Friday Links

–Today is the Feast of the Annunciation; here are some thoughts on that. BLS also has one of her outstanding musical offerings for the day.

–John Piper, theological nihilist?

–Catholics are “more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than members of any other Christian tradition and Americans overall.”

–How to live without a mobile phone.

–A proposal for a vegan-omnivore alliance against factory farms. Related: Mark Bittman on prospects for laws protecting farm animals.

–A semi-defense of B.R. Myers’ anti-foodie polemic.

–On the anniversary of Bishop Oscar Romero’s assassination.

–Washington, D.C.’s black majority slips away. Related: the percentage of the nation’s black population living in the South has hit its highest point in fifty years.

–An interesting blog I recently discovered: Marginal Utility, hosted at PopMatters; it covers the culture of work and technology from a leftish perspective.

–Why is media coverage of Africa so unrelentingly negative?

–The Lutheran theology journal Dialog currently has its Spring 2011 issue available free online; it includes some reflections on Carl Braaten’s recently released memoir, which apparently (and not surprisingly) has some harsh words for the ELCA. Added later: Here’s another take on the Braaten autobiography from last year.

–Let the D.C. beer renaissance begin.

Added even later: Gateways to Geekery: Kurt Vonnegut.

Sexuality, status confessionis, and the ELCA

I see that Carl Braaten has issued yet another jeremiad against the ELCA. This one is in response to the recently-issued draft social statement on sexuality and the accompanying recommendations. There’s not much new there, with one important exception. Braaten has now decided that the controversy over the full inclusion of LGBT people in the church’s life (he opposes it) should be elevated to a status confessionis issue, meaning that the integrity of the Gospel itself is at stake. Gospel and law cannot, in his view, be separated in this case.

Braaten goes so far as to compare the present situation to the churches’ position vis-a-vis Nazi Germany and apartheid-era South Africa and, bizarrely, even openly argues against showing charity or respect to those with whom he disagrees. This goes from preposterous to grotesque when one recalls how LGBT people were in fact treated under those regimes, even more so when one considers the emerging anti-gay fascism in Nigeria, which is happening in the name of God’s law and with the full backing of conservative Anglican archbishop Peter Akinola. If anything, why isn’t the issue deserving of status confessionis whether the Christian churches are going to recognize the full humanity of all of God’s children?

The intractability of this argument suggests, to me, that identifying a particular stance on a moral issue with the Gospel itself is generally ill-advised. For example, I feel very strongly that animals shouldn’t be subjected to the kinds of horrors routinely inflicted on them in factory farms. Should I now declare this issue to have status confessionis and anathematize anyone not prepared to make stopping it a priority for the church? Other people feel very strongly that pacifism is constitutive of the Gospel. You can’t wave away moral disagreement between serious, thoughtful people simply be asserting that the Gospel is at stake. The whole point is that people who are equally committed to the Gospel disagree.

Moreover, these controversies aren’t a result of “the culture” somehow insidiously infecting a pristine “church” as though these were two hermetically-sealed realms. They arise from within the church, as a result of the experience and reflections of people who are Christians and who are immersed in and shaped by their culture. This leads to a rather messy situation which can make a lot of people uncomfortable, especially when they want the church to take clear, unequivocal moral stands. Is that why Braaten continues to pine for a “high” ecclessiology with a (quasi?)Catholic magisterium that will cut through the debate and lay down the law in the ELCA?

More from the ATR archives: Moral diversity in the church

Items of interest from the JLE

From this month’s Journal of Lutheran Ethics:

First, an article on the neglect of spiritual practices in the ELCA and how, if the church doesn’t offer pathways to intimacy with God, people will seek them elsewhere. I can definitely sympathize with this. As someone who (re)turned to Christian faith as a young(ish) adult I was expecting to be drilled in spiritual practices and other ways of deepening my faith. Alas, most of the ELCA congregations I’ve been associated with have scarcely mentioned, much less inculcated, intentional pracitces of prayer, fasting, spiritual reading and so on.

That’s one of the reasons I’ll always be grateful for my year attending the Church of the Advent, an Anglo-Catholic parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. I was exposed to a very sacramental form of worship, the daily office, the rosary, and other spiritual practices that I’ve gotten a lot of nourishment from. Maybe as part of our full communion agreement with the Episcopal Church Lutherans will learn to be freer with borrowing form our Episcopal brothers and sisters, who seem to have preserved more of our shared heritage in this area from the undivided Western church.

