Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Lutheran-Catholic Joint Statement on the Eucharist?

In response to a request from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the ELCA and the U.S. Roman Catholic Church will explore the possibility of a joint teaching statement on the real presence of the Eucharist. Such a statement no doubt would build on the important work already done in the 1967 Statement on the Eucharist--one of the early statements to come out of the bi-lateral dialogue that only began two years earlier, the fruits of which are still largely unknown by members of both communions.

Last year, I was invited to present at the 2007 Covenant Celebration of the Diocese of Youngstown and the Northeastern Ohio Synod (ELCA) on the topic "Bread of Life: Roman Catholic and Lutheran Understandings of the Eucharist." Here is the text of my presentation which includes my thoughts on the points of agreement between Lutherans and Catholics on the Eucharist as well as areas that need continued work.

“Bread of Life: Roman Catholic and Lutheran Understanding of the Eucharist.”
Northeastern Ohio Synod -Youngstown Diocese
A Lutheran Understanding of the Eucharist
Cheryl Peterson
October 28, 2007

Thank you, Bishop Murray and Bishop Eaton, and the planners of this covenant celebration, for the opportunity to be with you today. It is an honor to be making this presentation alongside my colleague on the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue, Father Jared Wicks, whose presentation gives us much to consider—in fact, much of what he said can and is affirmed by Lutherans in our understanding of the Lord’s Supper. A Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist, is, I will suggest, both catholic and evangelical. Among Protestants, Lutherans arguably have the strongest “sacramental realism” – and this is a point of contact with our Catholic sisters and brothers.

The Lutheran emphasis on Christ’s real presence in the sacrament was (oddly) a surprise to Catholic participants in the third round of the bi-lateral U.S. Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue on the Eucharist (1967).[1] Kent Knutson reported that “Roman Catholics had been led to believe that the Lutheran concept of real presence was only . . . in the eating and drinking.” He adds that “Lutherans were happy to correct this misunderstanding and articulate their belief that the Lord is present in the whole Eucharistic action, both before and after the eating and drinking.”[2]

This misunderstanding can be attributed to Luther’s rejection of transubstantiation as dogma. Luther’s concern was not to propose a new way of explaining the real presence by recourse to scholastic theology but more basically to affirm the mystery of the presence of Christ (in his humanity as well as his divinity) without resource to such constructs, which is why “consubstantiation” (the idea that at consecration there are two substances present alongside one another) is also rejected.[3]

I might note here that the common statement of the 1967 dialogue states that while there has been an agreement that Christ is truly present in the supper, what has been disputed is a particular way of stating the “how,” the manner in which he becomes present.” One of the things the Lutheran participants in that dialogue learned is that contemporary Catholic expositions of transubstantiation intend to affirm the fact of Christ’s presence and of the change which takes places, not to explain how Christ becomes present. Even though Lutherans can acknowledge that transubstantiation is a legitimate way to express the mystery, they continue to believe that the conceptuality associated with it is misleading and prefer to avoid the term.

Interestingly, Article 10 of the Augsburg Confession – the central confessional document of the Lutheran Church – uses language strikingly similar to that of transubstantiation without subscribing to this doctrine. The article affirms that Christ is truly present “under the form of bread and wine.”[4] (And this is one of the few articles the Augsburg Confession that does not give “offense” to the Roman Catholics in their Confutation!). In the Apology, this teaching is reiterated—again using words that affirm a true substantial change but without embracing the formula used in the doctrine of transubstantiation. It states, “In the Lord’s Supper, the body and blood of Christ are “truly and substantially present and are truly offered with those things that are seen, bread and wine.”[5] In the Quarto, Philipp Melanchthon goes on to positively cite the epiclesis in the Greek liturgy, in which the priest “clearly prays that the bread may be changed and become the very body of Christ.”[6]

Later debates about real presence (within Lutheranism and with other Protestants) led to the formula most familiar to Lutherans – “in, with, and under” – which appears in the Formula of Concord/Solid Declaration (1570). The true body and blood of Christ are received not only spiritually through faith but orally with the bread and wine because of the “sacramental union” of the elements with the body and blood of Christ.[7]

Evangelical and Catholic

What is at the heart of Lutheran Eucharistic Piety, however, is an evangelical understanding of God’s self-giving in this real presence through which the believer receives “forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.” When Lutherans speak about the Eucharist, they emphasize what is promised and received in the supper, the gospel. In the Eucharist, the gospel is proclaimed and received in a visible way—“This is my body, given for you” – indeed, Luther calls the sacrament a short summary of the whole gospel, “For the Gospel is nothing but a proclamation of God's grace and of the forgiveness of all sins, granted us through the sufferings of Christ. . . . And this same thing as we have seen, is contained in the words of this testament.”[8] As Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has said, “The main thing to remember is that what Lutheranism says about sacraments is always a specification of what it says about the gospel communication event in general.”[9] He explains: "The gospel is an unconditional promise, three things follow. First, the gospel promises personal communion. The only thing that can be promised unconditionally is the promiser’s own love.” . . . the shortest form of the gospel content is: ‘I will give myself.’ Second, this promise grants a present reality. . . . Third, the subject of the gospel-promise is the risen Christ himself.” Thus, in the Lord’s Supper, “the speaking of the gospel is the event of Jesus’ own giving of himself into communion with the hearers” in a real and embodied way – by his true presence in and under the bread and wine." [10]

