How is Luther helpful?

How is Luther Helpful for the Contemporary Church?

Synodal Meeting of the Virginia diocese, ELCA

Sammeli Juntunen, Virginia Beach, October 15th, 2013

 

1.About my background

Before I start answering the question “How is Luther helpful for the contemporary Church?” let me say a couple of words about myself.

My name is Sammeli Juntunen. I am a Lutheran pastor from Finland. I used to be an assistant professor in the Theological Faculty of Helsinki University, in the field of Ecumenics. I was also a Luther scholar and worked in the “new Finnish Luther research” –project of professor Mannermaa. Seven years ago I left the University and started to work as the head pastor of a quite large Lutheran congregation in Savonlinna, in eastern Finland.

For the time being the congregation has about 31 000 members. It is so big, because still around 77 % of Finns are Lutherans. Our church is not a state church (since 1809) but there are many ties between the church and the state. One of them is that the church taxes of the Lutheran and Orthodox congregations are gathered in the same process as the state taxes. As a cause, in one community there can be only one Lutheran congregation and in our case it is a big one.

You might wonder how it is possible to lead such a huge congregation.

Short answer: It is very difficult.

On the other hand we have wonderful resources in Savonlinna, as in almost everywhere in the Finnish Lutheran Church. In our large area we have 7 nice churches, 7 congregation homes, 12 cemeteries, good facilities for Christian daycare for little children a.s.o.

We have plenty of employees. 16 pastors who have services in 6 churches every Sunday. 7 diacons who help the marginilized people. 15 people who work with little children. 7 youth counselors. 2 and a half family advisors who help people who have difficulties with their marriage. 7 church musicians. And many, many secretaries, accountants, janitors, grave-diggers a.s.o. 115 alltogether, dedicated to their work.

Through these resources we are able to be present in the society. We co-operate with public schools. We have a pastor in the public hospital. Almost all burials are done by our employees, also for the non-Christians.   

Compared to your situation, Finland is a very secular society. Very few of our members attend the Mass (around 1 % in the town itself, more in village-churches). Many come in contact with the congregation only in baptisms, confirmations, burials and weddings.

The most difficult group is the young adults. Around 90 %  Finnish 15-year old kids attend an 5-8 day confirmation school camp during the summer. Many stay within the activities of the congregation till they are around 18. After that all changes rapidly. They leave the congregation work, often the whole Church and the faith. According to the resent statistical study only 15 % of young adults under 30 years of age reported that they believe in God.

One per cent of our members leave the Church every year. With them we are loosing the plentiful financial resources. We have to cut the costs. The only way to do that is to reduce the amount of employees and sell properties. But then the members get annoyed and leave the Church even faster. Then you have to sell more properties. - - .

So it is difficult to lead a congregation of 31 000 members. To do it properly one should be both a theologian and a business-manager.

 

2. True and false doctrine

I was asked by your bishop to speak about the question “How is Luther helpful for the contemporary Church?”.

A German-American theologian, professor Reinhard Hütter, quotes on the title pages of his wonderful book “Suffering Divine Things” two sentences from Luther’s sermon held in 1541:

 

"My Lord God, what a fine thing is a church, where the distinction exists between false and true doctrine. Indeed, that church is one which has true doctrine.” (WA 49, 227:9–12)

 

This is the most important thing our contemporary church can learn from Luther. If a church  follows in its life and teaching the right doctrine and abandons the false, it is a beautiful, life-giving, wonderful thing.  About which we should thank Lord, our God.

In this presentation I want to ponder the quoted Luther -text in the context of our Finnish church. My wish is that you can benefit from it, even when your situation here in ELCA is quite different.

How can I say that the difference between false and correct doctrine is so important? Today hardly anybody speaks about doctrine, at least in my church, or in the Lutheran World Federation. Also the word “herecy” doesn’t belong to the vocabulary of contemporary Lutheranism. At least I haven’t heard it. Maybe one could hear such words in places like Wisconsin synod or the Church of Ingria.

