Bertram’s A Time for Confessing (Review Article)
By Stephen Krueger
When editor Bob Schmidt asked me to do a piece on the new collection of essays by the sainted Robert W. Bertram, A Time for Confessing, Bob the editor made clear the effort was to be something more than a standard book review. That would have been imposing enough—to try to do justice to the other Bob’s posthumous A Time for Confessing, recently published (2008) by Eerdmans and edited by Michael Hoy. The DAYSTAR JOURNAL editor, however, had an even more ambitious project in mind. “In light of the publication of this book,” Schmidt said, “tell us how it represents Bertram’s thinking throughout a teaching ministry which spanned half a century at Valparaiso University, Concordia Seminary … and then the one ‘in exile,’ and then the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, to say nothing of the special thoughtful community of online confessing thinkers which Robert Bertram help to found called the Crossings Community.”
Somewhere along the line, Bob Schmidt must have gathered the impression that Bob Bertram’s thinking might have impacted my own. It is a charge to which I plead guilty along with a multitude of other voices, many of whom, having been blessed beyond words to have been influenced by Bob Bertram, have been in trouble ever since.
Of course, I am a far cry from being one of Bertram’s brighter students, so this task has fallen, I am sorry to say, to a candidate who will hardly do the assignment justice. That task would have better fallen to Bertram’s best interpreter, once a student, then turned colleague, Edward Schroeder, who authored (as one would have expected) the Foreword to A Time for Confessing. A host of other luminaries, theologians in their own right, would have equally been better choices. Yet, alas, the job this time around seems to have fallen to me, and I can only plead in the various courtrooms which may be taking the time to read these remarks, as did Adam in the garden, “Blame Schmidt. He made me do it.”
Yet strangely, in seeing that, our common reluctance to be grilled on the stand for the many things we say and do—or don’t say and don’t do—we already have a tipoff to something Bob Bertram (who referred to himself in neatly written notes as “RWB”) noticed about life itself as the confessing Lutheran theologian he was. Life is a courtroom issue at its essence and core. We face a thousand courts and a multitude of verdicts on our lives every day. Those verdicts make or break us, and their power over us is, well, ultimately God-sized in scope. Having been born and bred in a Missouri Synod home and educational system, steeped as I was in a staid kind of Lutheranism which took its cues from 17th and 18th century Lutheran Orthodoxy, that God-sized problem of daily evaluation was anything but good news. Then, like a surprise of grace’s grasp (and not until that educational system dumped me into seminary), came Bertram. I think it was through him, or actually for the first time his most gifted student, my professor, Ed Schroeder, that I heard the winsomeness of the gospel for the first time. The gospel came out at that time something like, “You know, Krueger, how you’ve heard all these years about justification by faith and how it is one of the doctrines taught by an inerrant Bible and, because it’s biblical, it ought to be believed, because we say the Bible says so. Well, let’s look at that all over again.”
So we did, turning it over in a hundred different ways. Bertram/Schroeder said, “Let’s see what faith believes as it believes that Christ and Christ alone is God’s final verdict upon your life and ours. Let’s see what faith can do when it believes this bold, radical claim in the juridical framework of life—we called it ‘the law’ (because Paul and Luther did)—as the evidence against any of us mounts, and the universe renders its verdicts daily.”
However, then notice, as Robert Bertram so clearly did (and staked his life on it … Schroeder says Bertram picked it up it from reading Luther’s Bondage of the Will and Commentary on Galatians), that the universe rendered its verdict on Another and charged that Child of Adam with everything it could under the godly law that adjudicates us all. The results of that story we call Good Friday.
How is it that the law’s power over us is broken (“trumped” was one of Bertram’s favorite words) with the grand Ha-ha-halleluia of Easter? Well, there. In Luther’s words, the law itself gets damned in the hands of the accuser for putting to death its own God and Lord. And Easter is God’s come-back, final surprise, God accepting what Bob Bertram called the “sweet swap” (Christ taking what is mine for his own and giving me what is his for my own) for us and our salvation.