Second, a response from the former chaplain of Gustavus Adolphus College to Carl Braaten’s article from a couple of months ago (which I blogged on at some length here). This piece seeks to go beyond natural law and understand marriage, not as something that exists for purposes extrinsic to itself, but as a community that exists for its own sake as a union of two selves. I’m not sure I’d go all the way with this: doesn’t marriage, in Christian perspective, exist at least in part for the upbuilding of the community? But this in no way excludes same-sex couples, who manifestly do contribute to the upbuilding of communities of which they’re a part. If Christian marriage is partly a “school of sanctification,” then it seems to me that a Christian marriage should have an inherently “ecstatic” direction – the partners should be drawn out of themselves and give life to others. And this can have a variety of manifestations, including (but not limited to) the begetting and rearing of children.

Natural law, homosexuality and the ELCA

Carl Braaten has published a spirited defense of natural law ethics at the Journal of Lutheran Ethics with which I’m in substantial agreement. I think that if natural law ethics didn’t exist we’d have to invent it, and that people who claim to be deriving their ethics solely from uniquely Christian principles have usually smuggled covert premises in from other sources. So, best to be above board about the whole thing.

However, toward the end of his article Braaten goes on what can only be characterized as a tirade about homosexuality, and this makes me think that he’s working with a defective notion of natural law. Now, Carl Braaten has undoubtedly forgotten more about theology than I’ll ever know, so I enter here with trepidation, but his account of the ethical issue here strikes me as tendentious and inaccurate.

Braaten writes:

We know by reason what the natural law tells us — the sexual organs are designed for certain functions. God made two kinds of humans, “male and female created he them.” (Gen. 1: 27) By the light of reason human beings the world over, since the dawn of hu­man civilization and across all cultures, have known that the male and female organs are made for different functions. Humans know what they are; they are free to act in accordance with them or to act in opposition to them. The organs match. What is so difficult to understand about that? Humans learn these things by reason and nature; no books on anatomy, psychology, or sociology are needed.

Nor do people first learn what the sexual organs are for from the Bible. Scholars say there are seven explicit passages in the Bible that condemn homosexual acts as con­trary to the will of God. This is supposed to settle the matter for a church that claims its teachings are derived from Scripture. But for many Christians this does not settle the matter. Why not? The answer is that they don’t believe what the natural law, transpar­ent to reason, tells us about human sexuality. In my view the biblical strictures against homosexual acts are true not because they are in the Bible; they are in the Bible be­cause they are true. They truly recapitulate God’s creative design of human bodies. The law of creation written into the nature of things is the antecedent bedrock of the natural moral law, knowable by human reason and conscience.

The problem with this passage is that both the argument from reason and the argument from Scripture elide crucial factors. Let’s start with the argument from reason. It’s undoubtedly true that human sexual organs have particular functions. But does it follow straight away (pardon the pun) that human beings must always use their sexual organs in those particular ways, or that it’s never permissible for them to be used in any other way? Anyone who thinks that it’s morally ok to have sex for non-procreative reasons is conceding that it’s permissible to use one’s sex organs in a way that doesn’t constitute their primary function.

But this doesn’t get at the deeper issue. What gives natural law ethics its traction isn’t that it asks what the purpose of bodily organs are. It functions as an ethic because it asks: what is good for human beings (and the rest of creation)? To ask what the functions of sexual organs are is only part of the broader question of what is good for human beings. To say that organs function in a certain way and so must (only) be used in this way is actually to revert to a rather crude version of divine command ethics – God created them that way, so that’s the way you have to use them, and don’t bother asking why.

If we do ask why, however, we see that human sexuality functions to further the good of human beings, individually and as members of a series of ever-widening communities. But then any particular sex act is necessarily subordinate, in terms of moral evaluation, to this broader notion of what is good. And determining what this broader good is requires the use of our reason and powers of observation to understand what kind of life is good for human persons. Non-procreative sex was long held by the Christian tradition to be immoral, but seen in the broader perspective of what’s good for individuals, communities, societies, and creation as a whole, we can see reasons why it can be moral.

Braaten assumes that because sexual organs are made to function a certain way that they can therefore only be used that way, morally speaking. But if we can simply read our ethics off of nature in this way, what do we do with the fact that there are people who find themselves exclusively attracted to members of the same sex? They’re just as much a part of “nature” as the particular configuration of human sexual organs, at least in the sense of being something naturally occurring (if not statistically “normal”). If what is given is the standard for what is right, how do we decide between two seemingly incompatible natural givens?