 

3. Harnack’s Thesis

This shyness about doctrine may have something to do with Adolph von Harnack’s old thesis. According to it the development of dogma was a process in which the original gospel of Christ was hellenized and almost overcome by Greek metaphysics. A rigid and lifeless system of doctrinal statements replaced the earlier lovely trust of a soul in front of its Heavenly Father. Jesus had taught such faith without doctrine. But it was gradually taken over by a non understandable system of dogmatic truths that had to be accepted by legalistic submission to authority.

Harnack thought that Luther’s main achievement was that he rediscovered the original  non-doctrinal Christian faith.

This interpretation is incorrect. Scholars have shown that the development of dogma was not a process of the hellenization of the Church. On the contrary, the development of the Trinitarian and Christological dogma saved the church from becoming a club discussing about hellenistic philosophy of religion. Luther-scholars have shown that he believed wholeheartedly the dogma of the early church.

This all is known also in Finland, at least in circles educated in systematic theology.

So, Finnish theologians and leaders of the church should know very well that the Harnacian picture about the original, non-doctrinal faith of the apostles and Luther is a gross caricature.    

 

 

4. The Decline of Doctrine in the Finnish Lutheran Church

However, the idea that true faith is a non-doctrinal inner stance of an individual has gained more and more ground in our church during the last 10 years. This is not so much in grass root -level, in the actual work of the congregations. Church going people believe what the Apostle’s Creed says and what they sing from the Lutheran Hymnal. But on the level of the whole Finnish Lutheran Church, how it’s self-understanding  is represented in the media and what “normal”, not so church-going members of it think, doctrinal relativism is gaining more and more ground each year. 

Almost every week we get to read from churchly media that the idea of right doctrine is something almost perverted. This is actually quite odd, since there hardly are in our Church people who speak about the right or wrong doctrine. But still we are reminded that doctrine is the mindset of the Pharisee in the temple, against whom Jesus set the Publican who had no doctrine, just a broken heart.

The whole idea that the church has a certain message that it should witness to people is becoming suspect; namely on the level of the public self-understanding of the Church. It has been replaced by three concepts: 1) spirituality, 2) conversation and 3) experience of the Holy. All these concepts are so open that they hardly contain any theological meaning.

I will show this with a few quotations. The first is from a massive advertisement campaign that the publicity office of the Lutheran congregations of Helsinki launched in 2007:

 

The Christian faith at its best offers you just this: a conversation in which each opinion is equally valuable.    - - When people who ponder life, its meaning and values gather together to discuss, a congregation is formed. - - A congregation has the right to decide, in what kind of a church it wants to carry on its conversation. And where these people gather, there is present the power which is called God.

I had always thought that it is the word of God that creates the church. A conversation is needed in order to understand God’s word, but certainly not such a conversation in which each opinion is equally valuable.

The second quotation is from a publication of the Research Center of the Finnish Lutheran Church (2007). It deals with new ways, in which the Kallio -congregation in Helsinki tried to reach out to young adults. One of them was painting courses.

 

The most important thing in the painting courses is the possibility to relax and to calm down. In the courses it is possible to experience also spirituality through painting. The spirituality raises from the participant him/herself and it is strongly emotional. This brings into the activities of the congregation also people who are alienated from the Church and possibly have created a personal worldview of their own. A painting course can be a way to live through spirituality as a universal human need. Young adults seem to be more interested in spirituality and silence than a ready-made package of Christian teaching. - - Painting courses help people to relax, meet challenges and ponder things that are important to them. In this way the painting courses of the Kallio -congregation carry out the task of the people’s church to promote the human conprehensive well-being.   

 

I have nothing against painting courses in a Christian congregation. Maybe we’ll try something like that in Savonlinna. I quoted the text, because it shows how the content of the message of the church erodes slowly into an all-encompassing “spirituality as a universal human need”. It comes from the person him/herself, without any “ready-made Christian teaching”. The “church of the people” (kansankirkko, Volkskirche) is there to serve this universal human capacity to feel spiritual emotions.

But are these natural emotions such that true faith can be based on them, without the specific message of the Church?

