthodoxy. To be sure, this is a temptation that threatens the Lutheran tradition more than the Reformed (with its stress on the semper reformanda), but it is nevertheless a battle that wages in both churches. I firmly believe that we are faithful to God alone, and to the scriptures that bear witness to God. All creeds and confessions have only a relative authority, and they are entirely provisional in nature.
  3. While I have come to embrace infant baptism as an acceptable rite—rightly understood, of course—I also affirm adult baptism (perhaps even as the norm).
  4. Again with the Anabaptists, and John Howard Yoder in particular, I would also insist that the Christian church must be confessionally nonviolent. Participation in the military, for example, is a violation of one’s commitment to Jesus Christ.
  5. Finally, as a “free church” theologian, I have doubts about all denominations, not only because I have an issue with static institutional identities that are by nature conservative and resistant to change, but also because I do not think the future of the church is going to be found in religious brick-and-mortar congregations that have visible, public properties with salaried staff. If there is a future for Christianity, it will be located in the marginalized homes and communities that serve as nodes in a global matrix of concrete social action and worldly solidarity.
These are not all of the factors involved. This list could easily be twice as long. But I hope this gives at least a glimpse into what I think it means to be a “free church” Reformational Christian. While my family now belongs to a Lutheran church, I do not think this makes us “Lutheran,” as if our faith now receives an indelible label. Like many in my generation, I disdain attempts to locate my faith within predefined categories. But I also do not believe that I am “cherry-picking” my allegiances. Instead, as with theology, I find myself compelled by my confession of Christ’s lordship to transgress boundaries and erect new ones in pursuit of a more faithful Christian self-understanding. Theology, as Barth said, must always begin again at the beginning. Perhaps the same is true in our confessional and ecclesial identity.


I'm shocked there are no comments...
Coincidently, your statement on baptism puts you closer to the Reformed than the Lutherans on that question.

We need to talk over the art thing - I'm fine with it in general, even within worship space, just not depictions of Christ. I think there are decent reasons for holding such a position which differ from the christological way you framed it.

Calvin wanted to celebrate the Supper weekly, which is good enough for me. Any more often than that and you have to wonder what soteriological concerns are driving things.

For my money, Barth makes tenable certain Lutheran concerns that - as they were previously taken up - had to be subordinated to the Reformed position, i.e., when the decision is between traditional Reformed and traditional Lutheran theology, you have to go Reformed.
Anonymous said…
should keep going, all the way to rome...why stop now?

I let your comment through because it's a good example of a logical fallacy.

Specifically, you are guilty of a slippery slope fallacy, combined with elements of the bandwagon fallacy and the appeal to consequences. It goes something like this:

(1) Recent converts to Catholicism have been Lutheran.
(2) David became a Lutheran.
(3) David will (or is predisposed to becoming a) convert to Catholicism.

The assumption here is that there is something about being Lutheran that makes one likely to become Catholic. Ergo, being Lutheran is bad. There's both a maligning of Lutherans here (not to mention Catholics), as well as faulty logic about the causal relation between Lutheranism and Catholicism.

In short, there's a kind of inverse bandwagon fallacy here, mixed with some "guilt by association" and "ad hominem."

By the way, future comments will be rejected unless you provide a name. Anonymous comments are not accepted at this blog.

The choice is never between "traditional" Reformed or Lutheran theology as our only two options. That would be a false dichotomy. I will always refuse to pick when only given those two options. Barth certainly does incorporate a number of Lutheran concerns; I just don't think he went far enough.

To be honest, sacramental theology is just not all that important to me in choosing a church community. That is, I accept both infant and adult baptism, both real presence (in whatever form) and memorialism. Those aren't the reasons why I choose this or that church.