I remember sitting in on one of Bertram’s undergraduate seminary classes on christology trying to follow his elegant, Socratic dialectic on “How Our Sins Were Christ’s” (Bob’s study of Luther’s Galatians). Suddenly, like scales falling from my eyes, there it was: staid Lutheran tradition, ripped away from its dogmatic moorings and refashioned into a living thing which, for the first time, made sense and left us full of joy and intellectually and spiritually never the same.
Those were the seeds that hooked me into the thought of Bob Bertram of whose writings I could never get enough. With Bob’s death in 2003 it was for many of us as if we had lost our spiritual guide and father, although Bob would be the first to remind that the legacy he left the church had to do with a hermeneutic, a meaning-giver approach to all things, which you cannot pour into people’s heads but offers the way the confessing Christian heart and head can believe and think when the gospel is God’s ultimate verdict on us all. What the church believes then becomes the many ways the gospel is articulated in its many confessional “articles” (as opposed to a body of co-equal propositional truths which an inerrant Bible supposedly teaches but whose relationship with the gospel is never quite called into clarity). Equally, you can go at life, even with Bonhoeffer, “from below” and interpret God’s Word speaking in the events of our times through what Bertram called the Creator’s critical support system, always necessitating God’s surprise of God’s Christ. In short, Bertram taught many of us how to think confessionally.
Even now for me three and a half decades later, Bertram’s legacy, between Lutheran fundamentalists and Lutheran Barthians (and their ecumenical counterparts), offers a third way which Bob mined from (of all places) the Augsburg Confession: the treasure of the one-gospel-and-sacraments around which revolve both Christ’s church and God’s world.
In the realm of theology Bertram’s way is “the road less traveled,” emerging from that thin tradition known as the theology of the cross. Much like the “moral compass” they talk about in my vocational setting as a secular hospice chaplain, Bob reblazed a trail with his theological compass whose markings along the way include the proper distinction between law and gospel, the compelling core of the article on justification by faith, the abiding (and radical) validity of the two kingdoms distinction and the freedom of the Christian. Yet what Bertram did was reargue those things in new and fresh ways with his amazing and rigorous dialectic so that they didn’t get lost by lesser minds who either thought they knew what those markings meant without owning them or believed they knew what they meant and dismissed them as foolish relics of the past.
Above all, Bertram saw himself as a Christian theologian who realized that Augsburg theology with its gospel-grounded hermeneutic was the key to confessing Christ faithfully to the modern and now postmodern world. Bob was as much at home as an ecumenist as he was in marveling about themes of liberation as he was taking on the many faces of Barthian revelationism in North America (many masquerading as Lutherans) which saw nothing worth noticing in “the worldling’s” world. Perhaps Bob’s most creative period, however, was serving as intellectual architect for the exile that marked a few brief years in the history of the LCMS out of which especially developed the great themes of A Time for Confessing. Through Bertram’s gentle but rigorous shepherding suddenly for many of us the stories were not merely the biblical ones about some prophetic or apostolic figure taking the witness stand and confessing the promise alone at considerable cost or 16th century reformers standing before the coercive power of the medieval papacy, but suddenly the story was about us too. Who would have guessed that second-year seminarians would do anything but yawn through the 10th Article of the Formula of Concord? Yet with RWB sitting there in front of you with chin planted on hand, elbow resting on desk, we found ourselves drawn to the edge of our seats, wondering how articulate we would be when our turn came to make the good confession before church and world. We Seminexers had our chances all right, often finding ourselves “out there in the world” way out of our depth. All we did have, if we learned from Bertram well, was “the sole-sufficiency of the gospel.” “If you are going to follow Jesus,” Bob would remind, “get ready to look good on wood.”
Over the years most of Bob’s students got battered and bruised in one way or another. Bob never told us to expect any other. But from his place in heaven where one hopes he is certainly setting Barth straight finally (Barth was the subject of Bob’s doctoral dissertation from the University of Chicago), I suspect Bob would point to that gospel’s sole-sufficiency and gleam at us with those twinkling eyes of his, “And it was enough. More than enough.”