Luther’s Critique of the Mass

Luther’s critique of the medieval Catholic mass (which is most forcefully stated in his Smalcald Articles[11]) comes out of this evangelical concern. When the Reformers are accused of abolishing the mass, they retort that they are honoring it and celebrating it more than their opponents because they have reclaimed the biblical understanding of the supper’s purpose. What they abolished was the misuse of the “mass” as a good work – something we do for God (that benefits ourselves or someone else—which led to a multiplication of private and votive masses for the living and the dead) – rather than a celebration and reception of what God has done for us in Christ. The mass is not our sacrifice to God, but a means by which we receive the assurance of the forgiveness of sins on account of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross.

The Augsburg Confession states that “the holy sacrament was not instituted to provide a sacrifice for sin—for the sacrifice has already occurred—but to awaken our faith and comfort our consciences.”[12] This is why the sacrament requires faith—because faith alone van grasp the promised grace and forgiveness of sin by Christ. Thus, the Reformers insisted that the Mass is not a sacrifice that takes away anyone’s sins (living or dead), but it should be a “Communion” whereby those gathered—the priest and the people—receive the sacrament together and with it the assurance of the forgiveness of sins, which Luther calls “food for the soul, for it nourishes and strengthens the new creature.”[13]

Thus, for Lutherans, the emphasis is on communion—and not sacrifice—when we celebrate the sacrament. And yet, in our Lutheran liturgy, this language is not completely foreign, for we do speak of our “sacrifice of praise” in connection with the supper. In the Apology to the Augsburg Confession (Article 24), Philipp Melanchthon makes an important distinction between propitiatory sacrifices which he defines as the human work of satisfaction for sin that reconciles God or merits the forgiveness of sins, and eucharistic sacrifices, or sacrifices of praise, which by contrast, do not intent to merit forgiveness because there is one propitiatory sacrifice: the death of Christ.[14]

While the mass can never be a propitiatory sacrifice, he does allow that we can call the Lord’s Supper a sacrifice of praise or spiritual sacrifice in which those who have been reconciled give thanks and express their gratitude for the forgiveness and blessings they have received.[15] He further notes that the term “Eucharist” arose out of this piety which focuses on what has been given and what has been forgiven; and of how great God’s blessings are in comparison to our sin.[16]

Allow me a brief excursus on the use of the term “Eucharist.” It is more traditionally used by Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican communions but has increasingly become the most commonly used term for the supper in ecumenical and liturgical circles (e.g. it is the preferred term in dialogues, and is the term employed for the sacrament in the watershed 1982 Lima Document of the World Council of Churches, “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,” aka BEM).” One colleague believes that the term partially caught on because it’s easier to make an adjective out of it – e.g. Eucharistic – other names for the meal, such as “Holy Communion” and “Lord’s Supper” are more limited in this regard.

Not all Lutherans are happy with the increasing usage of this term because of its association with sacrificial language of any kind. In its official response to the Lima Document, the American Lutheran Church made a point with regard to the use of this term, whereas the Lutheran Church in America did not.[17] For these Lutherans, the term “Eucharist” misses the real focus of the supper; it makes it primarily something we offer, rather than something that is offered to us. Most Lutherans with this perspective suggest that we reclaim the name “Lord’s Supper” as the primary name for the sacrament, since it is the most frequently used name for the sacrament in the Lutheran confessions and of course, is the term that St. Paul uses. Eucharist, on the other hand, does not appear in the Bible as a name for the sacrament, although it does appear very early on in Christian literature such as the Didache in this regard.

Even if Lutherans continue to favor “Lord’s Supper” for these good reasons, there is no reason we need to reject “Eucharist” as long we remember that our “thanksgiving” is only offered in response to God’s great gift to us – and that this element of joy should be part of our liturgical celebration of the Supper.

As some of you may know, the third round of the U.S. Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue in 1967 (to which I already briefly referred) had for its topic this very issue: the Eucharist as Sacrifice. In the common statement, Lutherans and Catholics were able to affirm together the unrepeatable nature of the cross for the sins of the world. The Catholic Church does not teach that the priest “re-sacrifices” Christ at each mass. Secondly, they affirmed the idea that the celebration of the Eucharist is the church’s sacrifice of praise and self-offering.

Two points of controversy also were addressed: one historical controversy centered on the whether the worshipping assembly “offers Christ” in the sacrifice of the mass in any sense. This Catholic affirmation has been increasingly explained in terms which the statement argues have answered Lutheran fears that this detracts from the full sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice (at least, those members of the dialogue were satisfied with this explanation). I quote directly from the statement:

The members of the body of Christ are united through Christ with God and with one another in such a way that they become participants in his worship, his self-offering, his sacrifice to the Father. Through this union between Christ and Christians, the Eucharistic assembly ‘offers Christ’ by consenting in the power of the Holy Spirit to be offered by him to the Father. Apart from Christ, we have no gifts, no worship, no sacrifice of our own to offer to God. All we can plead is Christ, the sacrificial lamb and victim whom the Father himself has given us.” [18]
A second point of controversy that was left unresolved has to do with the term “propitiatory” and whether that can be applied to the Eucharistic sacrifice. As noted, both Catholics and Lutherans affirmed the unique propitiatory sacrifice of Christ on the cross. However, Lutherans reject what they understand Trent to say about the mass as a propitiatory sacrifice “offered for the living and the dead,” and the implications of this in practices such as “masses for the dead.”

