Lutherans, Methodists, and open communion

On paper I’m still an ELCA Lutheran, but I’ve been attending a United Methodist congregation for the last couple of years, so this news from the ELCA’s recent church-wide assembly is of interest to me. A resolution was passed during the assembly to initiate a process looking at the church’s practices of administering communion, particularly with regard to the unbaptized. This seems to have been motivated, at least in part, by the fact that while the ELCA’s official position is that only baptized Christians should partake of communion, other churches with which it is in full communion practice “open communion.” That is, anyone who is so moved is invited to partake of the sacrament, whether or not they’re a baptized Christian.

This is, in fact, the practice of the United Methodist Church, with which the ELCA has a full communion agreement. The UMC’s official rationale for practicing open communion (a.k.a. communion without baptism) is this:

The table of Holy Communion is Christ’s table, not the table of The United Methodist Church or of the local congregation.  The table is open to anyone who seeks to respond to Christ’s love and seeks to lead a new life of peace and love, as the invitation to the table says.

The United Methodist Book of Worship says, “All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive” (page 29). This statement means that in practice there are few, if any, circumstances in which a United Methodist pastor would refuse to serve the elements of Holy Communion to a person who comes forward to receive.

By Water and the Spirit affirms: “Because the table at which we gather belongs to the Lord, it should be open to all who respond to Christ’s love, regardless of age or church membership. The Wesleyan tradition has always recognized that Holy Communion may be an occasion for the reception of converting, justifying, and sanctifying grace.”

I’ve worried before that the practice of open communion can sometimes be more “about the appearance of inclusion for inclusion’s sake than about inviting people to partake of the Eucharist understood specifically as the sacrament of Christ’s presence.” But understood along the lines described here, I think it can be a faithful practice.* As a practical matter, apart from a pro forma statement in the bulletin, even churches that don’t officially practice open communion are unlikely to turn anyone away from the table (I find it almost unimaginable that this would occur in an ELCA church). In my view, the main emphasis should be on the sacrament as the sign of Christ’s presence, love, and grace, and the invitation should be for people to respond to it as such.

UPDATE: I should clarify that the UMC certainly doesn’t intend for communion without baptism to be the norm. The statement on baptism referred to above says this immediately after the quoted section:

Unbaptized persons who receive communion should be counseled and nurtured toward baptism as soon as possible.

And the church’s statement on communion adds this:

Invitation to partake of Holy Communion offers an evangelical opportunity to bring people into a fuller living relationship with the body of Christ. As means of God’s unmerited grace, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are to be seen not as barriers but as pathways. Pastors and congregations must strive for a balance of welcome that is open and gracious and teaching that is clear and faithful to the fullness of discipleship.

Nonbaptized people who respond in faith to the invitation in our liturgy will be welcomed to the Table. They should receive teaching about Holy Baptism as the sacrament of entrance into the community of faith—needed only once by each individual—and Holy Communion as the sacrament of sustenance for the journey of faith and growth in holiness—needed and received frequently.

This seems to me to strike a good balance.


*I’ve also become more comfortable with the idea of open communion after reading Charles Hefling’s recent essay, which draws on John Wesley’s notion of communion as a “converting ordinance,” as well as this paper from Lutheran theologian Ernst Käsemann, written 30 years ago.

Paul Tillich’s proto-“new perspective” on (the other) Paul

Luther believed that his was a restatement of the New Testament, especially of Paul. But although his message contains the truth of Paul, it is by no means the whole of what Paul said. The situation determined what he took from Paul, that is, the doctrine of justification by faith which was Paul’s defense against legalism. But Luther did not take in Paul’s doctrine of the Spirit. Of course, he did not deny it; there is even a lot of it in Luther, but that is not decisive. The decisive thing is that a doctrine of the Spirit, of being “in Christ”, of the new being, is the weak spot in Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. In Paul the situation is different. Paul has three main centers in his thought, which make it a triangle, not a circle. The one is his eschatological consciousness, the certainty that in Christ eschatology is fulfilled and a new reality has started. The second is his doctrine of the Spirit, which means for him that the kingdom of God has appeared, that the new being in Christ is given to us here and now. The third point in Paul is his critical defense against legalism, justification by faith. (Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought, pp. 230-1)

Like proponents of the “new perspective” on Paul, Tillich, Lutheran theologian though he was, saw the limitations of the traditional “Lutheran” interpretation of Paul’s theology. Tillich doesn’t deny that justification by faith is present in Paul’s thought–indeed it remains very important for Tillich’s own theology. But also important is the idea that Christ inaugurates a new age and that Christians “participate,” through the Spirit, in the life of the risen Christ (or the “new being,” to use Tillich’s preferred term).

