Without a doubt, the most serious challenge facing Lutheranism as a whole is whether doctrine will even be important enough that there will be any serious doctrinal controversies. The ELCA merger was consummated with very little doctrinal discussion. The LWF agreement with Rome on justification didn’t cause much of a stir within the member bodies. Pluralism is the rule of the day. Most individuals are “church shoppers” who display little “denominational loyalty,” that is, little knowledge of or commitment to doctrine. Morality is adrift in a sea of relativism. Modernists could still ask Pilate’s cynical question, “What is truth?” Post-modernists are identified not by a question but by a statement, “There is no truth.”
Modernism placed man at the center of reality, with confidence in the scientific method’s ability to discover truth and in society’s ability to express that truth in universal propositions. To the modernist knowledge was certain, objective, good, and accessible to the human mind. There was unflagging trust in reason and an unquestioning optimism about the progress inevitable through science and education. This world view was the great threat to the church at the beginning of the 20th century.
In contrast, postmodernism has no center of reality, no core explanation for life. Reality is conditioned by one’s context and experience. It is relative, indeterminate, and participatory. There is no “truth” to discover, only preferences and interpretations. Radical pluralism means that there may be many “truths” alongside each other. There can be no “objective” truth or reality because there is no neutral stance from which to view things. Emotion and intuition are valid paths to knowledge, not just reason. And knowledge is always incomplete. Rather than an optimistic confidence in progress, postmodernism has a pessimistic focus on human misery. It is the inevitable conclusion of existentialism, the denial of any meaning, purpose, or reason to life. This is the world view confronting the church in the new millennium.
This post-modern way of thinking has had its influence on Lutherans too. Even the members of our churches who attend Bible class regularly are often more drawn to “practical topics” than to serious doctrinal study of a portion of Scripture like Romans 1-8 or Galatians. The major exception is doctrinal topics like fellowship and the roles of men and women, which are seen as having a practical (or impractical) impact on the daily life of the church. Even in such courses there is great pressure from the class to speed past a careful study of Scripture to application.
More than we want to admit, members of the church have lost the close connection between their faith and their life that a Christian culture promoted. Polls say that people view themselves as “spiritual,” even though they deny absolute truth and biblical morals. People are more interested in finding practical applications which work for them than in studying the abiding truths on which all application and practice must rest.
It is no longer possible to assume that people know the basic Bible stories that shaped the Sunday school curriculum and even the public school curriculum of a generation ago. It is unwise to assume that people understand and agree with all the doctrines their church teaches. While some of our hearers are very aware of the conflict between their faith and the world in which they must work and live, others have comfortably adopted the postmodern pluralism that sees no conflict between opposing worldviews for the different spheres of life.
In spite of widespread indifference to doctrine, however, we can expect that doctrinal issues will remain important enough to a core of concerned people in the church that doctrinal disputes will still arise. What are likely to be the main issues?
Issue 1) The Gospel of Christ
The most crucial issue facing the Lutheran Church today, as in every age, is preserving the gospel of Christ. Today this gospel is under heavy attack within the Lutheran church. Certainly God’s love and forgiveness are being preached in all Lutheran churches, but today there is frequently neglect or even direct denial of the objective payment which Christ made for sin. If I preach “God loves you and forgives you,” I have not yet preached the gospel. To preach the gospel clearly I need to state “Jesus lived, died, and rose for you.” I am not preaching the gospel unless I emphasize the payment which Christ made as my substitute and the legal verdict of acquittal which God pronounced on the whole world. This message is the heart and core of all truly Lutheran preaching, but this is the very point which is being undermined within the Lutheran church today.
Lutherans are being told, “Jesus was born not to die, but to live for us. …The cross is central to our preaching because it shows the depth of God’s love for us. …Some preaching describes Jesus’ death as a payment to God’s wrath. This approach stresses guilt as a barrier to our entry into heaven. There is truth here, but this is only one of many ways the Scriptures proclaim the meaning of Jesus for us” (The Lutheran, Mar. 30, 1988, p. 46). In such teaching the doctrine of the vicarious atonement is reduced to being one of several theories about the meaning of Christ’s death, rather than receiving the pre-eminence which it does in Scripture.
A prominent American Lutheran theologian can write, “The meaning of the historical cross was transmitted in the suprahistoncal language of mythological symbolism. …When the cross is viewed mythologically, and not simply as one historical event alongside others, it receives redemptive significance of cosmic proportions” (Braaten and Jensen, I, 547,548). If such teaching prevails in the Lutheran church, Lutherans will be left with a crucifixion which is a means of salvation only when it is mythically interpreted.
The doctrine of justification by grace through faith is the central doctrine of biblical and Lutheran theology, but today the doctrine of Christ’s payment for sin is being stripped of its legal aspects. A prominent Lutheran dogmatician writes, “The historical event [of the cross] must be translated into eternal truth about the satisfaction of God’s honor, or elevated to a sublime example of dedication to whatever religious people are supposed to be dedicated to, or transcribed into a story about the deception of cosmic tyrants. None of that is evident from the event itself. It comes from the moral, mythological and metaphysical baggage we carry with us” (BJ, II, 79), and again, “There is no strange transaction that takes place somewhere in celestial bookkeeping halls to make it universal. The one we killed, the one no one wanted, is raised from the dead. That is all” (BJ, II, 92). Certainly, it is true that the significance of the crucifixion must be explained. Scripture provides such an explanation, “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.” This dare not be reduced to one of several theories explaining Christ’s death.
We should not be shocked that theologians who share the viewpoint cited in the preceding paragraphs have surrendered the biblical teaching of justification in their dialogues with Roman Catholics. The now decade-old Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is clear evidence of this tragedy and betrayal of not only our Lutheran history, but our biblical history (see Rev. Paul T. McCain's excellent commentary on this here.) “Agreement in the gospel” no longer means acceptance of the biblical, Pauline, Lutheran doctrine that our sins are freely forgiven by the gracious verdict of God, not because anything which we have done, but solely on the basis of Christ’s perfect payment for sin. Today some Lutherans are reducing “agreement in the gospel” to the belief that somehow or other our salvation is ultimately dependent on God’s grace.
The biblical message that Christ paid for the sins of the whole world and that God has credited that payment to the whole world is being watered down to an ill-defined religious encounter. This is the greatest tragedy of contemporary Lutheran dogmatics. Lutherans who cherish the clear proclamation of the scriptural doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone as their greatest joy and privilege must vigorously oppose such teaching and strongly disassociate themselves from it.
Equally dangerous is the tendency toward universalism and pluralism within Lutheranism. Christ is no longer being upheld as the one way to heaven. Even many of our own members have been influenced by the “many roads to heaven” myth.
The emphasis on Christ apart from the benefit of justification through His work on Calvary is much worse than the accusations of dead orthodoxy that Lutherans are often confronted with. Without preaching that we are justified by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, then the church has failed to be the minister of reconciliation that she is called to be. Without His perfect law-keeping on our behalf and the payment which propitiated the wrath of God on the cross, then Christ is merely left as a greater Moses, a greater lawgiver, not the justifier of the ungodly.
If our churches continue the trajectory of American evangelicalism, we will, as one author put it, preach a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a world without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross. The Christ that pop American evangelicalism presents to the itching ears of postmodern man will leave them dead in their sins and transgressions.