The third quotation was on a website of our Lutheran Church Government. It dealt with an extensive project called “The Holy” that lasted for four years. One of its intentions was to renew the Christian language and make it more understandable to the wider audience.

 

”The Holy is on our skin but it is unintelligible. It is close and touches us but dispite of this it cannot be grasped.”

 

I think the project failed. The reason is that the concept of “the Holy” or “the experience of the Holy” is far too vague to express the radicality through which God decided to save us when he send his Son to our misery and sin in a particular human person, Jesus of Nazareth. “The Holy” can mean almost anything. According to the church website, it is present in the infant Jesus. And it is present in the beauty of the nature. But then, even an atheist can according to the website have “an experience of the Holy”. It can be “eg. a stunningly good chocolate cookie”! And note: To “the Holy” it is referred with a non-personal pronoun “it”. God is personal: “he” or “you”.

 

“The Holy” might be a possible starting point for clarifying the content of the actual Christian faith. Or for drawing people to it. However, in order that it functioned properly, the project renewing the Christian language would have to know a lot about the relationship between natural theology and the saving faith in Christ. This subject has been discussed a lot in different theological traditions. Also Luther and the Lutheran Confessional writings have a lot to say about it. But the project “The Holy” was unaware of anything such. It seems that it was deliberately contented with a term that sounds “churchly” but is so vague that everyone can fill it with a content he or she wishes. [1]  

 

5. The Faith is vanishing

I do not know if it is the effect of this erosion of doctrinal theology on the higher level of our church or what, but in any case the faith of the Finns is rapidly vanishing. The Church Research Center does all the time extensive statistical research about the religious views of the nation. Last year it published a study called “The Challenged Church”. It shows that in four years (2007 – 2011) the amount of Finns that believe in the central Christian doctrinal truths has come down drastically. E.g. in 2007 57 % of Finns reported that they held it true or highly probable that Jesus is risen from the dead. In 2011 only 36 % held the same proposition true or highly probable. The same is true about other basic doctrinal statements, like “Jesus is the Son of God”, or “Jesus was born of a virgin”.

The publication of the Church Research Center was called “The Challenged Church”. I think it is a good title. Our church is challenged, not only because about 1 % of the members leave it every year. But also because so many of those who still belong to the Church no more believe what has been the most basic message of the Church. They want to belong to the Church for other reasons, like the diaconal work it is doing or for the cemeteries it is keeping up. The amount of people attending to the mass has come down 14 % in four years.

It has been a real surprise to me that our bishops have not “torn their cloths” and called a crisis meeting because of the results of the research. Some have expressed their worry, e.g. bishop Seppo Häkkinen of the Mikkeli -diocese our congregation belongs to. But some bishops have instead criticized the method of the research: it is focusing too much on doctrinal statements and on that, how much people participate in the activities of the church. One bishop also said that we should not be too worried: According to the study, Finns still think that diaconal work is important.  To him this means that our people are quite Lutheran, because for Luther helping the poor was theologically important.

But these are false consolations. If a person answers honestly “No” to an honest question “Do you believe that Jesus is risen from the dead?” one should not make him / her into a Christian, or even a Lutheran. Not even when she / he thinks that helping of the poor is important. Most atheist think so, too. And: if you say that you do not believe that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, then you have not only lost your faith in a doctrinal statement. You have lost your faith in Jesus Christ.

 

6. The Story about Jesus Christ as the Content of the Gospel

The right doctrine was not important for Luther for the reason that he wanted to grasp God theoretically. His idea was not to preach some dogmatic system that he thought would save the world. He wanted to present the person, Jesus Christ, who is the Savior.

In his Explanation of the Lords Prayer (1519) Luther says that Christ is the bread of our souls:

 

Our bread, Jesus Christ, nobody is capable of getting by himself, not by research, not by hearing, not by asking or by seeking. To know Christ, all doctrine is too little and all understanding too dull. Father alone has to reveal and give it to us, like John says in the 6th chapter: “Nobody can come to me, unless Father, who has sent me, draws him.” - -

 

Christ, our bread, is given to us in two ways: first through words and second through the sacrament of the altar. There is a lot to say about this. Briefly: it is a great grace that God lets to preach and to teach about Christ. - - In the sacrament Christ is received, but it would be in vain, if he is not dealt and prepared with the Word. For the Word brings Christ in to the midst of the people and makes him known to the hearts, what they would never comprehend from the sacrament.