1. A Time for Confessing
While Bertram’s interests took him all over the theological map, applying Augsburg one-gospel-and-sacrament theology to science, to military contexts, to the national Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialog, to the forums of the LWF and to a host of other audiences, and his writings for his students of all stripes always came first (thus, Bertram would explain, why the long-awaited book would have to wait a little longer), A Time for Confessing finally has arrived, giving us a glimpse of the depth and breadth of RWB’s thinking (thanks to Michael Hoy’s tireless work). While the theme of what came to be Part 1 relates to the 10th Article of the Formula of Concord, the adiaphoristic controversy, which suddenly took on new significance for Bertram during the time of the LCMS exile, the essays are part of Bob’s seamless thinking about law/promise dialectical theology and its impact on the whole of the Christian faith. Eerdmans, to its credit, added a Part 2 to the project when the outline to Bertram’s magnificent proposal to speak to the themes of postmodernism, entitled CRUX, found its way into the book. Editor Hoy lifted CRUX from Bob’s notes and from his computer, a vast feast-in-the-making, which Bertram had been working on for at least 30 years. (I saw it in the late 1970s as a student in Bob’s doctoral seminar.) While uncompleted, CRUX lays the groundwork for years of discussion and reflection by others. The editor’s labor of love also compiled (as a Part 3) a very needed bibliography of Bertram’s writings which makes RWB accessible to serious thinkers who will be looking for fresh approaches to making sense out of our situation today. It’s high time for A Time for Confessing.
At issue in Part 1 is the question of when is it necessary for the confessing Christian community for the sake of its gospel to confess publicly the sole-sufficiency of that same gospel as a confessing movement? Bertram writes, “Some of the most constructive moments in recent history have been those times, ironically, when Christians have had to disobey secular authority, including the church’s own, in order to testify that for the one church of Jesus Christ his one-gospel-and-sacraments is authority enough” (p. 1). RWB found that same question in play in Formula of Concord X, where for most of our tradition it lay buried and undiscovered, and mined that article on the Adiaphoristic Controversy for “some clues—half a dozen, at least,” for when such times to confess, a dramatic thing, might occur for the church.
First, there is “martyria.” Bertram notices about “martyria” that it is a call to confess quite distinct from the confessing done by sponsors at a baptism or by confirmands on the day of their confirmation. “Martyria” happens when the church finds itself in an adversarial situation whereby its one-gospel-and-sacraments is threatened often by coercive church authority itself through gospel-plus-something-else requirements. Bertram’s maxim is: “Gospel-plus is gospel-minus, no gospel at all.” Bertram, of course, with countless others lived the question as coercive church authority sought to hold the sole-sufficient gospel hostage by convention majority votes and bylaw provisions, appealing to confessors’ “pettiness” which disrupts peace and harmony. Thus, the second clue about the time to confess is when confessors are “protesting gospel-plus.”
A third clue mined from Formula X draws attention to the ecumenical side of confessing. As St. Paul knew, protesting the gospel-plus theology of his Judaizing opponents, and the concordists knew from earlier experiences at Augsburg, confessors are quickly labeled “sectarian” by their powerful opponents. Bertram notices that exactly the opposite is the case, however. Confessors take their stand with the rest of the whole one-gospel-and-sacraments-is-enough confessing church throughout the ages and insists on ecumenical accountability. RWB also sees how those who stand in the legacy of Augsburg (“the Lutherans”) haven’t been especially good at this, however, “tak[ing] the confession which originally had been intended as the whole church’s and withdraw it from the risks and disappointments of intra-church exposure, and then, instead of suing for other Christians’ corroboration, compensate by self-congratulation within the ghetto of a single denomination” (pp. 10-11). Bertram adds, “Meanwhile the rest of the church is let off the hook, thus robbing Christian pluralism of its true mutuality” (p. 11).