What a more “holistic” natural law ethics needs to ask, it seems to me, is this: Given that gay people exist, what is good for them (and the communities of which they are a part) and how should their sexuality be ordered toward those distinctively human goods that we are all called to realize? The fundamental question then, is not: what are sexual organs for, but what are people for? As Keith Ward puts it “[t]he physical and biological structures of the natural world must always be subordinated, in morality, to the realization of those universal goods which all free agents have good reason to want” (“Christian Ethics” in Keeping the Faith: Essays to Mark the Centenary of Lux Mundi, Geoffrey Wainwright, ed., p. 232). The kinds of goods that free personal beings are naturally oriented toward realizing take moral precedence over the biological processes that constitute the substratum of those persons.

Again, this is something that can only be answered by reason and experience. Some conservatives have contended that gay sex is intrinsically ordered toward narcissism or other anti-social tendencies, which is at least the right kind of argument, since it claims that homosexuality is inherently opposed to human flourishing. But it simply doesn’t measure up to empirical reality. Gay people’s sexuality is capable of contributing to the building up of relationships that exhibit all the virtues that straight ones do and in my view the onus is on those who would deny this fact.

Regarding the argument from Scripture, Braaten surely knows that there is widespread disagreement not so much about whether the Bible condemns certain same-sex acts, but whether the kinds of monogamous faithful relationships exhibited by many gay people fall under that condemnation. Again, the question can’t be settled simply be saying that the Bible forbids x until we ask further why does it condemn x? What underlying reason is there for a given prohibition and does it apply to this particular case?

Natural law ethics is animated by the idea that creation is rational and that it mirrors, if imperfectly, the mind of God. A corollary of this is that God’s commands aren’t inscrutable demands, but are intended to guide us toward our ultimate good and are, in principle, transparent to our understanding. To understand what that good is requires the exercise of our own reason, which partakes, at least in some small way, of the Divine Reason. This doesn’t mean that our reason is perfect or that it doesn’t require additional illumination from God, but there is an underlying rationality to the moral principles that arise out of the fact that we have been created in a particular way.

Braaten seems angry that the ELCA should even take up this issue, since the right answer is so obvious (to him). But it’s only obvious (if at all) if one adopts the biological reductionism that he (erroneously in my view) identifies with natural law ethics. A more holistic view sees biology in service to the realization of distinctly human goods and, as such, doesn’t give it the last word in determining what is right. Straight people who think of themselves as safely “in” the charmed circle of being approved by God might consider what it would mean to adopt this biologistic ethic in all its rigor.

September reading notes

Well, okay, the month isn’t over yet, but it sure is flying.

Earlier I mentioned I was still working on Monbiot’s Heat. Well, I still am. Just haven’t been in the mood to read it. ‘Nuff said.

Finished Jame’s Alison’s Raising Abel. I stand by my earlier claim that, while Alison has some absolutely brilliant insights, I don’t think his Girardian analysis does justice to the entirety of the biblical witness. I also feel like he has an allergy to metaphysics and is forced to account for everything Christ does for us in sheerly psychological terms, which seems reductionistic to me.

Picked up a copy of Gerhard Forde’s Justification by Faith – A Matter of Death and Life for a quarter at a church yard sale. This is vintage Forde – pithy, direct and committed above all to the Reformation insight of justification by faith. Forde stresses the language of death and resurrection as a necessary complement to the more forensic “legal” language we often use to talk about justification. I also read Carl Braaten’s Justification: The Article by Which the Church Stands or Falls wherein Braaten makes a surprisingly (to me, anyway) robust defense of justification by faith alone. I say surprisingly because of what appeared to me to be his move to a more “catholic” position in recent years. Taken together these two books provide a good picture of what commitment to the principles of the Reformation can look like in the contemporary theological and ecumenical scene.

Right now I’m working on Reza Aslan’s No god but God, which is both a history of Islam and an argument for a more pluralistic understanding of Islam. Extremely informative and well-written, though at times one does get the feeling that Aslan is whitewashing a bit. He essentially shrugs off Muhammad’s military conquests with “that’s the way things were done then” and gives a rather idyllic picture of Christian and Jewish minorities under Islamic rule. Still, a very interesting book and I’m looking forward to seeing where he goes with his argument for why Islamic militants have Islam wrong.

Questions for Lutherans (and others)

Thomas at Without Authority posted recently on the raison d’etre of Protestant denominations. He raised the idea, favored by Lutheran theologians like Jenson and Braaten that Lutheranism is, in essence, a reforming movement within the church catholic.