This national bi-lateral dialogue was followed by an international Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in 1978. The dialogues are significant for the theological clarifications that have been made, in particular regarding what each means by “real presence” and long-held misunderstandings have been removed, especially regarding the Catholic notion of sacrifice.

However, in spite of this progress, there is still the need for clarity and mutual understanding regarding our distinctive practices and expressions of Eucharistic piety. Many aspects of the celebration of the Mass as practiced in the Catholic Church remain “foreign” and even troubling to those of us in Reformation traditions. But Lutherans have their own unique Eucharistic piety, which perhaps seem as “foreign” to Roman Catholics as masses for the dead are to Lutherans. I would like to conclude with some remarks on Lutheran Eucharistic piety and practice in the United States today.

Lutheran Eucharistic Piety Today

All Lutherans learn in the Small Catechism that the Lord’s Supper “is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and drink.” Lutherans have never wavered from a belief in the “real presence” of Christ in the sacrament; it is a central tenet our faith and life. The benefits of the sacrament—central to our Eucharistic piety—are given in the words of promise: “given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” As Luther states, these words show us that forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given to us in this sacrament, “because where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”[19]

Although faith plays an important role in effecting the benefits of the sacrament to the believer, Lutherans teach that Christ’s presence in the sacrament does not depend on the faith of the recipient, but solely on the word of Christ’s promise. As one Reformation historian puts it, Jesus shows up in the sacrament because he promises to! If one receives the Lord’s Supper without faith in Christ—by which the Reformers did not mean a weak or struggling faith, but a rejection of God—then one would eat and drink to his condemnation. Indeed, as the Article VII of the Formula of Concord states, “the true and worthy guest, for whom this precious sacrament above all was instituted and established, are the Christians who are weak in faith, fragile and troubled, who are terrified in their hearts by the immensity of their sins and number of their sins and think they are not worthy of this precious treasure and of the benefits of Christ because of their great impurity, who feel the weakness of their faith and deplore it, and who desire with all of their heart to serve God with a stronger, more resolute faith and purer obedience.”[20]

Traditionally, Lutherans have emphasized the assurance of the forgiveness of sins as the central aspect of the sacrament, though “communion-fellowship” (in terms of personal communion with Christ) has also been stressed. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the great eighteenth century Lutheran missionary to the colonies, notes with approval that people desire the sacrament in order “to be more closely united with Christ and his body and blood and to be strengthened in their weak faith”[21]

But it is the connection of the Supper with the “forgiveness of sins” that has really shaped Lutheran Eucharistic piety in the last two centuries. Since the Lord’s Supper is an “application of the forgiveness of sins,” the church took seriously its responsibility to examine, instruct, and discriminate with regard to who can come to the table. The supper became a solemn event, for which church members were counseled to consider their sinfulness and unworthiness before God through private confessional examination for those.

Infrequent reception (most often quarterly)—due to a host of factors—heightened the special nature of this observance, which often had little celebratory tone to it. Communicants filed up to the altar by “tables” to receive a wafer and a small—usually pre-filled—individual glass of wine. As a historical aside, these individual cups were first proposed in 1888 and used at a Protestant Communion service in 1893[22] out of a concern for public hygiene. The Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania and faculty at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia opposed this “innovation” but the use of these cups soon became commonplace in many Lutheran congregations. Following the proper preface and sanctus, the words of institution stood alone in The Common Service (used until 1958) apart from any longer prayer of thanksgiving—emphasizing that this was a pure proclamation by which God addressed the promise of forgiveness to the Christian.

Many changes were introduced into Lutheran Eucharistic practice through the publication in 1978 of The Lutheran Book of Worship (preceded by the Service Book and Hymnal of 1958) and the adoption of a “Joint Statement on Communion Practices” by the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America, which were strongly influenced by the liturgical renewal movement that had become widespread by that time.
Both the LBW and the Joint Statement assume weekly communion as a normative practice for Lutherans as stated in our own confessional symbols—which was not the case with the previous worship resources.

The more recent (1997) ELCA Statement on Sacramental Practices, “The Use of the Means of Grace” reaffirms weekly communion as a normative Lutheran practice. Currently, 46% of ELCA congregations celebrate the sacrament weekly (up from 16% in 1989!). Nearly as many congregations celebrate it more than once a month (once a month plus festivals, twice a month, etc). Only 5% offer it monthly or less.[23]

In 1969, a report was adopted by a majority of congregations now in the ELCA which separated the rite of confirmation and reception of Holy Communion and began inviting children to receive their first communion in fifth grade. Since that time, a number of congregations have continued to lower the age of communion, especially for school age children, but in some cases, even infants.[24] The “Use of the Means of Grace” along with more recent worship resources, including Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) assumes the unity of word and sacrament in the service and discourages congregations from “tacking on” a communion service at the end as sometimes was done in the past.