“Confessing as redefining authority” is the fourth clue Bertram extracts from Formula X. Drawing on the breadth of the confessional documents themselves, RWB sees how quickly law and gospel become tragically entangled in both kingdoms where God’s governing wants to take place by two different kinds of authority. When administrators of the kingdom on the left try to affix salvific, idolatrous claims to a governance where everyone ought to get what he justly deserves (notice this in an election year), no one can ultimately survive all that godly fairness. On the other hand, when ecclesiastical governance assumes coercive authority (which the church usually isn’t very good at) and masquerades that authority as part of its requisite “gospel,” then too comes the occasion to confess the sole-sufficiency of the true gospel about the One who takes what we justly deserve as his own and gifts to us what he alone deserves for our own, including the freedom to be what Christ has made us to be.
The fifth clue Bertram names “confessing as appealing for/to the oppressed” and picks up the theme of Christian freedom. Bertram here fleshes out the victory that faith is, or can be, and in a subsequent chapter (6) unpacks this theme further as he examines the Philippine Revolution, where Bertram sees how “the radical revaluing of sinners solely on the strength of their faith, which renders them valuable because of the One it trusts” undercuts the most basic disparity that exists between the oppressed and those who oppress them (p. 20).
The final clue Bertram notices, RWB fleshes out later (Chapter 7), is the ambiguous certitude that confessing entails. The essay is about that time to confess which was for Bertram most autobiographical and should be of interest most of all to DayStar readers, that time to confess which led to exile from the LCMS. More on that in a moment.
The clue of “martyria” forms the backdrop to the essays which form chapters 1 and 2, where Bertram unpacks the confessional period of the 16th century movement. Chapter 3 is titled “Black Churches in the Civil Rights Movement as a Confessing Movement: ‘Confessio’ as Disencumbering the Gospel” and relates to the clue of sorting through “gospel-plus” promises as it pertained to the gospel of freedom, at least as Martin Luther King Jr. defined the promise in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Chapter 4 is about the ecumenical clue in confessing and is titled “‘Confession’ against Apartheid: When Faith Is Ethos.” Sorting through the misalignment of two authorities (properly distinguishing law and gospel) is the subject of Chapter 6 where the Barmen Declaration is scrutinized under the title “Bonhoeffer’s ‘Battle(s) for Christendom’: His ‘Responsible Interpretation’ of Barmen.” Here RWB assesses Barth and reassesses the maligned Werner Elert, whose conflict at the time of crisis in Germany with the lens often provided by Bonhoeffer is more than welcomed and important, not only for its historic value but for reasons spilling over into American political ideology today. As noted above, Chapter 7 provides grist for the fifth clue, “appeal to and for the oppressed,” and is about the faith made righteous in settings of oppression by means of the One in whom faith trusts. Chapter 8, also earlier noted, is about the clue of “ambiguous certitude” that comes with confessing and is about the experience of Missouri’s confessors, who appeared to be sitting on the very limb to which they were taking the critical saw for the sake of one-gospel-and-sacraments. Bertram’s analysis speaks to DayStar types who complain even to this day, “Why couldn’t you just have lived with such and such and so and so for the sake of peace, harmony and alleged good order?” No, replies Bertram in the essay titled “A Time for Confessing,” because what was at stake was a pseudo-gospel (no gospel at all) masquerading as the church’s gospel where events had to be controlled in order to resist the cross-examination that false gospel in fact deserved. It is hard not to see how Bertram’s analysis does not still ring completely true today. Judge for yourself.
In the late 1970s in Robert Bertram’s doctoral seminar among systematics majors (I was in those), RWB hauled out CRUX, theses he had been working on as Bob’s on-going effort to polish and refine what he intended as his magnum opus. Of course, “crux” is the Latin word for cross, and for Bertram, acronym crafter that he was, “crux” doubled as a proposal for a theology of the cross which would embrace the themes of “criticism, revelationism, universalism and ‘X,’” the Christ symbol for christology. Apparently these evolved over time to become “criticism, revelation, universality and christology.” Steeped as we students were at the time in the classic Christian theological tradition where we were still assessing names like Bonhoeffer, Barth, Tillich, only one generation removed from us, along with Liberation theologians who were our contemporaries, we (at least I) did not see that Bertram was 10 steps ahead of the rest of us (as he usually was). The theses as they providentially appear now as Part 2 in the new volume are titled “Postmodernity’s CRUX: A Theology of the Cross for the Postmodern World.” We had not known at the time, thirty years ago, nor was Bertram apparently ready to say why he chose these four themes to be his defining foci. How these theses have evolved now reveal why. Bob was already working on his conversation with what has overwhelmed (or underwhelmed) the contemporaryzeitgeist, postmodernism. If the church sees the flaw in circling the wagons and hurling its increasingly silly salvos at a postmodern world but rather, for the sake of its mission, honestly engaging its setting, what we have here with CRUX theology is a magnificent resource for many years to come. While it is unfortunate that RWB was not able to flesh them out further into that final opus, probably worth four large volumes or more, what we do have here is grist enough for essays and books and more to keep serious one-gospel-and-sacrament confessors busy for their lifetimes.