My question, especially to Lutheran readers, is this: Do you still regard the gospel of justification by faith as the “article by which the church stands or falls”? If so, how do you understand that? And do you see this being lived out in your church (or the church at large)?

I ask because if the purpose of Lutheranism, as a reforming movement, is to share this insight with the rest of the church, I am by no means convinced that this is what most Lutheran churches are doing, or see themselves doing. And if they’re not, what is the justification (pardon the pun) for their existence? (I should note that I’m speaking here mostly about ELCA churches because those are the ones I’m familiar with, but I’d also be interested in hearing the observations of LCMS or other Lutheran readers.)

Justification and liberation

Since the previous post on Braaten’s soteriology made it sound like he had a completely negative view of Liberation Theology, I thought I’d try to set out the position he sketches in his chapter on the Two Kingdoms principle, which tries to put liberation in the context of eschatology and the coming Kingdom of God.

The “Two Kingdoms” view has pretty bad press outside (and even within) Lutheran circles. In distorted forms it seems to bifurcate life into a purely secular realm of politics, economics, and society and a “spiritual” realm of faith. This has led some to charge the Two Kingdoms view with lending support to political quietism in the face of tyranny and oppression.

Such a perspective seems hard to square with the life of Luther, who had no compunctions against holding political rulers accountable to the standards of God’s justice (obviously Luther’s judgment wasn’t always spot on in this area, but he certainly didn’t take the view that “religion” had no right to influence political life). However, some later Lutherans do seem to have adopted the kind of political quietism or support of the status quo in the name of the “Two Kingdoms” doctrine.

Braaten’s goal isn’t to defend everything that has sailed under the Two Kingdoms flag, but to identify the permanent insight expressed by this concept. This has two essential parts. The first is that there are two powers at work in the world, God and Satan. Luther’s theology was very dualistic in the sense that he saw the world as the theater of the great struggle between God and the Devil, even though there was never any doubt about the ultimate outcome. “The broad backdrop of the gospel picture of Jesus as the Christ features the power of God against the powers of evil at work in the whole of creation. Jesus brings the power of God’s rule into history, confronts the demonic forces, and wins a victory which spells ultimate freedom for human beings” (p. 133).

So, God is at work in the world to overcome all the powers of darkness that threaten human beings. However, there is another distinction to be made in the way that God is at work in the world. Luther used the expression of the “two hands” of God to point to these two ways in which God works in the world for the good of human creatures:

The “left hand of God” is a formula meaning that God is universally at work in human life through structures and principles commonly operative in political, economic, and cultural institutions that affect the life of all. The struggle for human rights occurs within this realm of divine activity. (pp. 133-34)

The “Right hand of God,” however, refers to the work of the Gospel properly speaking:

[N]o matter how much peace and justice and liberty are experienced in these common structures of life, they do not mediate “the one thing needful.” This is the function of the gospel of God in Jesus Christ, the work of the “right hand of God.” The scandal of the gospel is that salvation is a sheer gift of grace, given freely by God for Christ’s sake and received through faith alone. It is meritorious for a society to grant and guarantee to all its citizens the basic human rights, but high marks in this area do not translate into the righteousness that counts before God in the absolute dimension. (p. 134)

The point here isn’t that there are two spheres of life somehow cut off from one another, but that there are two dimensions to God’s work:

Historical liberation and eternal salvation are not one and the same thing. They should not be equated. The gospel is not one of the truths we hold to be self-evident; it is not an inalienable right which the best government in the world can do anything about. There are many people fighting valiantly on the frontline of legitimate liberation movements who are not in the least animated by the gospel. The hope for liberation is burning in the hearts of millions of little people struggling to free themselves from conditions of poverty and tyranny. When they win this freedom, should they be so fortunate, they have not automatically therewith gained the freedom for which Christ has set us free (Gal. 5:1). This is the barest minimum of what we intend to convey by the two-kingdoms perspective. (pp. 134-5)

The point here is simple: political liberation, freedom from oppression and poverty, and more just social structures are all things that the Spirit of God is at work to bring about, but they aren’t the whole content of what we mean by the gospel. Even if a perfectly just society were to be realized, human beings would still be oppressed by sin, guilt, anxiety, disease, old age, and death. The gospel is the power to defeat these “last enemies.” I don’t know enough about Liberation Theology to know if it’s accurate to say that some liberation theologians have tended to reduce the gospel to political liberation only. However, it does seem to me that such a reduction has been a temptation of liberal Protestant theology in North America.