These also recommend the retrieval of a full Eucharistic prayer which includes the “proclamation of the words of institution” (though it should be noted that the Service Book and Hymnal was the first to introduce a Eucharistic Prayer as an alternative to the bare verba). The new worship resource, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, has continued this pattern, offering now ten (instead of three!) Eucharistic prayers which follow a Trinitarian pattern (thanks to the Father, words of institution, prayer for the Holy Spirit) but also continuing the practice of allowing for the option of the bare verba (the words of institution by themselves). It is not known how many congregations continue to use this option, but those who do believe they are safeguarding the meaning of these words as “pure proclamation” to the assembly.

Other Recent Changes in Lutheran Eucharistic Practice and Piety

Other significant changes in Lutheran Eucharistic practice include a strong accent on communal celebration (including more frequent use of the common cup), the sense of the altar as a table in our midst, the character of the sacrament as a meal, more prayer for the hungry world, a stronger emphasis on the eucharist leading to mission, more use of the posture of standing rather than the posture for kneeling for communion, and a certain diminution of the accent on sin and forgiveness.[25] The focus on the assurance of forgiveness has not been replaced, but today the Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist is being broadened to include other aspects which have not been as strongly emphasized in our tradition: reconciliation, communion-fellowship (horizontal as well as vertical), and participation in Christ’s life.

As Lutheran liturgy scholar Beverly Nitschke has written, “It may be argued that in Lutheran consciousness the forgiveness of sins which is received is an intensely individual experience. It is the individual experience of forgiveness which is received.” Luther’s concentration on the word of promise “for you” and “for the forgiveness of sins” have in effect “rendered the Eucharist subservient to a form of ‘penitential piety.’”[26] This is what German Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg calls the “Lutheran distortion of the meaning of the Eucharist, in celebrating it primarily as a visible and touchable assurance to the individual of the forgiveness of sins.”[27]

It must be remembered that Luther’s distinctive emphasis on the evangelical promise “for you, for the forgiveness of sins” was developed in light of late medieval practices which to him seemed to take away from the notion of the supper as “pure gospel” and the priority of God’s action in the meal. At the same time, Luther does not focus exclusively on forgiveness of sins. In the Small Catechism (1529), as we saw, he speaks of three benefits: life and salvation, in addition to the forgiveness of sins.

It is also important to note that an ecclesial or communal element was not absent from Luther’s teaching on the sacrament. Lutheran theologians such as Simo Peura are reclaiming the ecclesial dimension of Luther’s Eucharistic teaching, found most profoundly in his 1519 “Sermon on the Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ.” In this sermon, Luther speaks of communion as a sharing or participation in the life of Christ, through his body the Church.[28] “Thus in the sacrament we too become united to Christ and are made one body with all the saints, to that Christ cares for us and acts on our behalf. . . likewise by the same love we are to be united with our neighbors, we in them and they in us.”[29]

In conclusion: a Lutheran understanding of the eucharist will continue to have at its center the “pure gospel” of the assurance of the “forgiveness of sins” given in this meal. And yet, these other aspects of the Lord’s Supper are important for Lutherans to reclaim as a part of our larger “catholic” tradition, especially the more horizontal dimensions of “communion-fellowship” and the sign of unity that the sacrament conveys, for ultimately we are part of one body of Christ, Lutherans and Catholics, called to work to heal the divisions of the past through mutual affirmation and admonishment that one day we might share “full communion” at the same table.


[1] “The Eucharist: A Lutheran-Roman Catholic Statement,” in Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue I-III, ed. Paul C. Empie and T. Austin Murphy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974), 187-197. The text can also be found at this link:
[2] Kent S. Knutson, “Introduction: The Eucharist as Sacrifice, Roman Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue,” in Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue I-III, 15.
[3] Frank C. Senn, Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 307-310.
[4] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 44-45, §1-2. Hereafter, BC.
[5] BC, 185, §4.
[6] BC, 185, fn. 269.
[7] BC, 599, §34.
[8] E. Theodore Bachman, ed., Luther’s Works: American Edition, Volume 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 106.
[9] Eric W. Gristch, and Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writing (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 85.
[10] Ibid., 86.
[11] BC, 301-305.
[12] BC, 70, §30.
[13] BC, 469, §23.
[14] BC, 260-272.
[15] BC, 260-262, §14-24; 272, §77.
[16] BC, 272, §77.
[17] The Response of the American Lutheran Church to Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, Faith and Order Paper 111, Adopted as the official response of the American Lutheran Church at the June 1985 meeting of the Church Council, 5.
[18] “The Eucharist: A Lutheran-Roman Catholic Statement,” 189-190.
[19] BC, 362, §5-6.
[20] BC, 605, §69.
[21] Reginald W. Dietz, “The Lord’s Supper in American Lutheranism,” in Meaning and Practice of the Lord’s Supper, ed. Helmut T. Lehman (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), 138.
[22] Ibid., 162.
[23] A chart with these statistics prepared by ELCA Research and Evaluation is attached.
[24] The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament,” 41. This statement was adopted by the 1997 ELCA Churchwide Assembly for guidance and practice. It is available at this link:
[25] Gordon Lathrop, ed. What is Changing in Eucharistic Practice? (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1994), 4.
[26] Beverly A. Nitschke, “The Eucharist: For the Forgiveness of Sins: A Lutheran Response,” Ecumenical Trends (June 1991): 92.
[27] Cited in Ibid., 92.
[28]Simo Peura, “The Church as Spiritual Communion,” in The Church as Communion: Lutheran Contributions to Ecclesiology, LWF Documentation 42, ed. Heinrich Holze (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 1997), 104-121.
[29] Luther’s Works: American Edition, Volume 35, 59.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Jim Wallis Speaks at Trinity Lutheran Seminary