Participatory soteriology and the shape of Christian life together

Christopher offers a semi-defense of Pelagius (a semi-Pelagian defense?) and calls for a movement of “Advent asceticism” that sees a particular form of communal obedience not as an attempt to earn heaven, but as a response to Heaven as it has come to live among us in the Incarnation. He notes that much Protestant theology, with its focus on a once-for-all transactional account of salvation, has a hard time underwriting this kind of response. Instead, he advocates a “participatory soteriology”:

What this means is not that we save ourselves, or that salvation has not been given once-for-all, but rather in Christ we receive this Life as pure gift and participate in and live out of the Life of this One who is our salvation, our healing, our reharmonization as a leavening society and as a people of and friends of the earth, that is, the whole of creation and every creature.

Somewhat relatedly, I’m reading Keith Ward’s Religion and Human Nature, which is the third volume in his four-volume “comparative theology.” In it, Ward is trying to develop a Christian theology that is open to the insights of other traditions while still remaining a distinctively Christian theology.

An important distinction Ward makes in this volume is between “forensic” and “soterial” models of sin and salvation. In short, for a forensic model, the fundamental human problem is guilt and the solution is remittance of guilt (whether through punishment, satisfaction, or forgiveness). For a soterial model, by contrast, the fundamental problem is the the sickness of the human self: its affections and desires are disordered. The self is turned in on itself, to borrow Luther’s phrase, loving itself in a disordered way. The corresponding solution is healing: we need a re-orientation of our deepest selves toward love of God and neighbor.

Writing about different forms of Hinduism (but in a way that he intends, I think, to apply to Christianity) Ward observes that “a concentration on a forensic notion of desert misses something basic to the religious perception”:

What is missing is the idea…that the goal of human life lies in a relationship of devotion to the supreme Lord. A mechanical and forensic model, concentrating on individual moral success of failure, misses this element of personal relationship that lies at the heart of devotional faith….[A] soterial model…construes the spiritual state of the human self primarily in terms of analogies to disease and health. The healthy soul is one that is in a state of devoted login service to the Lord, that is transfigured by the beauty of the Lord, and empowered by the Lord’s love. The sick soul is one that withers and atrophies because it is incapable either of giving or receiving the love that alone gives life. (p. 53)

A lot of traditional theology, particularly Protestant, has favored the forensic account. Jesus dies on the cross so that our sins can be forgiven. The problem, as Christopher notes, is that Protestantism (particularly Lutheranism) hasn’t always had a good account of what we’re supposed to do after that. The result has all too often been a complacent conformity rather than lives conformed to the image of Christ.

Correspdonding to the forensic and soterial models, Ward distinguishes two understandings of “justification.” The first, which has dominated much Protestant theology, understands it as a kind of declaration of legal innocence. God “imputes” the righteousness of Christ to us, even though in ourselves we remain sinful. Arguing for a different view, Ward suggests understanding it more relationally. Justification is being rightly related to God.

When ‘justification’ is taken to mean, ‘a declaration of legal innocence’, one faces the difficulty that a guilty person has to be declared innocent by God. But, if God is perfectly just, how is this possible? As I have interpreted it, justification means ‘establishing the possibility of being rightly related to God’. How can a person whose deepest motives and dispositions are to cause great harm be rightly related to God? Only if those motivations and dispositions are wholly changed, by an inward turning of the mind, a metanoia. (p. 190).

What is accomplished in the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection is that God unites humanity to divinity and makes possible this restored relationship. The cross shows both “the suffering that self-regard causes to self, to others, and to God [and] the life of obedient self-giving that God requires” (p. 191). But it is more than that: it is “the historical vehicle of divine power to forgive and heal” (p. 191).