But it still may seem like this account of God’s work in the world is excessively dualistic. Is there some principle that unites both dimensions of the divine work? Braaten thinks that such a principle is found in the “eschatological horizon” of God’s coming kingdom:

The realm of creation and the realm of redemption share the same eschatological future horizon. The doctrines of creation and law are linked to the eschatological goal of the world to which the church points in its message of the coming kingdom. The theme of eschatology relates not only to the order of salvation (ordo salutis) but also to the fact and future of ongoing creation. The orders of creation are not autonomous; there is an eschatological consummation (apokatastasis ton panton) of all things previewed and preenacted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ of God. (p. 135)

The order of creation and the order of redemption are thus united in the single future they share as aspects of the coming kingdom:

The church’s eschatological message thus combines the two dimensions of hope: hope for the poor and hope for sinners. The poor clamor for justice and sinners cry for justification. It is intolerable for the church to separate these concerns. The church is to take the message of the kingdom into the real world where the demons are running riot and where the hand of God is stirring the cauldron of secular existence in all its political, economic, and social dimensions. We must strive for a comprehensive understanding of the kingdom of God which embraces two dimensions at the same time. The vertical dimension of the gospel mediates an encounter with the absolute transcendence of God; the horizontal dimension of the coming kingdom speaks of the encounter with Christ in the person of our needy neighbor. The depth dimension reveals our human condition of sin and estrangement; the breadth dimension tangles with the powers of evil on the plane of everyday historical existence. The personal dimension lifts up each individual as infinitely valuable in the sight of God; the political dimension looks to the quality of justice and liberty that prevails in the land. The symbol of the kingdom of God is multidimensional, uniting these vertical and personal dimensions with horizontal and political dimensions of the coming kingdom. (pp. 135-6)

Because liberation and justification are two aspects of the same coming kingdom, it’s imperative for Christians to bring the gospel to bear on the struggle for greater justice between people:

The love of God for Christ’s sake and the commitment to human rights for the sake of humanity are joined in the picture of what God is doing for the world in the history of Jesus Christ. The one God involved in the struggle for human liberation from hunger, misery, oppression, ignorance, and all the powers of sin and evil is none other than the Father of Jesus Christ who is reconciling the whole world to himself. The signs of liberation are anticipations of the total salvation the world is promised in Christ. (p. 137)

While Braaten clearly wants to keep God’s work of justification as the center of the gospel from which all else radiates, political liberation finds its place as a way in which we anticipate God’s coming kingdom and participate in God’s work of releasing human beings from the powers that oppress them. I think this is definitely a strength of Braaten’s position that it maintains the distinction between these two dimensions while keeping them related to God’s future for the world. What do readers think?

Hopeful Christocentric universalism

I’ve been re-reading Carl Braaten’s Principles of Lutheran Theology – it’s really a good read and a great encapsulation of some classic Lutheran themes.

One of the best chapters is the one on The Christocentric Principle. Here Braaten discusses the work of Christ and its implications.

He recognizes that soteriology has fallen on hard times, especially with a shift from an otherworldly to a more this-wordly focus. Liberation and other political theologies have taken their cue from the story of the Hebrews in the OT, especially the Exodus, as the paradigmatic act of God’s liberation for his people.

However valid this insight might be, Braaten thinks that it is at best a partial account of salvation and shortchanges the gospel. Liberation, understood as political praxis has two major shortcomings: it shifts the burden of providing salvation from God to human beings. It is at best synergisitc and at wost Pelagian. Secondly, it doesn’t sufficiently reckon with the enemies of human life and flourishing that go beyond the structural injustice and political oppression. “[F]or all the liberating praxis in history can do nothing to produce love and freedom and can do nothing about human bondage to sin and death” (p. 78).

Instead, Braaten contends, Christians need to hold on to the cosmic and universal signficance of Jesus. “The most important notion, common to preaching, piety, and dogmatics, is that ‘Christ died for us.’ This is the sin qua non of every doctrine of atonement.”

He goes on to say:

In dying for us, Jesus did not die instead of us, for we all still have to die. In suffering for us, he did not suffer instead of us, for we all have to suffer. Yet he represents us before God. He speaks for us when we are silenced by death. He claims that each one of us is unique, indispensable, and absolutely irreplaceable even though the world treats us as expendable and exchangeable and as mere statistical units. Here we have the solid ground of personal identity free of charge, while people are madly searching for security in a supermarket full of answers with high price tags. In this world in which the value of individual human beings is becoming infinitesimally low, Jesus is our representative in his life and in his vicarious death and in his victorious resurrection.

