A Luther for the Whole Church?
Robert C. Saler

Much contemporary Lutheran theology operates with a kind of uneasy conscience about its very status as “Lutheran.” Among ecumenically minded Lutherans in particular, there is a nagging suspicion that penning contributions to Lutheran theology qua Lutheran might perpetuate rather than assuage denominational divisions by focusing on those things that make Lutherans different from other ecclesial bodies rather than emphasizing the continuity of Lutheranism with previously established Christian traditions. With that worry in mind, some confessional Lutheran theologians have sought to construct specifically Lutheran theology with an eye toward emphasizing the potential of Martin Luther to instruct (and be instructed by) the Church catholic, rather than just “the Lutheran tradition.”


One of these theologians is Paul R. Hinlicky, who throughout his prolific publishing career has sought to clarify how Luther’s writings can best serve as a resource for an ecumenical theology that is post-Enlightenment, post-Holocaust, and (most importantly for Hinlicky) post-Christendom. His 2009 book Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology from Luther through Leibniz was an exercise in intellectual genealogy that, in tracing the fate of Lutheran themes from the Reformation through early modernity, afforded the author the chance to engage substantially with what he sees as the numerous wrong turns taken by contemporary Lutheran theology. Intriguingly, his new book Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom (Grand Rapids , MI: Eerdmans, 2010) largely restricts its historical scope to Luther himself (as well as to contemporary Luther scholarship), yet features even more constructive commentary from Hinlicky himself on where theology (Lutheran and otherwise) might go from here.

This is no coincidence; indeed, one of Hinlicky’s main contentions in the book is that the best way forward for Lutheran theology is to recast Luther himself as less of an innovator, a dramatic break from pre-Reformation Christianity, and more of a teacher of the whole tradition, a teacher whose theology is in fundamental continuity with much that came before. As he puts it, “Modern Protestants especially…[have thought] of Luther as their hero of faith, or hero of conscience, a solitary religious and/or cultural genius who broke the regressive shackles of the authoritarian past and opened the way to a progressive future of freedom.” It is worth noting that this image of Luther as an innovative genius of faith’s freedom is not restricted to self-identified Protestant Christians; much history and secular philosophy depends on a similar image. See, for instance, the portrait of Luther in Mark C. Taylor’s After God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). In Hinlicky’s view, however, “It is Luther as creedal Christian, Luther as teacher and doctor ecclesiae [doctor/teacher of the church] that matters here” (267). At stake, according to the book’s argument, is whether Luther’s theology can serve as a resource for the eventual reunification of the Western church or if the reformer’s legacy must remain one of perpetual division and ecclesial schism.

Other ecumenically-minded Lutheran thinkers (e.g., Michael Root, David Yeago, and Robert Jenson) have similarly stressed the “catholic” nature of Luther’s theology and the concomitant need for Lutherans to press for visible unity among churches. For all of these theologians, the denominationally divided church stands as a scandal and an impediment to proclamation of the gospel. The main contribution of Luther and the Beloved Community to this ongoing discussion is its wide-ranging and conceptually rich application of Luther’s writings to a host of classical and contemporary theological dilemmas. Hinlicky, who in the book’s introduction is admirably clear about the degree to which he appropriates his own vision of Luther (“my Luther”) from the reformer’s notoriously unsystematic corpus of writings, enlists Luther in service to what the author calls “critical dogmatics.” Critical dogmatics, in contradistinction both to simple repristination of premodern thought patterns as well as (in Hinlicky’s view) to most contemporary “constructive” theology, seeks to promote the possibility of “creedal Christianity,” that is, belief in the classical teachings of the Christian church in an age where that church can no longer depend upon validation by cultural Christendom. It is theology that “tests the life of the Church against those binding beliefs that must structure it” (257).

Hinlicky’s Luther serves this enterprise of critical dogmatics by synthesizing and adapting classical theology (particularly, in Hinlicky’s telling, key Christological motifs from Cyril of Alexandria and Anselm) from a relentlessly biblical, and indeed “apocalyptic,” perspective. Hinlicky continually stresses the apocalyptic (most often in the sense of “revelatory”) nature of Luther’s writings in order to show how Luther, like his later interpreter Karl Barth, did theology in absolute dependence upon God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and in the Bible. When readers of Luther keep his dependence upon God’s apocalypse in mind, it allows them to avoid such mistakes as reading The Bondage of the Will, for instance, as a general anthropological statement of the human condition, instead of as an exegetical commentary upon the specific revelation of the human condition within the salvation history narrated by scripture (which it in fact is, according to Hinlicky). Hinlicky describes this as a kind of theological “perspectivalism,” in which such notoriously difficult Lutheran themes as the two kingdoms, the hidden God, and the hidden church are understood as descriptions of the life of the believer (and the church) at various stages within creation, baptism, and the final redemption rather than actual divisions in God’s reality.

