Lutheran Paradoxes, not “Lutheran worldview”

Last Saturday and today in the “Basics of the Christian Faith” class, we spent some time looking at the comparison between the theology of many Protestant groupings and Lutheran theology. It doesn’t take long before the Protestant theologies propose a “world view” or even more precisely a “philosophy” of their theology. So how do Lutherans compare?

I noted last week that Lutherans don’t have a “Lutheran philosophy” per se. Rather we live with the tensions presented in Scriptures in terms of paradoxes. That is, what we sometimes see is not matched by the reality as seen from God’s perspective. Here are a few paradoxes that we discussed:

  • Law and Gospel Distinctions
  • Kingdom of the Left (Government/Society) vs. Kingdom of the Right (Church)
  • Theology of glory vs. Theology of the Cross
  • Hidden God vs. Revealed God
  • Now vs. Not Yet

In each case God speaks and acts in ways that seem paradoxical. In Law and Gospel Distinctions, we find Jesus commanding the rich ruler to “keep all the commandments, especially the first” in order to inherit the kingdom (Mark 10:17-22). Yet in Acts 16:25–33, Paul in response an identical question responds with “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” So in one place it is Law that is needed and spoken, in the other it is the Gospel that is needed and spoken.

In the Kingdom of the Left, relationships and order are based on the Law (do this, or suffer the consequences). The Law and the power to carry out punishment under the Law belong to the Government (Romans 13:1-7). In the Kingdom of the Right, relationships are established and maintained by the Gospel (what God does for us in and through Jesus Christ). We live in both the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right. But what applies to the one side does not equate to applying the same to the other.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The F...

Flogging of Jesus

You hear and read much about “electing Christians” into Government positions, as if that is the “only Christian” thing to do. Yet, carrying out responsibilities in the Kingdom of the Left is not determined by “Christian laws.” Rather by being a leader of people, following the laws of the land, carrying out justice. Even an atheist can do that. And we most certainly cannot impose the Kingdom of the Right onto the Kingdom of the Left. That would change the Gospel into another Law, trying to coerce people into “being Christian”—without faith in Christ, but rather “following Christian laws.”

The theology of Glory vs. the theology of the Cross can be confusing. All Christians believe in the glory of heaven, that is not the issue here. Rather, the problem comes when someone tries to impose that future glory into the present realm. You will hear statements such as, “It is God’s intention that you be rich.” (Note: from my perspective, that seems fitting in light of my first name!) Such a claim shows the theology of glory has imposed itself into this current life. The reality under the cross is that we should expect persecution, suffering, and even death. Living in this world as Christians means life under the cross of Christ.

[Jesus said:] “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.” Matthew 5:10-11

[Jesus said:] “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

Notice that these realities have present consequences. And Paul wrote much about the present world in which we live and the suffering and persecution of this life.

For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me. Philippians 1:29-30

Perhaps a challenge is for us to re-read the New Testament and take note of how much is focused on the theology of the cross. I suspect that we will discover in the process how much of the theology of glory is more American independence and individualism and not Biblically sound. In my interactions with Christians from other countries, I have found that this theology of glory stuff does not relate to their experiences and life, but the theology of the cross speaks to the heart. That they know and live with every day.


About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
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7 Responses to Lutheran Paradoxes, not “Lutheran worldview”

  1. Rich: Great stuff here; I’ve had to deal with this subject in varying degrees numerous times. The one thing I’ve found that helps make sense out of all this, is to compare the generic “Protestant” emphasis upon the absolute sovereignty of God, vs. the Lutheran/Biblical emphasis upon the grace of God. While we certainly affirm God’s sovereignty, the important thing to remember is that God deals with sinful humanity according to his grace. Scripture affirms this fact throughout. So when we focus upon God’s grace, we can’t help but make the Gospel and the theology of the cross the overriding emphasis of our ministry. Just my $0.02 worth! Fraternally, Dan S.

    • I’d love to learn more about this comparison of absolute sovereignty and grace of God. What does that look like? I know that I’ve over-emphasized sovereignty (I’m a generic Protestant… somewhat Baptist), but I’m not sure where to go from there.

      • exegete77 says:

        I think for us it comes down to what is the key and even the starting point. For the “Protestant” (Reformed, Calvinist, Arminian, etc.) the starting point is absolute sovereignty of God. For Lutherans we start at the opposite end, namely, justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ; that means we start with the brokenness of humanity (sin, death, and the devil). The difference is that we cannot know God in His sovereignty, we know God only through Jesus Christ, as true Man and true God. Thus, God’s critical factor is his love and desire to save, not His absoluteness in the hiddenness of his will (playing Toto trying to pull back the curtain on God).

        Thus, if we want to know what God is like, it is through Jesus Christ (“no one comes to the Father except through Me”). And many times, God is hidden from our view, hidden under suffering and pain… even as Jesus was revealed in his humanity, suffering, and death. The temptation by following the sovereignty of God is to think that we have to see a manifestation of His glory in this life. The reality is that we only get glimpses of glory, and those instances are hidden in the suffering and pain. Thus, we see the glory of God in Baptism (His saving us) and in the Lord’s Supper (“My body and blood given for you for the forgiveness of sins”). The eyes of glory see only bread and wine. The truth is that when we eat the bread we receive his body, when we drink the cup, we drink his blood (1 Corinthians 10:16).

        Bottom line, the Lutheran understanding is a theology from below, whereas the general Protestant view is theology from above.

        There is much more. If you would like I can provide more information and also some reading along these lines. Does this help?

      • exegete77 says:

        From a practical standpoint, I think Nancy Guthrie (not Lutheran, but very Lutheran in her approach!) gives us a good view of this. She had two of her children die, at six months, three years apart, from the same rare diseases. She has written extensively about it. She was faced in the church with the “absolute sovereignty” issue in the form of “If you had prayed harder, your children would not have died!” She dove into a study of the Bible, no study guides, no commentaries, just the Bible. The result was that she came out with the “theology of the cross” that was far different than her Calvinist background. Perhaps her best writing on this is: “Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow” (2009). She spoke at our annual pastors’ retreat a year ago. I have had the privilege of speaking with her, emailing, and even writing a review for her latest book, Finding Jesus in Genesis (2011).

      • exegete77 says:

        The best book for introducing this (it is not a sit-down and read in one hour kind of book, but well worth the time) is “The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church“ by Robert Kolb and Charles Arand.

  2. Interesting. I didn’t know that Lutherans were more comfortable living in that tension instead of trying to resolve it. That’s very attractive to me.

    • exegete77 says:

      This approach to life and theology is very different than the usual “systematic” approaches that require resolution. But it is very practical, and allows God to work through circumstances that we cannot every figure out (Why did this happen to me? Where was God in this?) The ultimate expression is that when we feel that God has abandoned us, the reality is that God is even closer than we could imagine. Take for instance the death of Jesus on the cross. The typical question is, “Where is God in this?” is met with “Right there, dying on the cross.”

      Life in the tension takes away our “responsibility” to always makes sense of what is happening. Rather, we deepen our trust at the very moment when it makes the least amount of sense.

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