Instead of ‘satisfaction’ and ‘substitution’, it might be better to speak of ‘healing’ and ‘participation’. What God requires of sinners is a transformation of life in penitence and obedient love. This requirement is met by participation in the power of the Spirit, which is luminously expressed in and mediated through the life and self-sacrificial death of Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice gives particular form to the Spirit’s activity, and founds the community of the new covenant in which the Spirit can transform human lives into the image of cruciform love. (p. 214)

That last point strikes me as key in light of Christopher’s observation that Protestant Christianity often lacks forms of disciplined community that give a paritcular shape to the Christian life. Participation in the Spirit is participation in the particular cruciform shape of Jesus’ humanity. This incorporation into Christ restores our relationship to God and makes possible a re-ordering of our desires. We “put on the mind of Christ,” to use Paul’s phrase, and are renewed in our humanity. This is a gradual process, one that may not be complete until after death. But by being “in Christ” we are empowered to receive a new self, one that is rightly related to God, our neighbor, and the rest of creation.

Communicating the gospel after Christendom

I urge everyone who cares about these things to read these two posts from bls at The Topmost Apple on how the church is dealing (or not) with our current “post-Christendom” situation. She makes two main points: first, the church often acts like it has nothing very interesting to communicate, and, second, what it does communicate is too often encased in impenetrable religious jargon that is meaningless to a lot of people. She thinks that the gospel carries the explosive truth about the human situation, but the churches are afraid, unwilling, or unable to offer that to people:

I think the Gospels – and Paul – are making some really convincing claims about the facts of the world and the human condition – and that A.A. has (re-?)discovered some of these things almost by accident. I think Luther was really onto something in his parsing of “Law” and “Gospel”; it has taken me a couple of years to come to understand more about this-but it’s real. It’s true-and it’s actually backed up by quite a lot of real-world evidence. This kind of thinking really does change your point of view – and it’s philosophy as much as religion, really. It’s got legs.

We need to be able to say these things to people who do not know our language already – and we need to offer people who do know the language a way for the faith to remain vital and alive – to continue to offer sustenance and excitement – in and for them, too. We need to make a case. “Mystery” and “mystification” are two completely different things; we really can retain the former and eliminate the latter, I believe. It’s clear to me from years of discussions about these things that many people are interested in religion – but just can’t get with some of its manifestations (mentioned above). And of course, we have the problem of some of the …. erm ….. more extravagant claims of the Christian faith (sometimes called “believing six impossible things before breakfast”). So I do not believe we can count anymore, my friends, on Christianity being “believed in” as it’s been “believed in” in the past. We are going to have to assume that many (most?) people will not be convinced about these “impossible things” much anymore – and we’re going to have to depend far more on Christianity’s fascinating unveiling of counterintuitive ideas and mystical insights.

In a related vein, Ben Myers at Faith and Theology writes on the limitations of preaching from the lectionary:

There’s a lot to be said for the use of a lectionary cycle. But the lectionary tends to presuppose, rather than to foster, a broad understanding of the biblical story. Lectionaries were designed for use in societies that were already implicitly Christian – societies in which the rhythms of the liturgical year, and the broad sweep of the biblical narrative, could be more or less taken for granted. In the Revised Common Lectionary (which my own church follows), just look at the theological subtlety with which the OT and NT readings are often connected: a subtlety that is quite lost on anybody without a good working knowledge of scripture and liturgical tradition. And preachers only exacerbate the problem when they take these subtle liturgico-theological connections as the theme of their proclamation, instead of preaching from the texts themselves. (Preachers, please note: the content of your proclamation is not the liturgical calendar, but the Word of God!)

I think most churches–primarily in the U.S. and European context–have still not come to grips with the fact that a large number of people no longer consider religion particularly important or interesting. Not that they necessarily reject it passionately like the new atheists; they just don’t see why they should be much concerned about it at all. Moreover, they don’t necessarily have the background familiarity with the Bible, the church, and Christian claims that might once have been taken for granted. Those of us who take a special interest in theology and religion, either as professionals or amateurs, tend to become embedded in the language, history, and arcana of the church. As a result, we lose sight of what all this must look like to someone on the outside. If we believe that the gospel offers people something decisive and meaningful for their lives that they can’t get (or maybe more modestly aren’t getting) elsewhere, we have to find ways to communicate it. In a way, this is just a recapitulation of the insight of theologians like Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: we have cordoned off matters of faith to a special “religious” sphere; but if the gospel is true, its truth is for our “secular,” ordinary, quotidian lives.