From me, in the scope of this essay, comes a word or two on each of the four, in part as I remember that conversation thirty years ago and what A Time for Confessing presents its readers with today.
“C” = Criticism
A number of years ago an ELCA systematician was invited by one of the LCMS Concordias to hold forth on what was on his mind. Considering his audience, the theologian decided to rail against “judgmentalism,” no doubt figuring he could score some points among Missouri Synod students and set them straight about how destructive judgmentalism can be and is. Of course, as we all know, in light of therapeutic models nowadays and the behavioral science backdrop with which almost everyone is familiar, “judgment” is a word almost as terrible as is “sin.” And rail away he did. A product of Bertram/Schroeder shaping, I was in the audience and couldn’t resist taking the speaker up on his offer of Q and A. “Professor,” I said, “I want to thank you for showing us how destructive judgmentalism is. But I wonder if you realize, in your critique of judgmentalism, how judgmental you sounded as you rendered one of the harshest judgments on judgmentalism I have ever heard.” Those who were there for the exchange will attest to his reaction. He punted to the next speaker and joined in the laughter without ever offering a rejoinder.
Quite aware of how damning the word “judgment” sounds in our postmodern setting, except, of course, when it is judging or deconstructing the judgmentalism of earlier judgments, Bertram looked for and discovered a way to re-present the divine judgment on a rebel world (something as a hospice chaplain I deal with all the time). Bob believed he found it, at least in the post-Enlightenment intellectual tradition of the west, in the word “criticism” or “critique,” a notion that he believed could provide a meaningful way to introduce the idea of the law’s just verdict on sinners.
In that doctoral seminar over three decades ago, taking our cue from Bob, our required “two-page” reaction papers typically would begin, “Since Kant and the Enlightenment…” Bob had asked us to notice some great themes underlying modernity at that time and postmodernity now. We were to be attentive to the great break begun in Luther himself from the medieval synthesis when subjective “faith makes both God and an idol,” and thus was begun a process of liberating the human self. Of course, anti-religious Feuerbach picked up that Luther theme and taught it to Marx, who located the self’s criticism in the process which drove history. Kant in his description of the enlightened mind shared in the way reality is subjectively understood, organized and made sense of. In the intellectual development of the West, the theme has become one of radical human subjectivity. That being said, what can unite us intellectually? Bob’s answer: to notice how we are all critics, evaluating as we all do authorities in a kind of common, universal critical process. But then, Bob asks, what of the Critic, in whose image we were (believe it or not) created? How do we stand up to all that criticism, especially the divine kind?
As one processes this theme further, Bob asked us to notice how we all critically seem to insist that the critique be meted out fairly, justly. Yet again, how does one survive all that justice, all that fairness when it flows?
As an aside, RWB, in beginning this approach “from below” (and in contradistinction to Barth’s approach where the only legitimate approach is “from above”) and taking his cue from Luther and the Augsburg confessors, was training us to do what all Christian theology is called to do when it is not playing speculative, self-adoring games, that is, “necessitate Christ” and making “the critical process … the best thing the world has going for it” (p. 159).