It should be noted that Hinlicky is aware of how commending the apocalyptic in Luther runs the risk of endorsing the reformer’s premodern obsession with demonic forces and (more troublingly) his tendency to demonize his theological opponents with rhetoric that became increasingly vitriolic in his later years. Throughout the book, Hinlicky argues persuasively that such rhetorical tendencies must be left behind by contemporary Lutherans if Luther is to have any future as an ecumenical teacher for the church; indeed, the epilogue of the book contains one of the best arguments that I have read for committing “the needed act of hermeneutical violence” (384) against Luther’s vitriol for the sake of theological charity (and clarity).

In Hinlicky’s telling, the culmination of Luther’s theological vision is “the Beloved Community,” the eschatological unity which is imperfectly embodied in the temporal church but to which that church continually aspires. Thus, “the hope of the Beloved Community [is] our theological point of departure: as social and somatic selves, there is no salvation for the individual except by reconciliation to the community” (255). This hope structures the book, not only in the support that it lends to his ecumenical vision, but in the way it allows Hinlicky to engage other “social themes,” particularly politics (of especial interest here is the enduring legacy of Marxism, which Hinlicky regards as a “Christian heresy,” and the careers of Luther, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King Jr. as political theologians). Hinlicky reads Luther as a theologian for whom support of the church as a visible public and engagement with civic affairs were of a piece (albeit a complicated piece), and Luther and the Beloved Community performs a similar mediation.

The extent to which one judges as successful Hinlicky’s project of recasting the sixteenth-century Luther as a teacher of the whole Church catholic will, I suspect, depend upon the degree of one’s sympathy for the constructive theological proposals (or “critical dogmatic” proposals) that Hinlicky offers for our twenty-first-century consideration. And that is, perhaps, as it should be; again, Hinlicky is clear that the Luther that he is commending to the Church catholic is one formed of careful selection amongst Luther’s writings. That honesty does, however, raise a methodological tension that, while not insurmountable, nevertheless persists throughout the book. Given that other Lutheran theologians named and critiqued by Hinlicky (particularly Werner Elert and Gerhard Forde) perform similar acts of fashioning “their Luthers” in their writings, yet reach very different conclusions than Hinlicky, by what criteria do we judge a given “Luther” to be preferable to another? Hopefully the answer would boil down to preferring the “Luther” that most faithfully reflects close reading of the reformer’s own texts; however, the degree to which that seemingly commonsense answer coheres with Hinlicky’s defense of “appropriation” remains somewhat unclear. More explicit attention to this matter on the author’s part would strengthen confidence in his methodology.

 A more substantive concern arises in connection with Hinlicky’s consistent invocation of “community” as the ideal toward which Lutheran theology must tend. As one who has, in this book and elsewhere (Cf. Hinlicky, “Sin, Death and Derrida,” Lutheran Forum 44/2, Summer 2010), recommended that Lutheran theologians engage the work of the deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, Hinlicky is no doubt familiar with how Derrida problematizes the idealization of “community” (in the singular) by inquiring into the structures of authority, boundary-making, and exclusion that have characterized all historical communities. This difficulty taken together with how Hinlicky’s emphasis upon Luther’s “perspectivalism” tends to de-emphasize themes of multiplicity in Luther (again, the “hidden God” comes especially to mind), leaves the sense that the eschatological vision which Hinlicky finds in Luther is perhaps tamer and less tolerant of contrast, porousness, and diversity than a differently construed Lutheran theology might allow. Saying, as Hinlicky does, that the Beloved Community is not perfectly embodied by any historical community may defer this problem, but it does not fully solve it. That may seem like an esoteric theological issue far removed from the daily lives of Lutheran Christians, but I suspect that it is not. At stake is the extent to which Luther’s writings support the integrity of a host of different theological, ecclesial, political, and perhaps even denominational arrangements as legitimate expressions of the gospel—an issue that is, needless to say, central to the challenges faced by Lutheran communions today.

Negotiating this question will no doubt require further theological conversation among committed Lutherans—a conversation in which relentlessly ecumenical visions such as that offered by Luther and the Beloved Community will no doubt play a signal role. The value of the book comes, not only from the lens that it provides for interpreting the historical Luther, but from the portrait it provides of how a catholic-minded “constructive” theologian can still innovate in a Lutheran key.





Robert Saler is a PhD candidate at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and Interim Pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in Miller, Indiana.

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