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.

Evolutionary theology as theology of the cross

Though he doesn’t use the same language, John Haught argues, in effect, that Intelligent Design is an example of what Lutherans call the “theology of glory” because it purports to discern God in obvious and outward ways (in this case, by finding “scientific” evidence of design in nature). For a theology of the cross, by contrast, God is hidden and is most present under the signs of weakness and suffering, preeminently in the cross of Christ. Similarly, Haught argues that God can be discerned in the natural processes of evolution not in obvious instances of design, but as the abysmal depth that underlies or grounds the entire process–as the compassionate God who enters into solidarity with the sufferings and travails of creation. This requires a different kind of discernment than that offered by ID’s theology of glory:

[D]epth has two faces. It is not just abyss but also ground, terrifying at first, but ultimately liberating and redemptive. Looking earnestly into the depth of everything involves a kind of death, but it also promises resurrection. The breakdown of our narrow human ideals of design, as the book of Job had already made clear, is an abysmal experience. Yet it is the first step toward a wider and deeper sense of creation’s beauty than we ever could have reached otherwise. Hence, challenges such as Darwin’s to our constricted religious and ethical ideals of design should not come as an insurmountable difficulty, at least to a biblically grounded spiritual vision.

Christianity itself rose up from the ashes of a kind of design death. To his friends, Jesus’ own execution seemed, at least at first, to prove only the powerlessness of God to carry out the divine plan. Nevertheless, the early Christian community eventually came to interpret Jesus’ death by crucifixion as the decisive opening onto the final victory of life over death. The cross reveals to Christians, beneath all disillusionment with what we had taken to be a benign providential plan, the unsurpassable beauty of a self-sacrificing God, who draws near to the creation and embraces the struggles, failures, and achievements of design death, including that introduced by Darwin, as entry into the abyss of the cross that God also bears, the cross through which one can be brought to the deep experience of resurrection. In the context of Christian faith, the drama of evolution merges inseparably with the (abysmal) death and (grounding) resurrection of Jesus and, in him, with the eternal drama that is the Trinitarian life of God. (Making Sense of Evolution, p. 93)

Creation doesn’t provide compelling evidence of a benevolent providence. But certain experiences can give us a glimpse of the inexhaustible depth at the root of the entire creative process. For Haught, when we give up the quest to demonstrate “design” in nature, we are freed to enter into a deeper engagement both with creation and with God.

Friday links

–The Australian broadcaster ABC’s Religion and Ethics site has a series of articles by Martha Nussbaum on democracy and education: parts 1, 2, and 3.

–Coal is not cheap.

–Vegan nutritionist Virginia Messina argues that healthy diets can include meat analogues. (A corrective of sorts to anti-processed-food extremism.)

–At the great metal blog Invisible Oranges: why lyrics matter.

–Camassia has the first part of a review of Miroslav Volf’s interesting-sounding new book Allah: A Christian Response.

–Radiohead has released their new album “King of Limbs” a day early. You can download it here. I haven’t heard it yet, but the early reviews seem to be mixed. On the other hand, Radiohead albums generally take several listens to digest, so I’m withholding judgment.

–Paul Krugman on the budget “debate.”

–What’s going on in Bahrain?

–The Madison protests are about union-busting, not budget cuts.

–The history of using the National Guard to break strikes.

–According the calendar observed by Lutheran and some other Protestant churches, today is Martin Luther’s feast day (he died on this date in 1546).

ADDED LATER: The Nation‘s “Breakdown” podcast, hosted by Chris Hayes, tackles “the confusing concepts that make politics, economics and government tick” via questions submitted by listeners. This week’s episode tries to answer a question I asked: Why exactly are government deficits bad? (If or when they are.) Chris’s guest is economist Robert Pollin. You can listen here.

This seems appropriate for today:

Marriage and the Law-Gospel distinction

I wanted to highlight a section from this Peter Berger article I linked to earlier because it’s similar to something I’ve written before, but Berger is a smarty-pants intellectual and I’m just some guy, so it should carry more weight coming from him. This is the notion that the Lutheran view (or maybe “a” Lutheran view) is that marriage is part of the civil order (Law), not the order of redemption (Gospel) . That being the case, it’s amenable to being changed if people determine that human well-being is better served by such change.

