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A Review of Gift and Promise: The Augsburg Confession and the Heart of Christian Theology by Edward Schroeder, edited by Ronald Neustadt and Stephen Hitchcock
Fredrick A. Niedner

Thanks to the spate of books and films that have appeared in this 500th anniversary year of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, more people than usual may currently have some grasp of Lutheranism’s distinctive teachings and way of doing theology. Ordinarily, even Lutherans themselves know little more of their tradition than a few shards of Luther’s Small Catechism and certain peculiar tastes in music (Bach) and comfort food (lutefisk). Many developments account for this, including the inexorable growth of Christianesque Americanism that has spread like kudzu across the ecclesial landscape and rendered a broad spectrum of church bodies virtually indistinguishable.

Add to this the historic reality that Christianity began as proclamation of good news that thanks to Christ’s atoning death, law codes and obligation cannot dictate who has a place among God’s chosen and beloved, but the church has inevitably devolved, always and everywhere, into an exclusive club, or worse, a racket that preys upon frightened souls. Gift and Promise addresses both issues, the chronic malady that tempts everyone, including the church, to choose captivity over freedom, and the theological carelessness behind sermons that mostly urge “Be nice” or “Be right.”

Primary author Edward Schroeder taught theology at Valparaiso University, Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and Christ Seminary-Seminex. He later directed the Crossings Community, “an ecumenical, international theological venture dedicated to ‘Christian ministry in daily life.’” For the past quarter-century he has lived in alleged retirement, but in various ways he still teaches students both new and old. The latter group includes this volume’s nine co-authors, both its editors, and this reviewer. Thus, alongside everything else this book attempts, it offers a glimpse of a theological tradition’s DNA. Those familiar with the genetic variations of Lutheran theology will recognize that this strand traces back to Schroeder’s own teacher at the University of Erlangen, Werner Elert, and ultimately to Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon.

Schroeder’s three opening chapters take up two primary tasks. They teach “theology of the cross” and they demonstrate how to use Melanchthon’s twin criteria (as presented in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession) for distinguishing genuine from defective attempts to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Most Christians and many theologians assume that “theology of the cross” includes any and all talk that mentions Jesus’ crucifixion. Strictly speaking, Luther and his theological heirs use the phrase to refer to a specific way of doing theology, the work of finding true and honest ways to talk about God. In sum, theology of the cross finds its central, ultimate, and definitive “data” for describing God in the crucified Christ on Golgatha. If you want to know who God is or what God is up to in the world, look there, Luther urged. Only there will you find the trustworthy mercy of the God who gives life, not merely death.

The alternative, which Luther dubbed “theology of glory,” looks for clues elsewhere, in the more obvious places humankind has always mined for theological data. These include nature, including the human organism itself, with its vast scope, stunning beauty, and astonishing intricacy, and also the vagaries of history, the interplay of nature’s forces and humanity’s machinations, all of which presumably operate under God’s permission or control. Given how nature and history finally dispatch even those who have more joyful than sorrowful days, we can only conclude that this God means to destroy us. It behooves us to do what we can to get on the deity’s good side, if there is one.

Theology of the cross, which frees humankind to recognize and face the truth about ourselves and God, also affirms that God means to kill us, and, as this book asserts, afflicts us with disease and disaster, partly to get our attention but mostly because we deserve it. This latter claim derives from the diagnosis that we are rebels, not merely fallible mistake-makers. We neither trust nor honor God and we presumptuously make gods of ourselves. This sorry state of affairs is “life under The Law,” as St. Paul, Luther, Elert, and Schroeder describe it.

Theology of the cross, therefore, allows us to see that God speaks in two ways—in the demanding, accusing, and condemning word of Law, but also in the Word Incarnate, the word of Gospel, that Christ has taken our place under the Law and swapped fates with us. He gets our death, we get his life. This is the church’s one and only message, and in Article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon argued that two features distinguish genuine gospel from cheap imitations: it honors the death of Christ and comforts penitent hearts. That is, it declares the absolute necessity and sufficiency of Christ’s death in our place, and it never leaves hearers uncertain of their status with God. No one need worry over having done too much or too little in thought, word, or deed to warrant God’s forgiveness and salvation. 

The crucial need to distinguish between God’s word of Law, which never offers a way of escape but always and only accuses and condemns, and God’s word of grace, mercy, and reconciliation in Jesus Christ the crucified, along with Melanchthon’s twin criteria for recognizing authentic gospel, serve as the distinguishing characteristics of Lutheran theology. Anyone who has sat under Edward Schroeder’s tutelage knows that he illustrates this “system” with the graphic of a wagon wheel. The promise of justification by faith in the crucified Christ stands as the hub, while the distinction between accusing Law and promising Gospel serves as the rim. In between, all the other doctrines of the church function as spokes, connected to both hub and rim. These include the various peripheral teachings the Augsburg Confession addressed, each taken up in this volume by Schroeder’s students, most of whom either studied or have taught at Valparaiso University. Topics and authors include the Trinity (Arthur [Chris] Repp), Sin (Kathryn Kleinhans), Church and Ministry (Marcus Felde), Baptism (Steven Albertin), the Lord’s Supper (Marcus Lohrmann), the “Two Kingdoms” (Marie Failinger), Ethics (Michael Hoy), Church Conflict (Steven Kuhl), and Mission (Jukka Käärläinen). 