“R” = Revelation
The next locus in Bertram’s CRUX proposal is his exacting critique on the notion of “revelation,” fleshing out how “revelationists,” as he calls those who have so “overindulged” the notion that its value has become “depreciated,” do trivialize the Christian message. I take Bertram to have in his sights not only those who contort themselves to postures of silliness in having nothing to say unless they can convince people they have an inerrantly revealed book in their hand first but also those, again in the tradition of Barth, who have conceded an inerrant bible but still are peddling information about God as their chief calling and purpose in life. Keeping in mind that RWB does not favor calling a moratorium on the notion of revelation or losing the notion entirely in Christian discourse (something that is not likely to happen in any event) but rather regaining “the concept of revelation in its original biblical force, as it was employed by Paul,” here is a sampling of what Bertram finds fault with:
They (Revelationists) … assume that the only thing the world has ever needed in order to be ‘saved’ is to be shown that it already is saved. If so, we really must not need all that much saving, just a recognition of a salvation which obtains anyway, regardless of whether we believe it. (p. 160)What we need, presumably, is not that God will forgive us—that, it is assumed, God is doing in any case—but only that God will reveal that forgiveness to us, assuring us how well off we already are. (p. 160)
If that were true, then, whether we are convinced of God’s love or not, whether we accept it or reject it, loved we would still be. It is as if the world were unconditionally elected and that grace were irresistible, no matter how much the world may resist that grace. (p. 160)
Beginning from that dubious premise, revelationists are left to busy themselves with only one change, a change of human hearts and minds, an attitudinal change in our relationship to God. (p. 160)
Bertram’s critique is extended and wants to lead us back to reconsider Pauline promise-trusting when what is divinely revealed is not only grace but also divine wrath of the kind that is all around us in experience. Biblical revelation does not only reveal God but also it reveals us, a revelation which is not only biblical (although it is that) but also experiential, as Luther noticed when he quipped that revelatory Moses is inferior to what nature itself teaches. As Bertram, again taking cues from Paul and then Luther, discusses “Moses’ face veiled,” he says, “God, so to speak, is in a quandary. On the one hand, by keeping the lethal truth of the Law veiled, the Creator in the short run spares sinners from immediate annihilation. But on the other hand, that very veiledness only deludes them into imagining that the Law is survivable and, worse yet, that it is viable, a way to life rather than what it truly is, a ‘ministry of death.’ Sinners are still destined for death. But in spite of that they live under the illusion of a wrathless, fulfillable Law. Can God be party to that deception and still be honest, ‘righteous’?” ( p. 165).
Comes now Bertram’s harshest criticism on the revelationists. “The revelationist fallacy trivializes not only divine wrath but Christ as well. It reduces him to only a revealer, a mere messenger of a forgone conclusion. As if God’s mercy toward us would be in effect anyway with or without Christ. As if all he does is make a prevenient mercy known—a show and tell. This is the Christ of the Gnostics” (p. 165).
The apt metaphor Bertram pushes is reconciliation, not merely ours to God, as if Christian theology were a kind of marriage counseling where we are induced to feel favorable to God, but in its truer biblical, Pauline form, God being reconciled to us in the cross of Christ. To Bertram, the reconciliation change happens not merely to us but to God.
Bertram notices how soteriology again needs to overtake christology after Barth’s revelationist influence.
“U” = Universality
Who of us in touch with modernity and now postmodernity cannot relate to Bob Bertram’s opening thesis for “U” is for Universality? “Probably no feature of the Christian gospel has been so troubling to modern Christians as the way in which that gospel limits salvation to those who believe in Christ” (p. 172).
As Bertram takes his readers down this path of inquiry, he begins to turn the tables both on the exclusivist and the inclusivist. “It might seem that in order for Christians to be more inclusive they must de-emphasize Christ’s uniqueness. Nothing could be further from the truth. For isn’t he unique exactly in his inclusivity?” (p. 174).
Bertram humbly persists in noticing how the best answer to the dilemma is by confessing that if God can reconcile to Godself the likes of me, then I can entrust the problem to that same God allowing “God’s (problem) be God’s” (p. 180).
RWB provides a new way to talk about Christ’s inclusivity apprehended through the trust of autobiographical faith. At issue is first not how God can save everybody else. The first issue is how God can save the poor likes of me.