 

What good it is for that there is bread prepared for us, if it is not given to us and we cannot eat it? It happens, just as if there was a delicious meal prepared, but there was nobody who would bring the food and offer the drinks, but one would have to nurture oneself through smell and looking. Therefore, Christ alone has to be preached and all things have to be led to him and point to him in all books: why he has come, what he has brought to us, how should we believe in him and deal with him, so that people could from the Word comprehend and know Christ and not return so facile from the mass without knowing Christ or themselves.

 

 

Such knowledge of Christ doesn’t normally happen through a formal, theoretical doctrine. As Paul Hinlicky has indicated, for Luther it happens through the “gospel-narrative”.

In his booklet “What to look and expect from the gospel. A brief advice” Luther defines the gospel as follows:

“The gospel is not and may not be anything else but a speech or story about Christ. Just as among people it happens that someone writes a book about a king or a prince and tells what he did, said or suffered during his life. Such a strory can be told in many ways; one tells it extensively, another is brief in his words. So the gospel is nothing but a chronicle, a story, a history about Christ. It tells who he is, what he did, said and suffered – a topic which one describes briefly, one other more fully, one this way and another that way. As its shortest the gospel is a speech about Christ that he is the Son of God and became a human being for us, that he died and was risen from the dead and that he is made the Lord of all. This much Paul deals with and tells in his epistles. He doesn’t mention any of the miracles or incidents which are told about in the four Gospels, still he includes in his epistles the whole gospel, correctly and plentifully. - - That’s it. The gospel is a story about Christ, the Son of God and David, who dies and was risen from the dead and made Lord. That is the gospel in nutshell.” (WA 10/1, 13:19-14:9)

 

The gospel has a specific content, Jesus Christ. I mention this truism because in our church it is sometimes forgotten. The gospel can become a formal statement about acceptance. It can become what I call the Ladies’ Magazine’s -gospel. In one of those a Finnish pastor wrote a column that said something like this: “We women face many demands in our lives:  we have to be good wifes and mothers and have successfull careers. In Lutheranism that’s called the law. But then there is also the gospel. It says: ‘You may indulge yourself.’”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Such definitions of the gospel-message emphasize that the gospel is not a demand, it is a free gift. Luther emphasizes the same in the previously quoted booklet “What to look and expect from the gospel.”

 

”You can see that the gospel is actually no book about commandments or regulations that would demand deeds from us, but it is a book of divine promises, in which God promises, offers and gives us all his possessions and all blessings in Christ. - - Therefore, when you open a Book of the Gospels and read how Christ came into this or that place and how someone is brought to him, then you should understand the sermon or the text of the gospel so that he comes to you or you are brought to him. For the preaching of the gospel is nothing else but that, that Chrst comes to us or we are brought to him. When you notice how he acts and how he helps everyone who comes to him or who is brought to him, then rest confident in that, that faith is doing the same in you and that he gives your just similar help and favour through the gospel. If you stop here and let him do good to you, i.e. if you believe that he helps and benefits you, then you really have it. Then Christ is yours, given to you as a gift. After this it is necessary that you make this into an example and act with your neighbour in a similar way, so that you are given to him as a gift and as an example.”

As known, according to Luther the law demands but the gospel gives. This formal dialectic is important but it is not nearly enough. If you say just it, you have not said the gospel; not at least according to Luther. For him the gospel has a narrative content. It tells about Jesus Christ, his identity and work done for us.

Therefore the gospel is on the other hand much more restricted than the Finnish contemporary talk about the “experience of the Holy” or the definition that “the gospel is that which redeems from burdens.” Such formal statements have no narrative content about the historical person of Jesus Christ. Therefore I would say that they are dogmatic formulations in a completely false way. Correct dogmas do not replace the narrative content of the gospel. They protect it from distortions.