All these chapters warrant review and response, but in the spirit of sinning boldly (see the Kleinhans chapter), a few shout-outs must suffice. Chris Repp’s essay on the Trinity does an exemplary job of explaining how the church’s creeds and doctrines, such as the Trinity, aren’t so much scripturally derived philosophical constructions of truth as they are a form of gospel proclamation. Without these teachings, we have no authentic good news. Marcus Felde uses his pastoral experience, including counseling matrimonial wannabes, to remind clergy they are ordained as ministers of the gospel, not ministers of law and gospel (even though they must work hard to understand both). The church’s main thing, indeed its only authorized work, is the forgiveness of sins. The church is not the world’s beat cop, called to make the world straighten up and fly right. Law enforcement can become part of a Christian’s work in the world, explains Marie Failinger in her chapter on Christians’ service in both God’s right-handed work of redemption and God’s left-handed work of keeping order and doing justice. Finally, Jukka Käärläinen offers a helpful perspective on Christian mission that properly entails as much listening as speaking. We don’t merely listen with care to confessions of weakness and sin. We also have much to learn from the world that, except for the central revelation on Golgatha, knows as much about God as we do.

This volume expresses as clearly as any other the theology by which I have found my way and my calling in this world that seems to thrive more on cruelty than kindness. Still, I struggle with and occasionally resist certain features, and I expect to remain in dialogue with its authors and their company for as long as I live.

One element I find limiting, particularly in preaching and pastoral counseling, begins with its exclusively forensic or juridical soteriology (theory of atonement). Schroeder offers an extensive treatment of his own working soteriology here, one he essentially borrows from Luther and calls “The Remarkable Duel.” The innocent Christ, whose only susceptibility to the Law’s accusing arrows comes from his having befriended sinners like us, confronts the personified Law, which acts on God’s authority. The duel proves deadly. Both combatants die. Then, on the first day of the week, only one returns from the grave, and with him his friends.

It preaches. It even sings. (Indeed, Luther borrowed the image from an ancient Easter hymn.) But like all metaphors, it only captures a part of the reality it attempts to comprehend. At least some of what happens to human beings in this treacherous world has little or nothing to do with forensics, at least as many of us understand the world today. Another confusing category in this volume helps to explain this complex problem. Authors in this volume speak of deus absconditus (the hidden God) in at least two ways. On the one hand, deus absconditus is the God who hides behind nature and historical events and does not want to be seen or understood in such things. Moreover, relying on nature’s and history’s signals as sufficient for knowing God is the fatal flaw of “theology of glory.” On the other hand, this volume also speaks of deus absconditus as the God who hides precisely in those places the world would never think to look, namely, in weakness and suffering—on the cross.

This, in turn, seems to lead to the conclusion, or working assumption, that the suffering nature’s outbursts and history’s continual mayhem inflict on us are God’s ways of occasionally slapping us upside the head, so to speak. However, since many like me no longer live in Luther’s “enchanted world,” we don’t see hurricanes, brain tumors, or terrorists, just for starters, as God’s tools for landing a punch or sending intelligible messages to groups or individuals. The twentieth-century Holocaust made such thinking more than merely difficult.

If part of our big test is comforting troubled hearts, here is a challenge I, for one, can never again ignore. A child born recently to young friends suffered from a genetic abnormality that allowed her to complete gestation with no sign of difficulty, but she could not survive outside the womb. Moreover, her condition caused constant, severe pain. There was no cure. Medical personnel could only offer limited, palliative care. The child lived, alternately sedated and screaming in pain, for eight weeks, as her parents and grandparents struggled over how to pray.

Here lurks deus absconditus, all right, the God who hides. Had it been my duty to preach at this child’s funeral, I could never have said this was all somehow a matter of forensics, or that the hidden God who seeks to kill us was sending a message and somehow this child got picked as both messenger and message. For good reason, the church has four canonical gospels and multiple soteriological images, all of which try to make meaning and preach gospel faithfully.

The gift and promise of Gift and Promise continue to norm and shape my preaching, even when I can only see the absence of God as the absence of God, and when I hear Jesus as quite sincere in Mark’s gospel when he accused God of abandonment. Still, the only absolutely necessary and sufficient promise-making response, and the only one that truly comforts, is Christ the crucified, the one who comes out of hiding and joins us on our side of all that’s chaotic, deadly, and wrecked in the universe. As Luther said so often when commenting on the meaning of Christ’s descent into God-forsakenness, “No matter how far I might sink, even there he is Lord for me.”

Frederick A. Niedner is senior research professor of theology at Valparaiso University.

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