The theme for Trinity Days 2008 was a very timely one: "The Meaning of Prophetic Politics in an Election Year." For those unable to join us at Trinity for this important discussion, you can view videos of the TA Kantonen Lecture by Sojourners founder, Jim Wallis, and a panel discussion featuring Trinity's own Dr. James Childs, Jr., Dr. Jacqueline Bussie (Capital University), and Andrew Genzsler (ELCA Advocacy), by visiting Trinity Lutheran Seminary homepage. You can also see pictures from the day (featuring yours truly!) and read Dr. Hank Langknecht's sermon.

Global Luther Conference - February 2008

Last February, scholars gathered for an international conference at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, entitled "The Global Luther: Reconsidering the Contributions of Martin Luther." The purpose of the conference was to bring "Luther's ideas into international conversations underway today about how people around the planet live, think, and suffer in the context of geopolitical and religious instability and crisis."

Obviously, this event already happened but I draw your attention to it now because the videos from the conference have been posted on YouTube by the Department of Religion at Northwestern University.

In particular, I want to highlight the paper given by my colleague from Capital University, Jacqueline Bussie: "'A Dream with a Sequel' or the 'Coming Summer'?: Martin Luther on Hope for the World." Those of you who attended 2008 Trinity Days will remember Jacquie's participation in the panel discussion with Jim Wallis, Jim Childs, and Andrew Genzsler.

Blog hiatus is over

I realize that it has been months since I have posted! My apologies to those who have been checking this and finding nothing new since late June. New posts are coming. . .

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

John H. P. Reumann, 1927-2008

Another ecumenical giant is gone. John H.P. Reumann died on June 6, 2008, after a long battle with cancer. John ("Jack" to his friends) was professor emeritus of New Testament at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and a member of the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue since it began in 1965.

The first time I met Jack was twenty years ago this summer, when I visited his daughter, Amy, in Philadelphia for the Fourth of July (during the summer of our respective CPE programs; I was in Danville, PA and she was in Philadelphia). Amy and I became friends in 1984 when we participated in the international summer study program, "Global Issues and World Churches" (developed and directed for years by Charles Chatfield, emeritus professor of history at Wittenberg University) that took us to New York City, Geneva, Rome, and Budapest, among other places. Three years later, we found ourselves beginning seminary together as roomates at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

For the past year and a half, I was blessed and humbled to serve with Jack as colleagues together on the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue. Jack's careful scholarship and commitment to the church was renowned and he will be sorely missed by all who knew him.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him. Amen.

Survey shows religious tolerance in the U.S.

Read about the findings of the new study by the Pew Forum on religious tolerance in the U.S. as reported by the New York Times here. The homepage of the "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" can be found here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Message for Graduating Seminarians

I know that at least a few of my graduating seniors check out my blog on occasion so I want to heartily second Kelly's Fryer's message for graduating seminarians and thank Mary for posting it on her blog.

The One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church: Reflections on the Understanding of the Church in an Ecumenical Horizon

I am working on a paper for a Lutheran World Federation international conference hosted by the Department for Theology and Studies that will meet at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland, June 12-16, 2008. The topic is "The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church." Theologians from around the globe have been invited to offer various perspectives on this topic. Interestingly, very little scholarship has been done on the creedal marks of the church from a Lutheran perspective.

The conference is organized into three sections:

I. Historical Perspectives: The soteriological relevance of the Church
II. Denominational Perspectives on the Church
III. Global Perspectives

I am speaking in the third section to offer a North American Lutheran perspective on the Nicene marks of the church. The other global perspectives will be from Ethiopia, Malaysia and Southeast Asia, Southern Africa and South America. My paper will 1) relate the Nicene marks to the classic Lutheran marks of the church as "word and sacrament;" and 2) suggest reading the Nicene marks in a reverse order as proposed by Darrell Guder (see his paper, "The Nicene Marks in a Post-Christendom Church") for a North American context "in order to restore missional purpose to our theology of the church."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

"We must change America, not the world"

I found this important op-ed, "The Long War Fallacy," by Andrew J. Bacevich (which appeared earlier this week in the L.A. Times) on Eric's blog. Bacevich has written elsewhere about America as Empire.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Krister Stendahl, 1921-2008

Krister Stendahl, "ecumenical bishop," died on Tuesday, April 15, 2008. We heard the news during one of the LERN plenaries at the National Workshop on Christian Unity. Bishop Stendahl served the church in many capacities: as a biblical scholar, professor, dean, and campus pastor at Harvard Divinity School, as bishop of Stockholm, and as an ecumenist. He was one of the early progenitors of the "new perspective on Paul" and an early advocate for women's ordination and the full participation of gays and lesbians in the church. He was a pioneer in both ecumenical and interreligious work.

