Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Further Word in Defense of Werner Elert (Part Two)

In part one, I noted an online post about Elert by Dr. Michael Root. He drew attention to an essay by his former colleague, Professor David Yeago: “Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology: Reflections on the Cost of a Construal,” Pro Ecclesia 2 (1993): 37–49. Dr. Yeago, who has also left the ELCA and is now a member of the North American Lutheran Church, explicitly blames Elert for articulating an understanding of law and gospel that has “contributed significantly to the gnostic and antinomian devolution of contemporary Protestantism” (38).

While one could respond critically to several aspects of this essay, I will merely point out those places where I think he has misunderstood and misrepresented Elert’s theology.

According to Yeago, the “antithesis of law and gospel cannot be mediated or contextualized in any way; it can only be terminated by the gospel’s negation of the law, by the victory of the one word over the other. The law is sheer oppression, the gospel sheer liberation, and this total opposition can only be ended by the negation of the law” (40; emphasis original).

“Since the law/gospel distinction is placed in no wider context, but is itself the context into which everything else in theology must be integrated, the grounds for the oppressiveness of the law must be sought in the law itself. If the grounds for the oppressiveness of the law lay outside the law, say in our disobedience, then the law would have to be placed in some wider context. Its oppressiveness and its antithesis to the gospel would then not be a primitive datum, and the law/gospel distinction would not be the last horizon. So it becomes necessary to say that the law oppresses because it is law, that is, because it is an ordered demand, a requirement, a command. The law oppresses because of the kind of word it is, not because of the situation in which we encounter it” (Yeago, 40-1). [At this point there is a footnote: “Cf. Elert, Structure of Lutheranism, 35-43; Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought (Fortress, 1970), 119-121.]

1. Unfortunately, Dr. Yeago’s essay provides zero indication that its author had actually read Dr. Elert’s principal writings beyond the errant English translation of the first volume of the Morphologie des Luthertums. No other work by Elert is cited by Yeago, except the ET of the Morphologie.

2. A careful examination of the original German text of the pages cited (“The Law and the Wrath of God”), as well as the relevant pages on “the law” in Elert’s dogmatics and his book on the Christian ethos, indicates that at no point does Elert ever suggest that “the law is sheer oppression, the gospel sheer liberation” or that “this total opposition [between the law and the gospel] can only be ended by the negation of the law.” Rather, Elert consistently taught that the law of God oppresses only sinners. While the hope of Christian faith is that indeed the gospel silences the accusations of the law, the law continues to speak powerfully to the Christian, especially since the Christian remains a sinner in this life unto death.

While the law of God is experienced by sinners as the revelation of the wrath of God against sin and sinners, the law of God does in fact “give instruction concerning God’s will” (Morph., 1.36). “The law surely reveals the ‘moral world order’ [sittliche Weltordnung], and the conscience can surely not avoid acknowledging its validity. … The law can by no means neutralize the personal call of God which the human being hears in the conscience. Neither can it suggest moral freedom to the human being. Rather it convinces him of his lack of freedom. He is unfree both because the law has been given to him and also because he is not able to keep it” (1.38). The law of God is oppressive—but not merely oppressive—precisely because of who we are as sinful creatures of God and because of the situation in which the law of God addresses us concretely. This is true even for those sinners who believe in Christ. Missing entirely from Yeago’s presentation is any analysis of Elert’s understandings of the concrete, creaturely-historical-ethical, fateful, overlapping, conflicting “orders” in which God’s law and gospel address us and call us to repentance, faith, and responsible ethical action. (The section on “orders” in Elert’s dogmatics is sufficient to demonstrate that his theology was both anti-Gnostic and anti-antinomian. See also “two-fold use of the law” and “the natural orders” in the Christian Ethos.)

3. At no point does Elert ever assert that “the gospel will liberate us from the situation of having to hear commandment [sic] at all, from having to reckon with any word whatsoever which has the formal character of ordered demand” (Yeago, 41). Missing here is any attention to the dozens and dozens of pages in Elert’s principal works that explicate what the new life in Christ looks like under the gospel and how it faithfully responds in obedience to evangelical exhortations (“gospel exhortations,” we might say), which are indeed “commands,” but ones that flow forth from the gospel and are a joy to heed in the obedience of faith.