Our Finnish Lutheran Church is too stuck to one single question: can the goal of the work of the Church be that non-believers would come to faith? Or must we presuppose that all members of the church are fully Christians on the basis of their baptism? The predominance of this question causes that the content of the church’s message is becoming secondary. One justification of this process goes like this: “For an ordinary, babtized  member of the Church such fancy dogmatic statements as Christ’s divinity, birth, the meaning of his death or the facticity of his resurrection are not important.”

For Luther it was very different. The gospel is a true story about Jesus. It has to do with his identity. Therefore it is not the same, whether it is told that he was “just and only human” or is it told that he was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary. For Luther, only if Jesus was true God and true man, already on the level of his being born, can he be our Savior who has died for us and overcome our sin and death in his resurrection. Therefore, the Church needs true doctrine and has to abandon the false, in order to be able to witness about Christ.

 

7. Doctrine has functional value

As said, true doctine is not important for Luther as a formal statement that would grasp God. This can be seen e.g. in that, how he deals with the doctrine of Trinity in his sermons.

Luther says that the central concepts (persona, trinitas) of the doctrine of Trinity are not found in the Bible. Therefore the word itself is not a good word. However, we have to use those words, according to Luther, in order to avoid heresies. He thought he was struggling in the same fight against heresies as the church fathers did and wanted therefore use the same weapons as they did:

 

“Hilarius, Augustin and others thought that the true God is Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, three different persons. They were forced to speak so. Even though “person” and “trinity” are not in the Bible, they still spoke that way, as Augustin said, that it is the highest article that we hold on to this article and think as it is: so let us keep it also, in order not to get into similar errors [as they faced] (WA 27, 187; see also WA 29, 385)

 

Christian faith is not about rational speculation of the divinity. If you do that, for Luther it is like trying to get into heaven through pointing it with your finger. Christianity is about grasping Christ with faith. He is not accepted only as a true proposition. He is present in the true doctrine and in the proclamation that follows it.

 

“We do not see Christ but the word which he sends us brings him secretly into the heart. Whoever hears: ‘Jesus Christ has died for us’, when I hear this, I do not see Christ, but still he comes into the heart through the word.” (WA 20, 297)

 

Because of this mystical presence of Christ in the preached word, Luther can even say that God has ordained that one has to “get the salvation from the lips of his parson”.

 So, we can say that true doctrine is not for Luther a value in itself. It is needed for functional reasons, in order not to lapse into heresies and be able to “believe, teach and confess” Christ as he should be believed, taught and confessed in the community called the Church.

 

8. Luther was no Lindbeck

This sounds much like George Lindbeck and his “cultural linguistic theory of doctrine”. The theory says that the doctrine should be understood as “second order discourse”. It doesn’t express sentences with propositional truth-value. It sets the rules which have to be followed in the church, in order to speak correct “first order” sentences of the Church’s faith.

Paul Hinlicky writes in his book “Luther and the Beloved Community” (or was it “Divine Complexity”)  that even though this practical and non-speculative approach to the dogma has some similarity with Luther’s thinking, Luther still was not a follower of the cultural linguistic theory of doctrine. For Luther the right doctrine certainly was a second order discourse that gave rules and boundaries and so protected the gospel from heresies.  However, the right doctrine can according to Luther function in this way only because it tells true sentenses about God.

This is shown e.g. in Luther’s late disputations in the University of Wittenberg. In them he seeks to clarify central christological and trinitarian doctrines and defend them against heresies that had risen.

Luther uses normal logical rules and semantical divisions in the theological disputations. According to him they can and should be used. However, one has to note carefully that in theological discourse some words “have to be baptized”. That means that they get new meanings that are somewhat different from what the same terms mean in natural, philosophical discourse.

For example, if one follows the natural, philosophical use of consepts, one could conclude:

 

Christ is a creature

therefore Christ is not the Creator.

 

This is proper reasoning according to Luther, in “philosophical language”. For philosophy  “a creature” is something immensibly different form the Creator.

