On “Radical Lutheranism”

By – John W. Hoyum

A kind of revisionist history has come to surround the issue of “radical Lutheranism,” taking aim especially at the theology of Gerhard Forde. Forde’s work has been particularly notable in recent years for his interpretation of Luther’s law-gospel distinction, the theology of the cross, and the relevance of proclamation for Christian theology. Unfortunately, Forde’s contribution has become a symbol of encroaching liberalism in confessional Lutheran circles. Yet this narrative of blaming Forde isn’t quite accurate. An examination of the origins of “radical Lutheranism” and the details of Forde’s own background will, I hope, help to set the record straight.

At the time of the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Forde––then, professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary––penned an article that appeared in the first issue of Lutheran Quarterly’s new series. “Radical Lutheranism” (1987) was intended not only as a programmatic offering for the newly re-constituted journal, but also as an agenda to guide the formation of the ELCA. In brief, Forde’s objective was to articulate the priority of God’s justification of sinners apart from the law as the commitment that would shape the ELCA’s identity as a church body.

A confluence of at least two factors had catalyzed the formation of the ELCA, both of them questionable in the eyes of many in the more conservative American Lutheran Church (TALC) from which Forde came. First was the blossoming ecumenical movement, where Lutherans took up friendly dialog with historic opponents, especially Roman Catholics and the Reformed. The second factor was the burgeoning social justice movement, in which progressives embraced the ideology of leftist political and economic movements that, at the time, found in the church a possible ally.

Contrary to both of these, Forde addressed his jeremiad against the dominant ecclesial forces conspiring to merge the TALC, the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), and the Association of Evangelical of Lutheran Churches (AELC). In this context, he coined the moniker “Radical Lutheranism” as a way of identifying an alternative to the politically activist and ecumenically promiscuous agendas of others seeking to shape the identity of the ELCA. The eschatological event of God’s justification of sinners by the word––not bureaucratic ecumenism, nor a legalistic social agenda––must be the factor that sets Lutherans apart.

Unfortunately, Forde’s vision for the ELCA did not come to pass. The ELCA fell prey to a leftist political agenda that prioritized quotas for women and minorities over the gospel of Jesus Christ, ecumenical rapprochement over faithfulness to scripture, and external unification over true doctrinal unity. In the end, the ELCA did more to harm outreach to the oppressed, real ecumenism, and ecclesial unity than it helped.  More unfortunate than this was that Forde died in 2005, and so he never lived to see how God came to bless the resistance to the ELCA’s misguided experiment, now most evident in the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) and Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC). He also would have been heartened to see the fair and considered reading of his theology that can be found in some quarters of the Lutheran Church––Missouri Synod (LCMS).

Even so, a rather odd sort of opposition to Forde and his theology has arisen in recent years, especially since the time of his death. This is found in various synods, and not only in the LCMS. Preciously earnest dissenters from his unwavering commitment to the preaching of the gospel have––pearls clutched firmly in hand––haphazardly attempted a genealogy of American Lutheran decline. Succinctly, the argument is this: various positions of Forde’s, including his rejection of a lex aeterna (eternal law) as the content and expression of God’s being, fit within an antinomian tendency in modern Lutheranism that has undermined the ability of the church to substantially shape human beings in a moral life. Consequently, it is this modern antinomianism that has essentially complied with secular modernity in catechizing humans not in the teachings of the Ten Commandments, but in the morality of progress, political liberalism, and technological hegemony.

I myself am highly skeptical that the ideology of modern, western liberalism is especially antinomian. Indeed, it represents a ruthlessly legalistic construal of human life in terms economic performance, the security of the self against death in a technologically reshaped world, and the chaotic embrace of alternative sexual moralities (not the rejection of sexual morality altogether). Whatever the case may be, many Lutherans find themselves rightly alarmed at the capitulation to modernity’s vision of a good life––not least capitulation by the churches. Yet the most misguided aspect of this alarm is that some Lutherans have come to believe that the gospel preached too unconditionally has actually opened the space for modernity to insert itself into our lives and capture the obedience of our hearts.

Where Forde fits into this narrative of moral decline is hard to pinpoint. But it likely is the result of a misreading that locates his contribution in close proximity to the politically activist turn in mainline churches, the use of therapeutic method in pastoral care, and the moral permissiveness of sexual libertinism. However, to read Forde in proximity to all these things is to read against the witness of his own writings. The greatest example of this is his stand for traditional Christian sexual ethics on the matter of homosexuality and the possibility of ordaining practicing gays and lesbians to word and sacrament ministry. To sustain a poor reading of Forde, his own rejection of late-modern moral chaos must either be ignored or rejected as “inconsistent” with his other commitments. Neither of these are satisfactory accounts, since they fail to engage with any depth the assertions that Forde makes about the law, God’s justification of sinners, or his positive regard for creation.