4. Elert would never write (and never did write!) that “the law oppresses because it proposes a determinate ordering of our existence and calls for a specified response” or that “the gospel liberates because it delivers from determinate order and specified response” or that “salvation is liberation from form and order and the law’s cruel demand for them” (Yeago, 41; cf. p. 44). Following the evangelical-Lutheran doctrines of creation and the new obedience of faith, Elert described the character of obedience to Christ as faith that is active in love. “It is not enough to observe isolated commands. We must fit ourselves into the law of life of him who is the measure of all things. That requires faith, unconditional confidence in his person and his divine authorization” (Christliche Ethos, 325). For this description it is necessary to explicate how and why the individual believer in Christ lives under the law and under the gospel at all times and in all places—unto death. Both words of God speak truthfully and very specifically to the concrete existence of the repenting/believing sinner (the sinning penitent/believer) who cannot escape the conditions and orderings of his/her creaturely life before his or her final day. “Only sinners belong to the Lutheran Church; not willful sinners, to be sure, but penitent sinners—yet always only sinners, who in this life can never be anything else” (Morph. 1.317). Yeago opines: “Elert’s sinners are supposedly penitent, but this apparently makes no necessary difference to their moral behavior” (Yeago, 42). Not so! Clearly, Yeago had not read Elert’s description of objective Christian ethics, which forms the final part of The Christian Ethos. (Maybe he has read it since 1993, but there's no indication he had done so at that time.) The Christian life occurs within both the natural orders (family, state, etc.) and the order of the church, within which the Christian is influenced by the preaching of law and gospel, the administration of the sacraments, evangelical exhortations to live in Christ, and the positive influence of Christian mores within the corporate community of Christians. The Christian ethos is both subjective (the individual repenting/believing sinner) and objective (the word and sacraments; the church’s liturgy—all objectively prior to and influential upon the individual; the totality of individuals “in Christ” within the Christian corporate community; the order of Christian love and forgiveness in the acts of the church; the collective church as a force within history; etc.). Again, Elert certainly did not contrast “form” and “freedom” in the life of the Christian or the corporate Christian community.

5. Contrary to Yeago’s assertion that “the doctrine of the Trinity” posed “a terrific problem with which [Elert] labors mightily and somewhat inconclusively” (p. 43, referring again only to one small section of the first volume of the Morph.), Elert believed, taught, and confessed the orthodox dogmas that are taught in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition. For Elert, dogma must define “the mandatory content of the church’s proclamation of law and gospel.” The church can proclaim nothing else. See Elert’s lengthy section on “God in se” in his dogmatics (Part III). The explication of the Trinitarian confession is itself the explication of law (“You shall have no other gods before me…” etc.) and the gospel (“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh…”; “God was in Christ…”; the Paraklete who speaks of Him who sends Him, who "makes the earthly Christ present in the future era after the latter has shattered the earthly era…"; etc.). The compelling motive for the doctrine of the Trinity inheres in the relationship of the Son/Logos to the Father and the relationship of the incarnate Word to the work of the Spirit (see esp. sec. 35 in the dogmatics). The doctrine of the Trinity is not some Aufhebung of the law/gospel dialectic, but is itself the concrete teaching of dogma in service to the gospel. Dogma is, in fact, fully admissible and necessary in a theology structured by law and gospel. Elert, too, could have said, “The church’s dogma is, after all, her confessing response to the self-giving and self-identification of God in Jesus Christ. The church formulates dogma, one might say, in order to acknowledge the concrete form of God’s self-giving in Christ” (Yeago, 43). For Elert the “decree” of N-C fits fully within the confession of the gospel. To confess the orthodox dogma of the Trinity is to speak the gospel, this basic testimony of the gospel about Christ. For Elert, “the dogma of the Trinity wants to contain no more than what God’s gospel testifies of him. For the gospel reveals precisely that relationship of God to us, his creatures, which alone permits us to speak of him.”

6. Following Luther, who was merely following the explicit teaching of the apostles Paul and John, Elert taught that if you want to escape sin, the wrath of God, and death—and be saved—then trust in no other god than the Son of Man. “The gospel is the narrative of this self-identification and self-giving, the story of Jesus of Nazareth recounted as the story of God’s ‘taking form’ concretely pro nobis in the midst of the world” (Yeago, 47). Elert would totally agree! One cannot lay the blame for American Gnosticism (however Yeago would define this) at the feet of Elert. His writings, if considered in their totality, have not left us “easy prey for the Gnostic virus” (Yeago, 45). Rather, they provide a healthy antidote to such a threat!

Elert, too, hoped that the Christian future would in fact belong "to a theology and a church both catholic and evangelical that will not flinch from the radical affirmations of the gospel" (Yeago, 49).

A Further Word in Defense of Werner Elert (Part One)

Several weeks ago my friend Ed Schroeder, a “retired” Lutheran professor of systematic theology--who once taught at Valpo and Concordia Seminary/Christ Seminary-Seminex--alerted me to the Facebook page of Pr. Martin Yee, one of Ed’s former students, who now serves in Singapore. On his blog site Pr. Yee had drawn attention to one of my blog posts about Werner Elert, who taught theology at Erlangen University from the early 1920s until the early 1950s. In that post, which you can read here, I suggested reasons for why we cannot blame Elert for whatever theological and ethical errors might be harming the ELCA today. If anything, a strong case can be made that Elert’s critical investigations into the history of doctrine, together with his own summaries of Christian dogmatics and the Christian ethos, might actually be beneficial resources for renewing contemporary evangelical theology and ethics.