I had the chance to interview Krister Stendahl in 1983 for the Wittenberg Torch. He was on campus to give one of the series of lectures scheduled to celebrate the quincentennial of Martin Luther's birthday. I remember being struck by his complete humility and graciousness. Another giant in the ecumenical movement is gone.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him. Amen.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

National Workshop on Christian Unity

This week I attended the National Workshop on Christian Unity, which ironically (or not?) met this year at the same time as the first Papal Visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States. The division of the churches and the need for a more united witness was addressed by Pope Benedict during his homily at an ecumenical service at St. Joseph's on Friday. While the Second Vatican Council would commit the Roman Catholic Church to ecumenical work, the NWCU was founded in 1963--before the council concluded--by a group of Roman Catholics to begin educating themselves about ecumenism. In 1969, they invited other Christians to join them and since then, an annual workshop has been held to provide educational opportunities for local ecumenical leaders. Various denominational ecumenical networks, such as the Lutheran Ecumenical Representative Network (LERN), also meet during the NWCU.

The theme for this year's workshop was "Pray without ceasing." Sister Dr. Lorelei Fuchs preached at the opening worship and the new general secretary of the National Council of Churches, Dr. Michael Kinnamon, gave the keynote address. Workshop seminars were held on topics that ranged from specific bilateral dialogues to the Emerging Church movement. I was unaware of this Workshop until I was invited to be part of a panel for one of the seminars (I was part of a panel on "Beyond Bilaterals"that discussed the significance of the United Methodist Church signing onto the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification).

My purpose in writing this brief post is to draw more attention to this event in hopes that some of my current and former students might consider attending and becoming more involved in ecumenical work!

Friday, April 4, 2008

In memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the tragic assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many will remember his stirring words about being "up to the mountaintop" and that someday we would see "the promised land" in the powerful speech he gave to striking sanitation workers the night before he was killed. His central message sometimes gets missed in the video clips and sound bites. King was calling the church to church to preach about and work for economic justice:

We need all of you. And you know what's beautiful tome, is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It's a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and say, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Somehow, the preacher must say with Jesus, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor."

It's all right to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

Now the other thing we'll have to do is this: Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. . .

We don't have to argue with anybody. We don't have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don't need any bricks and bottles, we don't need any Molotov cocktails, we just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, "God sent us by here, to say to you that you're not treating his children right. And we've come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God's children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you."

As Nadia Stefko reminds us, we're not there yet. She writes, "As the nation marks the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination, there’s a lot of mainstream media focusing on the story of the past, the story of what King and the movement he led achieved. While this is undoubtedly important, this report and these workers serve a vital reminder of all that he left for us to do and all that remains to be done. We haven’t achieved King’s vision of economic justice. Forty years later, we’re still out there wandering—hoping we’ll come upon the Promised Land sometime soon."

May this day remind us not only of the great legacy of this man, but of his vision for racial and economic justice and his call to us to join in this work so that all of God's children are treated fairly and with dignity.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

White People Have a Racial History Too

Thank you to my colleague Kevin Dudley for directing me to this important reflection on race and the 2008 election written by Alice Walker.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Repentant Patriotism

March 19 was the fifth anniversary of the war with Iraq. Jim Wallis and several other Christian leaders issued a "Call for Lament and Repent" and invited other Christians to sign on in support. They write, "As U.S. Christians, we issue a call to the American church to lament and repent of the sin of this war." The Sojourners campaign is good for what Lutheran theologian Gary Simpson calls "repentant patriotism." Gary presented a paper on this topic at the LWF seminar on "Being the Church in the Midst of Empire" and explores this idea in his new book, War, Peace, and God: Rethinking the Just War Tradition [click here to read a chapter from the book]. Another thoughtful reflection on this idea is offered by Donald W. Schriver in a 2006 speech given at Chicago Theological Seminary: "Repentant Patriotism: An Oxymoron?"

Scharen on Obama and Christian Realism

In this post, "On Declaring God Damn America: Obama and Wright, Niebuhr and Cone," Chris Scharen offers a very thoughtful reflection on Senator Obama's powerful speech and the theological framework that influences him. An excerpt:

Senator Obama’s favorite theologian is not a black liberation theologian, as is the case for Rev. Wright (who cites James Cone, among others). Obama’s favorite theologian is Reinhold Neibuhr, whose long and influential career at Union Theological Seminary in New York cast a web of influence that caught up preachers and presidents alike, including perhaps most famously Martin Luther King Jr. Asked by David Brooks of the New York Times what he took away from Neibuhr’s writings, Obama said “"I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from na├»ve idealism to bitter realism." Such a perspective embodies what Niebuhr called Christian realism, a counterpoint to what he called America’s tendency to embrace a belief in the doctrine of ‘special providence,’ that is, the idea that we are a redeemer nation called to spread our light to others who struggle in darkness. . .

. . . Why is this sort of perspective hard for many Americans to accept? At present, one of the overwhelming reasons is the hyper-patriotic reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. President Bush has played strongly into the tradition that views America as pure, and as destined to bring our light to the world that still lives in darkness. That framing—good versus evil, freedom versus tyranny—has been powerful in a time of great national anxiety and I think propelled President Bush to a second term despite his gross mismanagement of the nation on many levels, not least of which is the war in Iraq, a war I have called immoral and unjust from the start. When people buy into the rhetoric of America as innocent, as guardian of the moral high ground, as somehow beyond the pale of critique, then a Niebuhrian perspective sounds unpatriotic at best.