The biggest reasons are (not necessarily in this order):

1. Preaching that focuses on the concrete, existential significance of Christ's saving presence.

2. Weekly participation in the eucharist as the center and climax of the Sunday liturgy.

3. Liturgical services that abide by the church calendar and make regular use of the hymnal.

4. Strong emphasis on catechesis and adult education.

5. Supportive of families and children.

It just occurred to me that I might have misunderstood your statement. I assumed that your comment was like the hundred other comments I hear all the time from Reformed types about Lutherans being closet Catholics, but maybe you mean it as someone from Rome who honestly hopes that my going to a Lutheran church is one step toward becoming Catholic. If that's the case, then I'm sorry to inform you that no such thing will ever happen.
Andrew Esqueda said…
David, I respect your decision, and share some of your same thoughts. One question, you keep talking about the "free church," how do you--if you do at all--distinguish your conception of the "free church" from the Dutch Reformed conception?

I mean the term basically in two ways: (1) "free church" in the modern evangelical and Anabaptist sense found in Yoder and others, though not (I must add) in the way interpreted by someone like Hauerwas; and (2) "free church" in a much more general sense meaning "not belonging to any particular tradition or denomination."

Put more theologically, I would define "free church" in missiological terms: to be free church means that one's faith is open to the missionary freedom of God's commissioning word of grace. It is to have a faith liberated from the constraints of religious cultures and institutional structures that seek to define a Christian "worldview." The mission of God is "free" in the sense that it never becomes ideology or propaganda; it bears witness to an apocalyptic reality that thoroughly resists any attempt to make it a secure possession or stable given within the world.
Andrew Esqueda said…
Thanks for the explanation--I agree. This is somewhat of an aside, but do you think Yoder is right to identify Barth in the "free church" tradition? I know George Hunsinger minutely disagrees, but I am not sure what I think.

I have become more interested in politics and ecclesiology, and I am currently reading Frank Jehle's book "Ever Against the Stream" to help gauge where Barth lands and what I think about the issues in general.
I think Barth certainly has "free church" elements in him, and by that I mean his methodological freedom from simple Reformed confessionalism and not simply because he rejects infant baptism. But I don't think I would call him a "free church" theologian in the full sense.

I'm not sure Jehle is the best exponent of Barth's political theology. I would look first at Timothy Gorringe and the volume edited by Hunsinger on Barth and radical politics. Also, be sure to check out Barth's books, Against the Stream and Action in Waiting (co-authored with Christoph Blumhardt).
Andrew Esqueda said…
Thanks for your thoughts and the book recommendations.
Daniel said…

Thanks for the helpful layout of where you stand now in regards to both the Lutheran and Reformed tradition. Two questions I had (and which come from digging back into my vague recollections of your time blogging from several years ago, though not actually from sifting through to find if you said these things, so forgive me if I’m mistaken):

1) In terms of the missional church, there seem to be two spheres within which churches seeking to be missional orbit -- those within the established denominations and those that are more independent or part of loose confederations of churches. Some years ago I believe you mentioned being part of The Well, which is part of the Ecclesia Network, an example of the more “confederation” style of missional church, whereas now you have joined the ELCA. This may already be answered in the motivations you listed above (and if so, you can just refer me to them), but at this point in time, what has led you, even if this is not something for all time, to look towards the mainline instantiation over the more independent one? (Please note: I don't mean this to pit the versions of churches seeking to be missional against one another, nor to suggest that one form is “better” than the other, just a curiosity question.)

2) This is coming from a completely different angle, so feel free to ignore it if it distracts from the original point of the post. If I also recall, at some point (maybe three years ago?) in talking about providence and evangelicalism (I believe) you noted that the emphasis on “God’s will for my life” among evangelicals was a very troubling understanding of God and providence. Above you note:

“Instead, I seek to embody a missionary openness to the claim of the moment, to the word of the gospel that addresses me here and now with God’s sending command."

At least on the surface, it seems that evangelical insistence on God’s will for my life seeks to FUNCTION similarly (even if it may or may not suggest the same thing) by seeking to articulate the way in which God interacts in the here and now with God's people. In regards to that then, would you still agree with your earlier statement about God’s will and our lives (if I’m recalling it correctly)? Either way, how do you see the emphasis on God’s gospel summons in the here and now similar to or different from an emphasis on “God’s will for my life”?

Again, sorry if I am recalling these things incorrectly. Thanks for the update!
Anonymous said…
David, I find your statement that "participation in the military... is a violation of one’s commitment to Jesus Christ" to be very foolish.