Later, unbeknownst to me, Ed forwarded my original post to several other theologians. These included Ted Jungkuntz (who also taught at Valpo many moons ago), Carl Braaten (with whom I was privileged to study theology back in the late 1980s and who has recently written an important essay on Martin Kaehler that will appear in an upcoming book I am editing on nineteenth-century theologians), and Paul Hinlicky (who has become a friend and theological “sparring partner” in recent years). Ed then shared with me email replies that some of these individuals had shared with each other. So I was brought into that “circle” only after some of them had commented on my post among themselves. Nevertheless, I was pleased to see that the three theologians named above  more or less agreed with the main point I had made in that post: We cannot blame Elert for whatever theological and ethical problems plague contemporary American Lutheranism.

Here is Professor Braaten’s reply.

“To whom it may concern:

“I taught theology for quite a few years in an ELCA seminary (LSTC), and I knew most of the theologians teaching at other ELCA seminaries. I know of not a single one who promoted the theology of Werner Elert, except for the few who were deployed from Seminex. Matt Becker's observations about LSTC are accurate. Bob Bertram was the only one at LSTC who gave voice to Elert's theology, and that was pretty much confined to a small circle of disciples. At that time Bertram was more interested in having his students read Bonhoeffer. One of his disciples, Richard Bliese, wrote a fine doctoral dissertation on the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which I was pleased to supervise.

“It seems rather odd that Matt Becker feels the need to exonerate Elert from what's been going on in the ELCA from its inception. The only possible connection that I can see is the role that the AELC played not only in the formation of the ELCA but also through a good number of graduates of Seminex who became prominent bishops in various synods of the ELCA.  Perhaps Matt Becker knows how much influence Elert had on these AELC Seminex-educated pastors and bishops. I do not know much about that.

“What I do know is that in making a theological argument to support the inclusion of gays to the ordained ministry [people] appealed to theologians who rejected the third use of the law. Elert was one of them.  But so was Gerhard Forde. Yet Forde himself denied that his rejection of the third use of the law could be used to favor the ELCA's decision to ordain gays. I do not know what Elert would have thought about this. It probably never crossed his mind as a possibility. What he writes about marriage in his book on ethics (The Christian Ethos) does not address the matter of marriage between two persons of the same gender. Lazareth also was not a solid advocate of the third use of the law, but he was vigorously opposed to the ELCA's policy on the ordination of gay clergy. 

“Becker is correct. Elert did not have much influence on the teaching theologians of the ELCA. But Becker does not deal with the role that Elert might have played in the thinking of the Missouri exiles who came into the ELCA via the AELC. Greg Fryer has written extensively on this.  It would be interesting to learn what he would add to this exchange. Pax, Carl E. Braaten”

Dr. Braaten thinks it odd that I “feel the need to exonerate Elert from what’s been going on in the ELCA from its inception.” And yet several ELCA theologians have in fact blamed Elert for what has been ailing the ELCA. See, for example, the 2010 online comment by Dr. Michael Root—who was then an ELCA theologian but who has subsequently become a Roman Catholic:

Be sure to read all the way to the end of that online thread. The final two posts in it are exactly on target. BTW, I don’t know who “Vindicating Elert” is/was, but whoever that person is/was, has a far more accurate understanding of Elert’s theology than Prof. Root! [Update on 9/29/14: I do in fact now know who "Vindicating Elert" is, as he saw this post and sent me an email to let me know who he is.] Ed Schroeder’s online responses to Root’s post and other writings that are critical of Elert (e.g., Bob Benne, Greg Fryer) are also instructive. See:

In part two, which you can read here, I criticize an important essay that misrepresents Elert's understanding of law and gospel.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Mission at Nuremberg

Shortly after World War II, there was only a handful of Lutheran pastors in the United States whose names would have been recognized across the country and beyond their own church body. In the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod two such individuals come quickly to mind: Walter A. Maier, speaker of the radio program, the Lutheran Hour, and Henry Gerecke, chaplain to the twenty-one major Nazi war criminals who were tried in Nuremberg in late 1945 and 1946.

Quite a lot has been written about Dr. Maier. Of special note is the biography that his son, Paul, wrote: A Man Spoke, A World Listened (MacGraw-Hill, 1963). But Chaplain Gerecke's life and work have not received as much attention. Indeed, while Maier's name is still recognized by many in the LCMS today, a large number of pastors and laity have probably never heard of Pr. Gerecke (whose family name rhymes with "Cherokee"). Thankfully, a new book about him has recently been published, which should help to make him more well known among people who should know of him and his ministerial work.