“X” = Christology
The final locus (dare we call them that?) in CRUX is the most breath-taking one of them all and the one most changed since I first encountered CRUX over thirty years ago. It’s Bertram on christology. The editor, interestingly, notes that Bertram before his death had hoped to refine the chapter even further. By my lights, however, the feast is ample enough to make the theses one’s life-work as they stand. It’s mission theology at its finest with multiple surprises in store.
What RWB claims he’s after is world-sized in scope (as world-sized as Christ is and even more). While Bertram notes how Christ by all appearances has been demoted by a postmodern world, being recalled once in awhile at Christmas and Easter for some culturally vague reasons, Christ’s durability, nonetheless, persists, and public opposition to Christ by name still is a perilous course for Christ’s public critics, just “ask Nietzsche or Stalin” (p. 185). Yet, having said that, Bertram points us to Pentecost and the “post-Pentecost phase of the Christian story” where the story “ensues with the send of the Holying Spirit (and) focuses not only on Christ himself … but as well on the world’s being anointed into Christ by the Spirit. Let us call that the world’s holying or hallowing, its Christening” (p. 186).
“One version of this Christening is particularly favored in the modern West: the civilizing effect which the Spirit of Jesus Christ has had in bringing the world to freedom. Characteristically, freedom—also social and economic and political freedom—is held up as Christ’s richest bequest to modernity” (p. 186).
Yet, to Bertram, this “favored” legacy (‘at least the Christianized west gave us this one good thing, freedom’) “is mistakenly equated with independence” (p. 186). Before proceeding with this argument, RWB fleshes out the postmodern dilemma. “Before we explain why this is a problem, let us notice: moderns incur one of their gravest problems right at the point of their greatest promise, their potential for freedom. That is precisely where they most risk becoming the opposite, namely, slaves” (p. 186). Yes, Bertram notes, freedom as independence can be just a semantic slip and hardly a major matter except when freedom’s opposite is falsely construed as “dependence,” thus equating dependence with slavery. Bertram writes: “Is this then the root of our slavery, that we depend? So we are tempted to believe. And there’s the fatal fallacy, one which bedevils the modern age: If you want to be free, don’t be dependent. Re-enter “modernity’s crux” (p. 187).
Bertram amplifies this core dilemma further (perhaps the core problem in our modern/postmodern misery and perceived unhappiness, something Helmut Thielicke also noticed a generation ago in his retelling the story of the Prodigal in his book The Waiting Father), “Contrast that shortsighted modern equation (dependence equals slavery) with what in the Christian Scriptures is a diametric opposition: between the slave and the child. The slave is indeed dependent and obviously unfree. But the child, too, is dependent and nevertheless—or therefore—is free” (p. 187).
Enter now a christology for postmodern folks who are independent slaves, whom Bertram later called “duped,” suing for independence from parental types on whom they blame everything and from authorities that are perceived as undependable. Yet what if God’s Christ as the Father’s Child “depends,” not as one enslaved but as one freed? What if that dependency were precisely the source for the Child’s freedom? And what if the Child’s gift to us were that selfsame dependency on the Father’s love for our freedom? And what if that gift were our christening through his Christening Spirit in order to liberate us, too?
Bertram asks us to look carefully at how the ancients talked about God’s Son. “In the case of God the Son, being God’s Child is not a demotion. Being derived does not make him a creature, he who is ‘begotten not made.’ His depending is, on the contrary, the very glory of his Godhead, whether incarnate or pre-incarnate” (p. 189).
Bertram’s is a fascinating study in and of itself on the meanings of fourth century Trinitarian dogma and fifth century Chalcedonian christology but it is more, too. It is a postmodern re-presentation of ancient christology for us and our salvation as RWB tracks out how “the whole Trinity does conspire in our salvation, it does so in order to restore us not to divine Parenthood or divine Spirithood but distinctly to divine Childhood” (p. 190).
The discussion is protracted and thorough, including a yet-to-be developed series of glosses on “Baptism, Where Christening Begins” (pp. 199–200), even embracing the topic of infant baptism “How Do Babies Depend?” and “Hallowing God’s Name” (God: Mother or Father in current discussions). From RWB these were never fully fleshed out but deserve to be.