However, in theology this reasoning is not sound. In theological use, when referring to Christ the word “creature” has received a new meaning that doesn’t exclude full divinity or creatorship. The reason is that in Christ God the Creator became a creature when he assumed humanity through Mary. I would say that according to Luther the concept “creature” has in its theological use received some connotations that are different from the connotations that the concept “creature” has in normal, philosopical language.[2]

According to Luther you can reach a reliable conclusion about theological propositions, whether they are correct or incorrect; whether they are heretical or represent the object they are meant to represent, Christ. Therefore, its is possible that there is “a fine thing”, “a church, where the distinction exists between false and true doctrine.”

 

9. Doctrine is a matter of the spiritual regiment

For Luther, the difference between the true doctrine and false doctrines meant that the church must be theologically alert.

 

“We are not to snore. Our rest is in the coming kingdom, here we have to fight, as long as we live, in order that we won’t ‘walk in the counsel of the ungodly, in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of the scornful’ [Ps. 1:1]    

 

This was a theological task. Luther emphasized that it doesn’t belong to the “worldly regiment” but to the “spiritual regiment”, the Church.

There are many reasons for keeping the division between the “wordly regiment” and the “spiritual regiment” in tact. They are certainly known to you as good Lutherans. I just mention one of the reasons here, one that is not so often mentioned.

It is the change of the meanings of words that happens when they are taken into theological use. According to Luther, if one doesn’t understand this “baptism of the words” that happens in theological discourse, and uses the words as they are used in the “wordly regiment” one makes totally wrong conculsions in theological syllogisms, even when one starts from correct propositions and uses correct logic.

I give an example from a Finnish study done by the Research Center of the Lutheran Church a couple of years ago. It was a statistical study about the theological views of Finnish Lutheran pastors. The result was that so and so many present of us belonged to a group called “loosely bound to the doctrine of the Church” and so and so many prosent belonged to two other groups that were “modestly bound” and a third group that believed everything the Church officially teaches.

In the “loosely bound” group there was a pastor that was called Mikko. One of the questions the pastors had to answer was whether they believed that Christ was born of Virgin Mary. Mikko answered that he did not think so. Christ was probably not born of Virgin Mary. And the reason was that Christ is confessed to be “a true man”. And “true men are not born of virgins”, Mikko concluded.

A famous Finnish professor of the New Testament took up this case in a lecture he gave in a synodal meeting of one of our dioceses, just like this meeting here. The professor said that Mikko was an example of a good, honest pastor, that “had come to a small place in his life”. And the professor wished that there would be more pastors like him in our Church.

This shows that many prominent people of our church think that traditional Christology  is nonsense. And this can be taught in a synodal meeting. On the other hand “born of the virgin Mary” is a part of our official church doctrine. One tends to ask whether we have any hope of becoming a church where there is a difference between false and true doctrine.

Luther would propably say that of course we have. However, we would need to clarify what theological discourse is about. And we would need to have people who understand about theology and let them do the theological reasoning. We should not let into synodal meetings professors that do not know that in theology it is totally legitimate to say and believe both: 1) that Christ was born of Virgin Mary and 2) at the same time Christ is a true man.

A person who does doctrinal reasoning in the Church, should understand, why such a doctrine as “was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary” is soteriologically important. It expresses the saving radicality of God’s coming down to us.

Luther thought that we could and should start our faith “von unten”, from down below, from the infant Jesus that sucks the breast of his mother Mary. This same Christ is already on the level of “the flesh”, on the level of his being corporally born from his mother, inseparably both human and divine.  This is the reason that in him we can find true God, down below, without having to look for him anywhere else. Luther would say that pastor Mikko is not only dogmatically weak. He also lacks from his faith a very central spiritual truth that is the basis of his relationship with God and his Church. If one hasn’t grasped this, one should not participate in serious doctrinal discussion of the Church.

 

9.  About The Forums of Doctrinal Discussions

Is this too restrictive, too anti-democratic? No, at least not when you think another forum where doctrinal discussions are carried out, namely the ecumenical discussions.

In them a method of systematic theological analysis is used. Concepts and sentences are clarified and compared and their argumentation and basis of authority is tested; quite the same what Luther did in the theological discussions of his time.

