Evangelical Theology for Post-Denominational Christianity

Rev. Joel Nickel

George Wolfgang Forell (1919-2011) was the reason I wound up as the pastor of a small Lutheran congregation in the small town of Stayton, Oregon, in 1978. Dr. Forell was a well-known Lutheran theologian, a Luther scholar who had translated several of the Reformer’s writings into English, and a professor of religion at the University of Iowa. Dr. Forell was a refugee with his family from Hitler’s Nazi onslaught. He had studied with Karl Barth and then later became a student of Reinhold Niebuhr. He came to the United States in 1939, the year I was born, to study theology in Philadelphia. He brought with him a personal intellectual development that had grappled with social and theological issues in Vienna—with Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he described as also, like himself, “a Lutheran pastor’s son” who “wrote better German than any other philosopher…, free from the cloying religious sentimentality that says all the right things and does nothing about it.”

Dr. Forell described how he moved from Karl Barth’s Neo-orthodoxy back to a study of Luther and why Luther was a better life-choice than Nietzsche, based on Luther’s doctrine of the church, that “far from being an individualist, [Luther] believed that God saves us into a community in which we are ‘baked together’ like the bread in holy communion. Here we share all we own and hold everything in common and do not need the services of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy to sell us shares in salvation. Luther rejected [this] capitalist notion….”[1] Forell saw Luther as a social activist.  In the writings of Luther, “God had reached out to me and my   efforts to establish autonomy were doomed from the start. I had seen Christ at work through women and men of faith. Anything but discipleship to him would be inconceivable.”[2]

Out of his European experience, Forell also saw the fact that Lutheran culture did not fit well into the civil religion of America but rather clashed with it over our “depressing emphasis on the importance of sin and… hymns which talk about Jesus’ wounded head, and the devil as the prince of this world, and other gloomy subjects” not palatable to cockeyed optimism. Forell had a lively sense of ironic humor.  If Lutheranism should surrender its distinctive theology in order to fit into American cultural taste, there would be no reason to maintain a separate Lutheran church….” The alternative was to take up a lively Lutheran ecumenical witness to all other religious groups, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Perhaps it is now clear why we at University Lutheran Church on the campus of the University of Illinois would invite the foremost teacher of theology on the faculty of the University of Iowa to be our guest preacher and symposium lecturer in order to help us address the question of the Lutheran identity, located in the public mind somewhere between conservative Southern Baptist and traditional Roman Catholic teaching. It was the mid-1970s when the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod was racked with controversy and a right-wing purge of its seminary in St. Louis. It was my honor to pick up Dr. Forell at the Champaign airport and escort him   around the university campus.

Ever the considerate pastor, Dr. Forell immediately inquired of me, “Joel, you know I’m a pastor in the Lutheran Church in America [with whom the LCms was not in pulpit & altar fellowship]. Will you get in trouble with your church authorities if you invite me to preach from your campus church pulpit?” I paused for a moment, and then replied, “If a superb and faithful translator of Luther’s Works cannot preach from that pulpit, no one can.” George Forell’s preaching and symposium teaching were remarkable, Christ-centered, clearly relying on the strength of Luther’s biblical insights and the paradoxical nature of Lutheran theology.

Needless to say, when the ecclesiastical authorities who paid my salary as a campus pastor got wind of Dr. Forell’s presentation, they initiated a funding study of our student ministry and clamped a freeze on my salary. After numerous meetings over many months, I came to the conclusion that a move to accept a call to Calvary Lutheran Church in Stayton, Oregon, might be the sacrifice that would restore the ministry support needed by the campus parish.  But, parallel to what was voiced by a US Army general during the Vietnam War, “we had to bomb the village in order to save it.”  University Lutheran Church’s freedom of choice was curtailed, and it never regained the level of activity and campus relevance that it once had, reduced to a shell of its former self. (My move to Oregon was blessed, but at the same time it was traumatic to leave University Lutheran Church behind. On the Sunday of my departure, our choir sang the Vivaldi “Gloria” with strings and organ….) I do owe a vote of thanks to my ministry critics who were instrumental in my family’s move to the beautiful Eden of Oregon, nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in a small town where “a river runs through it…,” the mighty Santiam. My ministry in Stayton for twenty-seven years was both a refreshing release from ecclesiastical suppression and a time for personal growth in both art and theology.

It is my hunch that the post-pandemic church will be faced with much the same issues that were embedded in the theological outlook of Dr. George Forell and the unfortunate self-diminishing controversy maintained by the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Dr. Forell was very clear that the distinctive aspects of Lutheran theology “if lost would weaken and impoverish the Christian message in our world.”  They are: “(1) the distinction of law and gospel; (2) the Christian as righteous and sinner at the same time; (3) the finite as the bearer of the infinite (with its implications for sacrament, scripture and vocation); and (4) the theology of the cross vs. the theology of glory.”[3] The question is how to maintain these theological insights in a post-denomination church world. “Luther’s emphasis on the utter helplessness of human beings apart from God… is the scandal of his theology for modern men and women.”[4] Instead of freedom of choice (the American idol), the good news is that we have been chosen, forgiven, and set free to be servants. “Original sin” is the sin against the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods…,” when we are unwilling to let God be God.

My last visit with Dr. Forell came when, as program chairman of the Oregon Lutheran Pastor’s Conference, we invited him to be our retreat guest and lecturer at a gathering on the Oregon coast in the early 1980s.  His presentation underlined the paradoxical nature of Lutheran theology, frequently misunderstood even by Lutherans and unintelligible to most pragmatic Americans.  How can something be true when both poles of a paradox are maintained in tension with each other, “both/and”?  Dr. Martin Marty wrote a humorous spoof on this dilemma called “The Unrelieved Paradox.” Paradoxical theology requires both a tolerance of ambiguity and an ability to live and believe within this tension, that if either pole is stressed to the neglect and dismissal of the other, what you have left is heresy. The world in which we live is both God’s good creation and the realm in which Satan operates with lies, falsehoods, and accusations. God himself is revealed in the Hebrew language as Elohim (often shortened to “El,” the patriarchal name, a “plural of majesty,” the God who is transcendent and inscrutable) and Yahweh (often shortened to “Ya” as in “Allelu-ya,” the “I AM” revealed to Moses in the burning bush, the God who is immanent and chooses to save and rescue in an exodus from slavery). In English Bibles the combined designation is the “LORD God”—Yahweh Elohim. The human being is simultaneously both sinner and saint. Jesus Christ is both human and divine. The Bible is both “word of God” and written in human language with all the limitations such verbiage contains, especially in its cosmology.  The Bible undertakes a paradoxical dialogue within itself; its authority is self-authenticating. Luther’s insight that we either trust God or an idol is true; for human beings, atheism is an impossibility.

We have witnessed the opening of the cosmos to human searches and speculation. We have unlocked the human DNA and are working on medical solutions to genetically inherited diseases. We live with the threat of nuclear winter, unchecked viruses, climate change, refugees fleeing famine and violence.  There is a place for thoughtful theology from the Lutheran perspective and a demonstration of what Christian community looks like. The church as a servant community must be bold to live within these tensions and dilemmas as a servant, keeping alive our hope in the grace of God.

[1] George W. Forell, “They Told What Happened on the Road,” Martin Luther: Theologian of the Church, Collected Essays of George W. Forell, ed. William R. Russell, Word and World Supplement 2 (St. Paul, Minn.: Luther Seminary, 1994), 5.

[2] Forell, “They Told,” 3.

[3] Forell, “They Told,” 8.

[4] Forell, “Luther and Christian Liberty,” Martin Luther, 50.

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