Berger writes:

I am a Lutheran, though hardly an orthodox one. People who find out that I am politically conservative, but theologically liberal, get seasick: if they like my politics, they are baffled by my theology, and vice versa. While I would be unable to subscribe to the full text of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, there are key elements of Lutheranism that continue to appeal to me. One of them is the distinction between Law and Gospel. Everything we call “society” and “politics” falls under the category of Law—to be approached responsibly and prudently, not in the high tones of prophecy. The Law is not part of the redemptive process, the Gospel does not provide inerrant rules for the order of society. Accordingly, the Lutheran Reformation declared marriage not to be a sacrament of the church. It belonged to the realm of Law, not of Gospel. It seems that marriages were not celebrated in church in the early days of the Reformation. A marriage was constituted by the act of the two individuals setting up a common household, not by any act performed by clergy—after the act by the couple had already occurred, it was blessed by a minister outside the walls of the church. Therefore, marriage is not to be understood as a sacred entity, but rather as a socially useful and morally acceptable institution—as such subject to prudential considerations. I find this a very helpful way of thinking about it.

He goes on to make the point that “traditional” marriage is a relatively recent construct that differs in significant ways from marriage as it is portrayed in the Bible (or as it existed in the pre-modern world more generally). When conservatives talk about defending traditional marriage, he says, what they’re usually referring to is bourgeois marriage, which really only dates back to about the 18th century. This is the view of marriage ” in which women were no longer a possession but a partner, in which the married couple set up a household separate from wider kin (the ‘nuclear family’), where the spouses were ideally bound together by romantic love, and where children were regarded as very special beings with distinctive rights.”

Berger comes to a different conclusion than I would–instead of full-fledged marriage equality, he advocates replacing civil marriage with two categories of civil unions, one for households where children are involved and one where they aren’t–but I also find this a helpful way of thinking about the nature of marriage. If marriage is ultimately a matter of the “kingdom of the left,” to use traditional Lutheran terminology, then it’s a matter of ordering our common life together, not a matter of ultimate salvation. In other words, it isn’t a sacred, unchangeable reality, but a flexible institution that can and should be modified to accommodate new insights and changing views on things like gender roles and sexual orientation.

Some links for the weekend

– Peter Singer on balancing concern for the environment with efforts to lift people out of poverty.

– Kevin Drum on the difference between liberals and libertarians.

– Bob Herbert on Sargent Shriver: “one of America’s great good men.”

– Peter Berger’s blog at The American Interest. (Here’s a piece on recent developments in American Lutheranism.)

– A three-part article from Derek on communing the unbaptized:1|2|3.

– Bls says the church needs a program. (Or does it already have one?)

– How Moby-Dick navigates between fanaticism and nihilism. And a previous piece on a similar topic by the same author.

– A killer new song from the German tech-death band Obscura.

Lutheranism for beginners

I have a good friend who just joined a Lutheran church. He’s been reading the collection of Luther’s basic theological writings edited by Timothy Lull, et al., but he asked me for some suggestions for further reading on Lutheranism and Lutheran theology. This is the list I sent him, which, while shaped by my own interests and certainly not exhaustive, fairly represents mainstream Lutheranism I think.


The Book of Concord collects all the official confessions and other documents of the Reformation-era Lutheran church (the Augsburg Confession, Luther’s Large and Small catechisms, etc.) that virtually all modern Lutheran bodies subscribe to in some way or another. Fortress Press publishes a nice hardback version.

General introductions to Lutheranism:

Carl E. Braaten, Principles of Lutheran Theology

Gerhard O. Forde, Where God Meets Man: Luther’s Down-to-Earth Approach to the Gospel

Robert Jenson and Eric Gritsch, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and its Confessional Writings

Secondary sources on Luther’s theology:

Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther

Alister McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross

Giants of 20th century Lutheran theology:

Paul Tillich, Shaking of the Foundations

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison

Specialized topics:

Carl Braaten, Justification: The Article by which the Church Stands or Falls

Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity: God According to the Gospel

Bradley Hanson, A Graceful Life: Lutheran Spirituality for Today

Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World

Deanna Thompson, Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross (I haven’t read this, but I wanted to include some feminist theology on the list, and this is the only one I really know of.)

Any glaring omissions? Additional suggestions?