In ecumenical discussion the forum is restricted. When the results of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification were reached, one of the presuppositions was a common hermeneutical starting point. It was the classical trinitarian and christological dogma. It was such that theological views like that of pastor Mikko or the previously mentioned professor of the New Testament were not taken into consideration at all.

Why? Because the basic rules of the game were set, everyone knew them and obeyed them quite naturally. This was possible because churches have so much in common in their tradition.

I have realized this myself in ecumenical discussions with the Methodists and the Orthodox. In them we had very little disagreements. At least when compared with the profound disagreements within my own Lutheran church.

Why can’t we play with these ecumenical rules in the theological discussions inside our own Finnish Lutheran Church?   Why do we tolerate in our “internal ecumenics” presuppositions that would be totally unacceptable in discussions that we carry on with the Roman Catholics or the Anglicans or the Methodist or the Orthodox?

Because in the theological discussion within our own denomination the forum is as wide as the whole society. There is no common theological ground. In Finland the reason for this is the idea of the “Peoples Church”. Every baptized member has to have the right to express his or her theological ideas. And they have to be taken into consideration. [3]

One reason is the media. Much of the public self understanding of our Church is formed inofficially by the reporters. These reporters don’t usually have much theological understanding. Still almost anyone of them is capable of saying what is acceptable and civilized Christianity and what is not. And then there are the discussion forums of the internet - -  .

Luther would say that there is no difference between the “wordly regiment” and the “spiritual regiment” within the practical doctrinal discourse of our Church. There is no difference between the “hermeneutical horizon” of the Church and of the society.

 

10. We can’t save even the remnants of the Finnish “Peoples’ Church” without the right doctrine.

In Finland this is not so much a matter of direct interference of the state with the matters of the church. Finland passed relatively peacefully from Roman Catholic era to Lutheranism. The episcopate was preserved intact, even when the bishops lost their bond with Rome and were nominated by the Swedish kings. Still the Church was quite free to teach and define its own doctrine.

In 1809 the independence of the Finnish Lutheran church from the state became grater than in Sweden in. The reason was that Russia took over Finland from Sweden. After that the head of the state, the Tsar, was no longer the head of the Lutheran church, since he was Orthodox. However, he was a good ruler and respected the independence of the Lutheran church.

I do not know, whether this is one of the reasons for the fact that all the five major Finnish revival movements have stayed within the Lutheran church. This is quite different from the pietist movements in other Nordic countries. To me this tells also that the Finnish Lutheran Church has been able to keep the right doctrine in practice. There have been difficulties between the official Church and the revival movements. But after all, the vast majority of the Finnish believers have believed that the Lutheran Church has the right, saving doctrine and sacraments.

This has been possible because the society has been quite homogenous. Now this is rapidly changing. The Finns have realized that there is more than one or two ways to be religious.

The theological way in which the Finnish Lutheran Church has responded to this was dealt with in the beginning. It is the way the Helsinki congregations’ publicity office used in its campaign in 2007:

 

The Christian faith at its best offers you just this: a conversation in which each opinion is equally valuable.    - - When people who ponder life, its meaning and values gather together to discuss, a congregation is formed. - -

 

But as said, this is a wrong way. It makes it difficult for us as a church to know what we are doing. It blurs our public message.

The right way to deal with the multitude of the religious forums within the society would be to admit that it is a fact. To admit that the idea of a “Peoples’ church” with more than 50 % of the population as members is dated. We can’t save the “Peoples’ church” by loosening the doctrinal standards of what we publicly “believe and teach and confess”. If we try to save it by making our message the vague “experience of the Holy” or the “spirituality as a universal human need” we loose our being as Christ’s body. This is a prize too high to pay. If we pay it, we will anyhow loose the church tax payers. For Christ himself said that if salt looses its saltiness, it is good for nothing and people throw it to the ground and trample it with their feet.

We have to admit that as a church we are in the same situation as the ancient church. It needed its creeds, its regula fidei and its theological alertness in order to stay true to the message of Christ.