Faith is an act of letting Jesus be our representative. Because he died for us, we never die alone without representation, without hope for personal identity beyond the grave. We will never have to die alone on a Godforsaken hill outside the gate. We can die in a communion of his love, in the assurance of the forgiveness of sins, with undying hope for resurrectoin and eternal life. Because Jesus died the death of the sinner as the sinless one, assuming our lot by his love, he can be our representative. Because he died the death under the law as the man of love, full of life to share and taking time for others, he can be our representative. He can be our representative because, in being raised from the dead, he was approved by God as having the right credentials to be the ambassador of the human race. (pp. 72-3)

This seems similar to what some theologians have described as “inclusive substitution.” Jesus doesn’t die instead of us so much as he enters into our condition and transforms it. We still have to die, but death has been transformed; it need no longer be a source of terror and hopelessness.

Braaten goes on to discuss the universal implications of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. He acknowledges that Christians have to take account of the other great religions of the world in a way that wasn’t always clear to Christians in the past. However, he also doesn’t think that Christians can sacrifice the uniqueness of Jesus as God’s “only saving bridge to the world.”

He identifies two unsatisfactory positions about salvation. There’s the old-fashioned view which requires as a condition of salvation that one be a member of the Church in good standing (the traditional Catholic view) or that one have explicit faith in Jesus (the conservative Protestant view). Both of these variations consign possibly the majority of the human race to eternal damnation by God’s sovereign decree. Then there’s the modern pluralism that sees all the great religions of the world as equally valid means of attaining salvation (the position of someone like John Hick).

Braaten points out that the first view, held by traditionalist Catholics and conservative Protestants has already been forced to create various loopholes (for infants, virtuous pagans, the Old Testament patriarchs, etc.) and thus isn’t as rigorous as it first appears.

The second view frankly sacrifices the universal significance of Jesus, treating him essentially as one potential savior among many. This is hardly compatible with the main thrust of the New Testament witness, which sees Jesus not simply as the savior of a small band of followers, but as the cosmic Christ and Lord of all.

Parenthetically, it’s always seemed to me that the “hard pluralist” position claims to know a lot more about the divine than seems to be justified. If particular religious traditions are relativized in their truth claims, on what grounds does the pluralist claim to know that God/the divine can be reached by any of these channels? It seems to me, rather, that Christian assurance of God’s good will is rooted firmly in the revelation of God in Jesus, which requires the kind of robust Christology and doctrine of the Atonement that is anathema to pluralists.

In Braaten’s view, a Christian hope for the salvation for all people has to be firmly rooted in the person and work of Christ. “The Christian hope for salvation, whether for the believing few or the unbelieving many, is grounded in the person and meaning of Christ alone–not in the potential of the world’s religions to save or in the moral seriousness of humanists and people of goodwill or even in the good works of pious Christians and church people, who perhaps are compulsively believing too many things and going to church more than is good for them[!]” (p. 82).

It’s important to note, I think, that Braaten is also ruling out what we might call the modern “inclusive” Christian view that wants to hold on to the uniqueness of Jesus, but nevertheless holds that everyone who “does their best” can be saved. This ends up being semi-Pelagian at best. If all I need to do is the best I can, what need is there for a savior in the first place? This is precisely the attitude that Luther railed against – the view that God would give his grace to those who “do what is in them.”

Lutherans have traditionally not followed Calvinists in holding to double predestination and limited atonement. However, there is an unresolved tension there in that the implication of monergism (human beings don’t contribute to their salvation; all is a gift from God) and unlimited atonement would seem to be some form of universalism. After all, if Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the sins of all, and we can do nothing to secure that salvation for ourselves, and God doesn’t predestine to reprobation, then it seems like all will be saved.

The traditional response has been to say that God predestines for salvation but not perdition. But it’s far from clear that this is more than a verbal distinction. What we might say, though, is that the mysteries of the divine will remain permanently inscutable to us, at least conernign these matters.

Braaten writes:

Will, then, all people be saved in the end? We do not already know the answer. The final answer is stored up in the mystery of God’s own future. All he has let us know in advance is that he will judge the world according to the measure of his grace and love made known in Jesus Christ, which is ultimately greater than the fierceness of his wrath or the hideousness of our sin. (p. 84)

This has always seemed to me like the best answer. We hope that all will be saved, but that hope rests in Christ, not in us.