The only criticism of the book, both Part 1 or Part 2, that I could imagine is finding a postmodern conversation partner with the depth and sweeping breadth sufficient to keep up with Bertram, who is answering questions postmodern “beloved worldlings” most likely had not even thought to ask. Nevertheless, A Time for Confessing will provide a reliable guide for entering both the arena “out there” and, more formidably, the postmodern one inside each of us for the sake of that world, broken but nevertheless still beloved by God and loved no less by the author.
3. Concluding Thoughts
While true enough that Robert W. Bertram remains for far too many an obscure, barely known voice, or as Ed Schroeder puts it in his foreword, “perhaps the most unpublished major Lutheran theologian of the twentieth century” (p. vii), for those who take the trouble, A Time for Confessing is a very good beginning. Many of Bertram’s other essays appear on the Crossings website (www.crossings.org) and are available easily to those who care to take the challenge to enter Bob’s provocative mind and heart.
Bob was at his joyous best when he had a Bible in hand and would do a “crossing,” fleshing out and disentangling law and promise dialectically in a method that he and Ed Schroeder developed as the Crossings Community’s didactic tool and whose results can be seen weekly to this day as students have taken over helping proclaimers and Bible students alike prepare the coming Sunday’s pericope.
He was also a gentle, loving teacher known for his pastoral classroom style that was winsome but intensely rigorous. I can attest that on more than one occasion how I, or any student for that matter, would advance a thesis which didn’t quite square with Bob’s gospel-grounded theology, and Bob would patiently lead you in with his critical questions, and before you were even aware of it, your thesis would be chopped up into a million pieces. I remember one I had believed I had developed from reading Pelikan where I advanced the idea that the Lutheran Reformation could be best understood as the breakdown of the Augustinian synthesis, and the two sides, one Augustine against the Donatists, collided with the other, Augustine against the Pelagians. It was a thesis that didn’t last long under Bertram’s critical one-gospel-and-sacrament lens.
It was from Bertram that I learned, as stated earlier, why justification by faith alone stands as center and core, not only because it is attested as so in Scripture but because it goes to the core question of experience, “Why do I matter at all in this vast universe?” Bertram, probably second to none, as JBF was the issue in play in the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialog, could talk about how justification by faith was as much about faith, the most embattled sola of them all, as it was about justification. Why not grace? Because, as Bertram saw it, grace was never “at issue” then, although the medieval church with its semi-Pelagianism made of it an issue. As recently as Douglas John Hall’s systematic trilogy, the dominance of “sola gratia” at the expense of “sola fide” is still no less an important and misunderstood issue, and Bertram’s essay in the L/RC Dialog on Justification by Faith remains by my lights as the definitive one on establishing Iustitia Fidei (justifying faith) as the major, core issue.
Edward Schroeder’s foreword also reminds of Bertram’s pioneering the hermeneutic of law/promise for a synod which had heard from C. F. W. Walther that the proper distinction of those two words is really important, but prior to Bertram no one seemed to be able to explain why. Sans Bertram and his influence, the proper distinction between law and promise still remains the most unexamined treasure in the Missouri Synod today. Stuck with it by its history, one can only hope the synod might risk its own hermeneutic some day again. But if it does, the synod just might have to start ordaining women and risk other signs of Christ’s new creation breaking into the old first one as the gospel is given its “proper” place as God proper work and the law, God’s alien one.
One of Bob’s many, many observations involved Luther’s insight about how the Word of the Lord comes like a Platzregen, a “a cloud burst,” which waters the earth in a specific place. According to Luther, God sends God’s Platzregen for the earth to bloom and bring forth its increase, but if it doesn’t, God sends his Platzregen somewhere else, and then there is a famine of the Word of God in the land. A Time for Confessing is about just that very theme: God watering the earth in surprising places and times with surprising (and often unlikely) people. It just takes those rarest of eyes to see it.
And see it with an uncommon and extraordinary clarity Robert W. Bertram did.