If someone has the view of America as innocent, and of patriotism as upholding glory of our nation’s ideals at any cost, then there is little room for a prophetic critique of the sins of the nation—slavery and the legacy of racism as a major case in point.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Closer Look at Black Liberation Theology

by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, All Things Considered, March 18, 2008.

[The link to this story (printed in full below) and the audio clip can be found here.]

Presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) defended his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, on Tuesday, even as he repudiated some of the pastor's inflammatory sermons. But Wright's comments likely come as no surprise to those familiar with black liberation theology, a religious philosophy that emerged during the 1960s.

Black liberation theology originated on July 31, 1966, when 51 black pastors bought a full page ad in the New York Times and demanded a more aggressive approach to eradicating racism. They echoed the demands of the black power movement, but the new crusade found its source of inspiration in the Bible.

"God's presence in the world is best depicted through God's involvement in the struggle for justice," says Anthony Pinn, who teaches philosophy and religion at Rice University in Houston. "God is so intimately connected to the community that suffers, that God becomes a part of that community."

Freedom and Liberation

Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, says black liberation theology often portrays Jesus as a brown-skinned revolutionary. He cites the words of Mary in the Magnificat — also known as the "Song of Mary" — in which she says God intends to bring down the mighty and raise the lowly. Hopkins also notes that in the book of Matthew, Jesus says the path to heaven is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. And the central text for black liberation theology can be found in Chapter 4 of Luke's gospel, where Jesus outlines the purpose of his ministry.

"Jesus says my mission is to eradicate poverty and to bring about freedom and liberation for the oppressed," Hopkins says. "And most Christian pastors in America skip over that part of the book."

Hopkins attends Trinity United Church of Christ, where Rev. Wright just retired as pastor. In the now-famous sermon from 2003, Wright said black people's troubles are a result of racism that still exists in America, crying out, "No, no, no, not God bless America! God damn America — that's in the Bible — for killing innocent people."

According to Hopkins, that was theological wordplay — because the word "damn" is straight out of the Bible and has a specific meaning in the original Hebrew.

"It means a sacred condemnation by God to a wayward nation who has strayed from issues of justice, strayed from issues of peace, strayed from issues of reconciliation," Hopkins says.

A Loud, Passionate, Physical Affair

Anthony Pinn of Rice University acknowledges that black liberation preaching often sounds angry. But he says the anger does not advocate violence but is instead channeled into constructive routes. Trinity UCC, he notes, has 70 ministries that help the poor, the unemployed, those with AIDS or those in prison. Pinn says the words can be jarring to the untrained ear, but they're still valid.

"Folks, including myself, may be taken aback by the inflammatory nature of the rhetoric, but I don't think very many of us would deny that there is a fundamental truth: Racism is a problem in the United States," Pinn says.

Black liberation preaching can be a loud, passionate, physical affair. Linda Thomas, who teaches at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, says the whole point of it is to challenge the powerful and to raise questions for society to think about. Thomas says if white people are surprised by the rhetoric, it's because most have never visited a black church.

"I think that many black people would know what white worship is like," Thomas says. "Why is it that white people don't know what black worship is about? And I think that is because there is this centrality with white culture that says we don't have to know about that."

Obama presents himself as uniquely situated to bridge those two cultures because of his biracial heritage. In his speech on race Tuesday, the presidential hopeful said he could no more disown his controversial pastor than he could disown his white grandmother.

"These people are a part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love," Obama said.

He denounced the harshness of Wright's words — not because they were false, he said, but because they did not acknowledge the strides that the U.S. has made in the fight against racism. Obama said his own candidacy shows how far the country has come.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

William H. Lazareth, 1929-2008

The Rev. Dr. William H. Lazareth, Lutheran theologian and ethicist, former ELCA Bishop, and ecumenist, died on February 23, 2008. He was 79 years old. ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson said of him: "Dr. Lazareth was a teacher of the Church. The ecclesial, theological and ecumenical legacy that he leaves will bless the people of the Church for generations to come," he said.
As the director the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Secretariat, he oversaw the drafting of one of the most important ecumenical documents of the 20th century: "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" (1982), also known as the Lima Text. He was well-known for his work in Lutheran theology and social ethics [for an excerpt from his last major work, Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics, click here and here]. In his final years, he served as the Jerald C. Brauer Distinguished Professor of Lutheran Studies at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin and co-founded the on-line Augustine Institute while there.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The New Pew Study and Ecclesiology

The religious landscape in the U.S. is not only increasingly diverse; it is also more fluid, which means that "loyalities to churches prove [to be] more fleeting" according to a new study released yesterday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. According to the study, 44 per cent of Americans have left the religious tradition in which they were raised for a different tradition--or no tradition at all. Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, concluded, "it's a very competitive marketplace, and if you rest on your laurels, you're going to be history." As troubling as the study was to read, Lugo's comment is even more troubling. The language of "marketing" may have entered church discourse more than a generation ago, "but there's a reason Jesus said 'You shall be my witnesses,' and not 'You shall be my marketers'" says Mark Galli in a piece in Christianity Today. He's right!