Such a position, seems to me, to be full of idealism, and quite frankly, not fully thought through. It is indicative of a very truncated view of what it means to be truly human, whilst living in a sinful world.

I am very grateful to the many members of the armed forces who lost their lives, in order that Hitler's mad regime not be established in all the world. I am also very grateful to nations, who have resisted the expansion of communism and Islam.

For many millions, participation in the military has been a genuine expression of their life of faith, in Jesus Christ.
Bobby Grow said…

Cool, thanks for sharing.

I just finished Barth's The Theology of the Reformed Confessions. As you know, he makes a distinction between the Reformed and Lutheran tradition --- relative to "Confession" --- at the point of sola scriptura. And that the Reformed are more "free" (or dynamic) in this regard (looking at their confessions provisionally and through Scripture) (historically) than are the Lutheran, at least in principle (not practice, at least not in its current "orthodox instantiations").

Anyway, I found it interesting that you placed this idea (about not making the Augsburg or Westminster Confessions static realities) in your category of against Lutheran and Reformed. Since, as you know, Barth believed, in principle (and in his embodiment of it), that it is the 'Reformed' tradition that actually guards against such things (by always going back to Scripture).

I think this makes you more "Reformed" still.

Thanks for the questions.

1. We did not pick the ELCA over against independent evangelical churches. If we hadn't been pushed out of The Well, we would still be there. We didn't leave; we were just no longer welcome there. We picked this church because it was the best of the ones available to us. We might have ended up at a Presbyterian church or another independent evangelical church had certain things been different.

This blog post is, as I've admitted already, misleading: it's not a record of the factors that led us to this church versus some other church. Nothing of what I've written in the post was involved in our thinking about choosing Prince of Peace. I'm only saying these things because I have friends and colleagues who think I'm a "Reformed" theologian and will want to know why I am attending a Lutheran church.

2. I can't explain here all the issues with the evangelical talk about "God's will," so I'll have to be brief. First, the language of God's will is rooted in a historical debate regarding the hidden and revealed God. The Reformers distinguished between the revealed God in Jesus Christ and the hidden God in the immanent Trinity. The revealed God was where we learn about soteriology; the hidden God, the aspect of God we have no access to, is where things like providence and election are located. The entire evangelical tradition regarding the will of God that I was referring to -- i.e., the attempt to "find God's will for my life" -- is an attempt to probe behind revelation to access the hidden will of God in the immanent Trinity. Now the problem is that both the Reformers and the modern evangelicals fail to question the separation between a hidden and a revealed God, between an immanent and economic will of God. My problem is not with talking about "God's will" but with the entire evangelical tradition of such talk, presupposing, as it does, deeply problematic notions of revelation and the Trinity. I've submitted a new essay to a journal that offers a new way of thinking about God's will in relation to prayer, but I can't go into all that here.

In short, the will of God is Jesus Christ - the mission of God actualized in him that calls into existence a missionary church. Against the Reformers, there is no will behind or above Christ in some immanent hidden Trinity. Against the old-school evangelicals, there is not a different will for each individual person. There is the one will of God in Jesus Christ repeated ever anew in the Spirit, encountering us here and now in the proclamation of the Word.

Does that help answer your questions?

You'll notice that I give the Reformed an edge over the Lutheran on that score. But the Lutherans are just as insistent on "scripture alone."

I've never denied my Reformed theology. This post is not an explanation for why I chose to go to a Lutheran church. Nor is it a quantitative analysis of how "Lutheran" or "Reformed" I am (e.g., 50% Lutheran, 30% Reformed, 20% Other). It is simply an assessment of where I stand with respect to these traditions for those who might be confused about my decision to attend a Lutheran church considering my thorough engagement with Reformed theology.

All that's to say, I'm perfectly happy calling myself a "Reformed" theologian, as long as I can also call myself "Lutheran" and "evangelical." Which is why I've chosen to discard all such labels and call myself a free church Reformational theologian - i.e., a radical Protestant.

"Not fully thought through"? On what grounds do you make such a charge? Have you read Yoder's works? Do you call his writings "not fully thought through"? Do you think Mennonites are foolish and ignorant? Have you studied the NT texts on peace and violence? Are you familiar with the extensive literature arguing for non-violence as the correct scriptural and theological position?

