Thursday, April 28, 2005

An Open Letter To Brian McLaren

Hi Brian,

I just finished reading your book, A Generous Orthodoxy. I liked it a lot, and I think it will do a lot of good for Christians and the people we meet. Thanks for writing it. But I have to say, I was distressed by the lack of a chapter called "Why I Am Lutheran." So I thought I would write to you and tell you a little about why I am Lutheran to get you started with this chapter for the second edition (which is necessitated by this grievous omission).

It seems to me that Calvinists have a blind spot which prevents them from seeing Lutheranism. It's as if they think we're just eccentric Calvinists. This can be seen in the persistent use of the phrase "Luther and Calvin" -- something you don't hear often in Lutheran circles. I once heard an analogy that imagined Calvin and Luther cleaning out a cluttered dresser drawer. Calvin dumped everything out of the drawer and only put back the things he knew he needed. Luther removed everything he knew he didn't need and kept the rest. The result, of course, is quite different.

As it turns out, the "catholic" chapter was the one that seemed to me to be closest to Lutheranism (and, yes, I can imagine Lutherans inventing Mardi Gras -- we call it Oktoberfest). But Lutherans have a good bit to offer in our own right.

One of the great things Lutheranism has to offer to the Church at large is our rich theological tradition, beginning, of course, with Luther himself but also featuring such giants Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Schweitzer, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann and Tillich and continuing to the present day with the likes of Terrence Fretheim and George Lindbeck. No one will be a fan of all of these theologians, but that's just the point. We Lutherans place a high value on free inquiry (our strongly confessional branches notwithstanding).

A second thing that Lutherans bring to the table is our beautiful musical heritage. If we had no one in the stable but J.S. Bach, he alone would tower over all other traditions, but we do have more than that. Luther himself was something of a musician and gifted the Church with "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" while bringing hymns to a place of prominence in the life of Protestantism. This tradition has continued, and in the present day we have such geniuses as Marty Haugen carrying the torch.

Returning to theology, I would highlight our crown jewel: the Theology of the Cross. Luther said, "The Cross alone is our theology." A theologian of the cross seeks to comprehend God through suffering and the cross. That is, we reject the easy path, the path of glory, in religion and seek to enter into the suffering of the world around us, knowing that God will meet us there. Lutheran pastor Daniel Erlander says it this way:

As we view the cross all of our human attempts to find [God] are exposed as illusions. We do not find God by...
  • proving his existence by the wonder of nature or the power of logic.

  • validating his presence by visible blessings.

  • having a prescribed religious experience.

  • earning divine love by our good works.

  • building glorious religious institutions.

  • reaching a high level of personal morality.

  • saving ourselves through status, wealth, knowledge, consumption, chemicals, positive thinking, correct religious doctrine, self help groups, health foods or exercise plans.

We do not find God. God finds us - in our darkness, our pain, our emptiness, our loneliness, our weakness.

Moving on to brighter things, I am a Lutheran because of the Lutheran understanding of the Word of God. This is the one plug we got in A Generous Orthodoxy. The Anglican J.I. Packer wrote a book about the Bible called "God Has Spoken." Lutheran church historian Karlfield Froelich observes that if a Lutheran had written it it would have been called "God Is Speaking." Lutherans understand the Word of God as a living address that is active and powerful in the world. Luther once said that the Word of God reformed the Church while he slept or drank beer with his friends. "I did nothing," he said. "The Word did it all."

Lutherans have a multifaceted understanding of the Word of God that begins with Jesus Christ and continues to the ways he is made present in the world. As such, we see preaching as the Word of God (which I think is the way the New Testament uses the phrase), but the the words of absolution that follow confession are also the Word of God, as are the words that accompany the sacraments, and, of course, the Bible. But Lutherans often emphasize that the Bible is only the Word of God in as far as it makes Christ present to us. When it does not do that (because we are using it as a club with which to beat our opponents, for instance), it is not the Word of God.

Finally, and this could easily be listed first, I would emphasize the Lutheran understanding of baptism as God's promise and Christ's call. Baptism has the sort of central importance for Lutherans that the Eucharist does for Catholics. Through baptism we are incorporated in Christ and receive all of his benefits, including new life and salvation from sin, death and the power of the devil. We believe that we receive all these things because God has promised them to us and in baptism bestows them upon us. Baptism is like having the Gospel poured over your head. But Lutherans are also beginning to rediscover that in baptism, Christ lays hold of us. When we are baptized, we are called into mission, called to be followers of Christ. In baptism, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. We are Christians, and because of our baptism, we are called to live as Christians.

I could go on and talk about such things as Christ coming to us in the communion meal, about the priesthood of all believers, and about our recognition that we are at once sinners and saints, but I've probably said enough already.

So, once again I thank you, Brian, for your book A Generous Orthodoxy -- it is a wonderful contribution to the Christian faith -- and I look forward to an update when you also become Lutheran.


1 comment:

LutheranChik said...

I'm chuckling reading your post, because I just saw another example of the Calvinist blind spot you describe on Beliefnet.;-)

Among other things, I think that speaks to our (present company excepted, of course;-)) inability to explain who we are and what we believe.