Instead of engaging with Forde in a substantial way, it has been deemed easier to drop him into a declension narrative about modern Lutheranism and then vilify his admirers. To do this, the title of his essay, “Radical Lutheranism,” has been used to label both Forde and the beneficiaries of his teaching as dangerous exponents of antinomianism and sundry other heresies. Rather ironically, the rhetorical function of this sort of strategy bears all the marks of modern progressive tactics so popular in leftist campus politics: label an enemy, disparage known associates, and never engage in a substantive critique. Thoroughly engaging texts and ideas is off the table, since it simply lends credence to the persons or doctrines being rejected. I avidly watch the landscape for cogent critiques of Forde and so-called “Radical Lutheranism,” but I have yet to find anything especially worthy of note so far.

Is Forde’s thought marked by some problematic items, especially for those in the traditions of the old Synodical Conference? Certainly there might be. Confessional Lutherans more positively disposed to the Formula of Concord (FC) than Forde was might be more inclined to retain the category of the law’s third use. Even so, Forde’s rejection of the third use need not be especially upsetting at this point, since he affirmed that the law is used with regard to the old creature still captive to sin. In no way did he deny that the Ten Commandments are normative for the conduct of the Christian––evidenced especially by his stalwart stand for the sixth commandment against the misguided efforts of ELCA progressives. More importantly than this, Forde teaches that ignoring what God says about human sexuality involves us in an even more sinister situation where absolution for sin is actually withheld from those who stand under divine wrath.

So while Forde rejects the FC’s designation of a third use, he upholds the position of the concordists and Luther’s antinomian disputations in specifying that the law must be applied to Christians who struggle against the old nature that remains bound in sin. Even while Forde disagrees with the decision to identify––in a titular sense––a third use of the law, it would be hard to demonstrate that Forde’s teachings on the law contradict the actual doctrinal content of FC VI. Forde’s criticisms of the development of the lex aeterna in later Lutheranism are fair game, and remain a convincing indictment of much orthodox Lutheranism and how it went on to deploy the doctrine of the law after the period of reform––regardless of how else that episode of Lutheran history might be rightly admired.

“Radical Lutheranism” might also be charged with a weak doctrine of scripture. There might be more merit to this criticism than some of the others. However, the writing of Steven D. Paulson has reaffirmed the inerrancy of holy scripture––though not in a rigidly fundamentalist manner. Since God does not lie, and his promises cannot be doubted, the word that gives and bestows these promises must therefore without error as well. Even here we can see that Forde’s own commitment to theology-for-proclamation actually underwrites a stronger doctrine of scripture than he was, at points, willing to offer. Here, a refreshing alternative to a fundamentalist construal of inerrancy comes into view, especially in paying close attention to how scripture relentlessly inculcates Christ and faith in him. So if there is play in the joints in Forde’s writing on scripture, the trajectory he implies is actually towards a more historic position, not against it.

A fundamental truth about Forde is often missed by those too eager to reject him prematurely. Forde’s own background is not to be found in post-Enlightenment rationalism, but in the confessional revival of the Church of Norway and those emigrants who came to America and eventually joined with Walther and the Synodical Conference. It is not the unionist Schmucker but the likes of Koren and Preus who stand in Forde’s background. Even while Forde critiqued the orthodox Lutheranism mediated to him by the Norwegian Synod in which his father and grandfather had served, to read his contribution as a rejection of this heritage, rather than an appreciative use of it, is an error. Forde is certainly not without his twentieth-century influences, like the Luther renaissance of Germany and Scandinavia, but to cast him as a mere Bultmann protégé misses the more significant aspects of Forde’s background.

Perhaps it is now time to retire the term “Radical Lutheranism.” The label served its purpose in identifying those in the ELCA who had come from the more conservative TALC, and who wanted to retain their robustly Lutheran identity amidst merger and conglomeration. The term is now used mostly with derision as a convenient label for uncritically rejecting a theologian deemed too dangerous to actually read. Those who admire and benefit from Forde might as well go ahead and revert to an older, more historic term––even though it is no less fraught––and simply identify as confessional Lutherans.