|Nothing highlights my theological naivete and incompetence better than intramural Lutheran disagreements. But I'm going out on another limb today.|
At the urging of a dear friend, I have been reading (and in some cases, re-reading) Gerhard Foerde, late professor of theology at Luther Seminary and one of the most consistent and persistent exponents of a view of Lutheran theology that I find problematic. (Foerde's name should be spelled with that Norwegian vowel that is an "o" with a slash through it, but I don't know how to transliterate that. In my experience, most publishers simply print it as an "o," but the Norwegian in me takes umbrage at that. So I've done my best by using the convention for a German o-umlaut.) Now I have already admitted that I think there is much of value in Foerde's thought, but I am troubled by a insistent lack of room for "sanctification" or "growth in grace." It seems to me that his writing portrays the life of faith as a kind of Sisyphean circle of sin-forgiveness-sin-forgiveness, always returning to point "O" every day. But my friend (dare I name you, Paul?) insists both that I am being somewhat unfair and that there is, nevertheless, every reason for seeing things precisely that way (although he has denied my charge that Foerde runs close to antinomianism -- which is a very un-Lutheran path to trod).
Comes this sermon that I read last night: "Jesus Died for You" from the collection of Foerde's writings, A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, edited by Mark Mattes and Steve Paulson. I read the sermon because it's short and I thought that, because it's a sermon, it might give me insights that I miss from the more academic stuff I've read. Well, it gave me an insight all right, but not one that I am at all comfortable with.
Let me quote: "Jesus died for you. This is all he really did in the days of his flesh that is truly for you. He died. He refused to do anything else. ... So his mission was -- finally -- to die. And it was -- for you."
Surely, I immediately thought, that is not right! Oh, I have no problem with "and it was -- for you." Pro nobis, pro me -- what Christian thinker will deny that? But is it true that all the earthly Jesus (and there was no other Jesus, it seems to me -- although I'm wrestling with how to fit the human-Jesus into the Trinity after the Ascension) did that ultimately matters is to die?
Even if you give it the spin I did in the previous sentence, it's still all wrong, it seems to me. While the shadow of the cross lands across the manger, the birth of Jesus was "for you," too. The teaching, and healing, and exorcising, and excoriating, and eating with outcasts and sinners, and making wine, and forgiving sins was also "for you." And all of that is of a piece with his dying. The face of God shone forth in all of his life -- not just in his death. Oh, we cannot overstate the importance of the death, but we cannot divorce that death from the rest of his life -- any more than we can overlook that his death was ultimately meaningless without the Resurrection. (Foerde also seems to suggest in the sermon that the meaning of the Resurrection was simply to put the imprimatur on the death -- not on the man and the life!)
Lamentably, I think later paragraphs of the sermon highlight that he can't make his claim stick. He implicitly acknowledges that the death of Christ was perhaps an inevitable outcome of his life and living. "He dies. That is all he can do in the end." And that isn't nearly so problematic as the dogmatic statement at the beginning of the sermon.
Foerde concludes this way: "... So now, he alone gives us life, life triumphant over the law, sin, and death that threatens [sic] always to consume us. Jesus died to give us this gift. Jesus died for you."
But did not he also live to precisely that point? And if that "life triumphant" is a reality, does it not begin in the world where we live? Isn't it more than some airy dream "in the sweet by-and-by"?
I'm tempted to raise the question asked of me by my favorite skeptical interrogator while I was a pastor: "But of what earthly good is this Jesus?" On what seems to me to be a similar line (and I don't mean to be utilitarian): Why do the Gospels spend so much time on Jesus' life, if all that matters was his death? And similarly, doesn't this give credence to the claim that for Lutherans, what really matters is the crucifixion -- with the Resurrection as a kind of add-on?
Sorry, dear one, but I'm not convinced yet!