In my new course, "Pastor as Theologian," we have been talking about the identity and mission of the church. The church is a community (koinonia) of disciples and witnesses, not a product to be marketed. As Reggie McNeal would say, the goal is not "church growth" but "kingdom growth." The church is called to be a sign and instrument of the kingdom of God. At the heart of this witness is the power of God's reconciling love that St. Paul speaks of so elequently in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (among other places):
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Back in 2003, I heard Lutheran missiologist Philip Baker call for a moratorium on the "Great Commission" of Matthew 28 as the foundational text for Christian mission (his article starts on page 39). He suggests instead that we consider this passage from St. Paul. The idea of "reconciliation as a paradigm for mission" has been echoed and developed by others such as Robert Schreiter, the Forum for World Evangelization, and the World Council of Churches. I plan to explore this idea in ecclesiological terms (i.e., how do we understand the nature of the church in light of this paradigm?) in a paper proposal for the Ecclesiological Investigations Group of the AAR.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Detroit Urban Seminar--Initial Thoughts

I returned home a week and a half ago from my J-term course, an 11-day immersion experience in Detroit with 10 students, and I am still trying to figure out how I want to relay this experience on my blog (In fact, it took me a week to finish this post). The focus of the course was "Racism, Classism, Sexism, and Heterosexism." The city of Detroit was the "lab" for growing in our knowledge of how these "isms" operate in society--and in ourselves. While overt racism is alive and well, we were reminded of the many subtle but insidious ways that racism has been structured into the very fabric of our society, and how the system perpetuates white privilege. Detroit is a city that was shaped by racism: we recall that Detroit was the place of "race riots" (or rebellions depending on your perspective) in the 40s and 60s, but as Kevin Boyle of the Washington Post puts it, "40 years later, the urban crisis still smolders." Detroit continues to be the one of the most segregated cities in the United States (right after Milwaukee, according to the last census). There is no mass transit system linking the city and the suburbs and there is not one major grocery store chain in the entire city of Detroit.

The pastors of Acts in Common were our teachers along with the many leaders they scheduled for us to meet. Jim Perkinson, professor of theology at Ecumenical Theological Seminary, framed our time in Detroit with lectures on the "isms," drawing from his own work and that of Ched Myers and other biblical scholars who apply a socio-political hermeneutic to the reading of scripture. We learned of the devasting effects of environmental racism from the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion and our tour guide Lila Cabbil who directs Wayne State University's Multicultural Experience in Leadership Development program. We learned about the crimminal (in)justice system from Regina Jemison, a lawyer who also shared her gift of music with us at the Tuesday Night AIC Prayer Meeting (and who also happens to serve on Trinity Lutheran Seminary's Board of Trustees!). We learned about ministry to the homeless during our visit to the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS). We learned about community organizing from leaders in Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES), the local Gamaliel chapter, and joined them for their annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. banquet. We heard from school principals and superintendents about the challenges of educating children in an urban context. We did ride-alongs one evening with the Detroit Police and even got to meet Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and some members of his staff (one week before this story hit the papers). We were moved by what we saw at the "And Still We Rise" exhibit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. We were introduced to the ministry of the Ruth Ellis Center, one of only four youth social service agencies in the U.S. dedicated to helping LGBTQ teenager and young adults who are homeless. And there was much, much more.

As one who had served as a pastor in an urban setting myself, much of what I saw and heard was not "news" to me. Nonetheless, the experience deeply impacted me and challenged me to do more. In the classroom, I enjoin my students to "open their eyes" to the reality of racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism through readings and discussion, and I will continue to make this a mark of my teaching. But I need to move beyond the classroom and find ways other ways to actively participate in the struggle for a more just and anti-racist church and society.

Friday, January 25, 2008

An LWF Contribution to the Understanding and Practice of Mission

While I am at it, here is an another helpful LWF (Lutheran World Federation) resource: Mission in Context: Transformation, Reconciliation, Empowerment: An LWF Contribution to the Understanding and Practice of Mission. This document, published in 2004, can be downloaded as a PDF file.

The Role of the Bishop in the ELCA

I was invited to speak to the ELCA Conference of Bishops on this topic at their annual academy a couple of weeks ago (to which they invite the ELCIC Bishops as well) along with Dr. Guy Erwin who teaches Reformation history at California Lutheran University. I gave two presentations: "The Evolving Office of Bishop in the ELCA" which gave some historical perspective on how oversight was exercised in predecessor church bodies in the U.S., and "The Role of the Bishop in the Lutheran Church Today in Light of the Marks of the Church." I treated the marks of the church in reverse order following the lead of missiologists such as Darrell Guder.

In my research for these presentations, I came across an LWF Document that was adopted in 2007: Episcopal Ministry Within the Apostolicity of the Church. This document is a revision of a 2002 draft that was widely distributed. Responses were invited from various theologians and groups including the WordAlone theological advisory board. In my view, the 2007 Lund Document is a very helpful and clarifying treatment of what has become a contentious issue in the ELCA. My only critique is that the section on Mission (III) should have preceded and thus framed the Biblical and Historical Foundations in II.