In short, I must ask, how fully thought through is your own position? Are you seriously going to tell me that because there are well-intentioned Christians who died in military service, and because you think communism and Islam are evils threatening the world, that Christian participation in the military is unproblematic and perfectly acceptable? Where is the textual and theological grounding for your views?

Your position is nothing more than a naive attempt to give a religious justification for your fundamentalist, neo-conservative politics. The question is not whether my position can be thoughtfully grounded in the Christian faith; that much has been done by thousands before me. The question is whether your position has anything at all to do with faith in Christ.
Bobby Grow said…
No, I understand what you were doing here, David. My tongue was in said cheek, a bit, when I posted (I should've used an emoticon or something). ;-)

In the end, you're just too "rad" for me :-).

I know that the Lutheran are just as insistent upon sola scriptura, I was just noting how Barth made a distinction between the two. And that within each "tradition" (Reformed, Lutheran, "Free") there is a range of nuance and emphasis (e.g. there is over-lap between all three approaches). So maybe you're just being more honest, than most ;-).

My background is "free" as well. I've taken the baggage of "Calvinist" (my blog name) with a particular purpose in mind (and I do lean way more Reformed than anything else, which I think Luther himself would've as well [in some ways]).

I think your post was clear, thoughtful, and refreshing; so thanks!
Bobby: That might be the first time I've been called "rad"! :)

You're absolutely right about Barth and the distinction he makes. Of course, he's partial in that debate.
Daniel said…

Thanks for the helpful responses on both counts.

In regards to the second question and talk of God's will it seems to me that you've hit the nail on the head. In order to emphasize that God is operative in the world today (obviously, not a bad thing) the move is often made to posit something else outside of Christ as the form and content of God's will, as that which is truly "real" and encounters me in the day to day.

In reality God has already entered and engaged the world in the closest possible way in Christ. As such, God's will which encounters us in the here and now is the Spirit's catching us up in and sending us out to proclaim this prior and ongoing work of God in Christ.

Thanks again.
Bobby Grow said…
Well, my usage of "rad" just shows my age (born in 74); and of course, it's fitting.

Since your starting your own movement of Christian theologians. I thought I would start a movement called the knarley or dope Protestants ;-).

We actually considered joining a Lutheran church ourselves, not too long ago (the Wisconsin Synod).
Well, I'm not starting any new movement. The term "radical Protestant" is actually quite old. It goes back at least 50 years in its contemporary form, and much further if you broaden the definition.

I think you mean the Missouri Synod, correct? The differences between the ELCA and M-S are pretty significant, sort of like the difference between PCUSA and PCA or OPC.
Bobby Grow said…
I know, on the "radical" stuff, David. Just messin' with you again . . . being a little playful is all.

No, there is actually a "Wisconsin Synod," (WELS) it is quite "Evangelical" in orientation. Our daughter attended their school for a couple of years over in the Montavilla area.

I'm aware of the differences, in sentiment anyway, between the M-S and ELCA; I think the Wisconsin would be akin to the M-S. Just google Lutheran Wisconsin Synod, it will pop right up.
Kait Dugan said…
I have a question for W. Travis McMaken: Why do you not favor depictions of Christ in artwork? I'm genuinely curious.

2 short, flippant, very tongue-in-cheek-but-not-necessarily-altogether-wrong answers: b/c I'm Reformed, and b/c I read the Bible. ;-)

Perhaps if David and I get to hash this out sometime behind the scenes first, I'll post about it over at my blog.
Kait Dugan said…
W. Travis,

I realize that most in the Reformed camp reject icons, but I was hoping you would be able to offer some reasons for your own personal disagreement with their use (particularly the rejection of images of Christ). Given the fact that the seventh ecumenical council deemed them acceptable, I don't think it's quite fair to say (evenly jokingly) that one rejects them simply because they read the Bible (though I recognize your disclaimer in that you were being flippant). If you ever get around to offering specific reasons for your position, I'd really be interested in reading them. Grace and peace.

I've got the 2010 KBBC starting up again at the moment, so I can't devote time to the question. But I'll take it under advisement and hopefully post something in the relatively near future.