Luther can help us in many ways in our situation.

 

13. How could Luther help?

 

I mention four ways by repeating the previously said:

1) There is a difference between the correct doctrine and a false doctrine. It is important to keep this difference in practise, in all kinds of challenges the church meets. Not in order to be right and be able to judge others. But in order to teach correctly the gospel whose content is our Saviour, Christ himself.  This is the only way to reach out to the people and keep them as members, because this is the only way to give them the “bread of the soul”. No one stays as a member of a church whose message is vague in order to fit everyone.

2)This difference between correct and false doctrine  can be known and clarified through theological discussion. But to be able to do this, we need to establish the church as a “spiritual regiment” that has different premises, a different goal and somewhat different argumentative rules and bases of authority than the society around us (the “wordly regiment”).

This would need that the Finnish Lutheran episcopate becomes theologically more alert and courageous. Even when the public opinion doesn’t like anyone who teaches anything authoritative, at least not anything that compromises the “religious autonomy of the modern subjectivity”.

Luther teaches us this, not through his ability to create a theologically strong magisterium, but through his failure to do so.

3) Theological truths are not only internal to the Church. They are not only “culture” or “religion” that apply to the community that wants to be Christian and speak the “Christian language”. The dogmatic truths express who God, the Creator off all, is and what he has done for the whole world through his saving work in Christ. The Church is there because God continues through it his saving work for the whole Church.

4)Therefore, doctrinal truths and theological language have also a propositional and cognitive truth-value. Luther has many very helpful insights that could help us to understand how this is possible: why and how can we as humans speak about God, sentences that are true? I think this would be a very important theological theme for the contemporary church: why and how can simple, weak human, creaturely words grasp the Creator of all and inform others about the saving truth in him.

I haven’t had time to discuss this last topic in this paper. If I would have time and the resources I would try to write a handbook for the pastors and teachers of the gospel about the possibility of God-talk. At least in Finland the need is urging. Again and again we have to read from different church -media that there are too many words in churches; that we should not think we can speak about God himself;  or that silence is a better way of reaching God than words.

Luther would have very much to say to all this. He would probably start from the idea that God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth is the basis for the possibility of true God-talk.

However, Luther is not everything that is needed. I would include in my handbook also a section about the Roman Catholic theory of analogical speaking of God, a section about Christian apologetics and a



[1]Some of the members of the Church have taken seriously this teaching about “the Holy”. A former collegue of mine who works as a youth-counsellor in a near-by Lutheran congregation told me the following episode a few years ago: A mother came to him and blamed him of telling her son that ice-hockey is sin. The poor guy told the mother that he had not taught anything such. He had said that ice-hockey can be sin if it becomes more important than God. The mother replied: “But the official Church teaches that the things we value the most are the Holy!”

[2] For details, see Hinlicky 2010?, xx and Graham Wood, Luther as Nominalist. Helsinki 199?

[3] This weird idea was expressed even in an official document of our Church. It is from year 2009 and concerns the communication strategy of our Church. It says: “Every member of the Church has the right to be heard and to express his / her thoughts or experiences of faith – also without theological training and mastering of the terms. This everyone’s right  of the member of the Lutheran Church is based on the priesthood all believers that has been received in baptism.”

 

In the light of the Lutheran theology of baptism this sounds strange. According to the rite of baptism of our Church the people present in the ritus confess aloud the Apostles’ Creed. After that the pastor says: “Into this faith and into the ownership of all its promises we baptize this child.” Accordingly, at least I would say, the “everyones’ right” received in baptism concerns the right to participate in the deeds and promises of God expressed in the common faith of the Church – not the right to get one’s own religious thoughts taken into consideration  when the doctrinal content of the message of the church is discussed.  But so it is only in theoretical and official level – and in the ecumenical discussions with other churches. But internally, inside the public self- understanding of our church “The roof is high and the walls are wide” as a common, unofficial definition of the People’s Church goes. They are so wide that even confessing atheists have an “experience of the Holy” and are joyfully welcomed as members of the Church, to participate in the conversation that creates the congregation in which each opinion is equally important.