Tim Townsend's Mission at Nuremberg (William Morrow, 2014) tells Gerecke's story. The initial chapter begins with a vignette of the day that this Lutheran army chaplain had to accompany General Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel to his death. Earlier the two had prayed together on their knees and Gerecke had blessed him. Still earlier Gerecke had regularly preached to him and administered the Sacrament. "On his knees and under deep emotional stress, [Keitel] received the Body and Blood of our Savior," Gerecke wrote later. "With tears in his voice, he said, 'You have helped me more than you know. May Christ, my Savior, stand by me all the way. I shall need him so much'" (11). 

Chaplain Henry Gerecke
From this scene Townsend takes the reader back several years to when Pr. Gerecke joined the army (serving at the same time as two of his three sons). He had been prepared for this service through private instruction from a Lutheran pastor in St. Louis and from several faculty at Concordia Seminary. Never actually attending classes at the seminary, he still was able eventually to pass his exams and graduate. He was then called to serve a local congregation. He later served another congregation in St. Louis and became the leader of City Mission, a social ministry organization. (The Lutheran Deaconess Association--now based at Valparaiso University---provided this mission with its first full-time nurse to help with its visits to Robert Koch Hospital.) At that time Gerecke managed about 85 student volunteers throughout the city and another 65 from area Lutheran congregations. “Your City Mission business is God’s big business in St. Louis,” Gerecke wrote.

The chapters that describe Gerecke’s early life and family, along with one brief chapter on the history of military chaplains in the US, help to set the stage for his chaplaincy in the army (first in England, and then in Germany, and specifically at Nuremberg). The book turns theological at several points, most notably in sections that address questions about the nature of sin and repentance, the Christian understanding of divine grace and forgiveness, and the calling of a pastor to minister God’s love and mercy to those who do not deserve them. (After the war Gerecke also served as a chaplain at a large penitentiary, a period that Townsend also analyzes.)

The center of the book is devoted to literary evidence that gives insight into the spiritual condition of the war criminals Gerecke served and how he pastored them. Within a short time he had won their trust and friendship, despite his limitations with the German language. At one point, when the US Army was going to return him to the states (he had been away from his wife for nearly three years), one of the prisoners, Fritzsche, wrote a letter to Mrs. Gerecke, which was signed by all 21 war criminals. In this letter they asked that she “put off” her wish that her husband come home. “Please consider that we cannot miss your husband now. During the past months he has shown us uncompromising friendliness of such a kind, that he has become indispensable for us in an otherwise prejudiced environment which is filled with cold disdain or hatred…” (224). Gerecke remained until all the executions had taken place.

A fair amount of the central part of the book is devoted to Gerecke’s relationship with Hermann Goering, who committed suicide rather than being subject to his sentence of death by hanging. In addition to leaving behind a note for his wife, Goering directed a last note to Gerecke: “Forgive me but I had to do it this way for political reasons… I have prayed for a long time to God and feel that I am acting correctly. Would that I might be shot. Please console my wife and tell her that mine was no ordinary suicide and that she should be certain that God will take me into his grace … God bless you, dear Pastor” (269). Gerecke had become close to Goering’s wife and daughter—he ministered to them and the family members of several of the other prisoners—and after the war sent them care packages from the US, but he was also convinced that Goering himself was merely “Gottglaeubig,” one who believed in a kind of rationalistic Deism but who denied most of the central articles of the Christian faith. Thus, Gerecke refused to commune Goering, despite the latter’s request to receive the Sacrament before he died. “I cannot with a clear conscience commune you because you deny the very Christ who instituted the sacrament.” “Herr Goering, your little girl said she wants to meet you in heaven.” “’Yes,’ Goering said slowly. ‘She believes in your savior. But I don’t. I’ll just take my chances, my own way.’ … Defeated, Gerecke left the cell and moved on” (265). Apparently, these were the last words that Goering spoke to anyone. Later that evening, he changed into his pajamas and broke with his teeth a glass vial of potassium cyanide that he had placed in his mouth.

Gerecke’s pastoral encounters and conversations with several others of these criminals—especially Keitel, Ribbentrop, Sauckel, Speer, Fritzsche, and Schirach—are quite revealing and help to augment the psychological analyses that Gerecke’s roommate at the time, the army psychologist G. M. Gilbert, provided in his book, Nuremberg Diary  (Farrer, Straus & Giroux, 1947). (Reading these books in tandem shows significant differences of perspective between the secular-minded Gilbert and the spiritually-minded Gerecke.) 

Townsend’s book is ultimately about the nature of Christian forgiveness: “Christians like Gerecke and O’Connor [the Roman Catholic military chaplain at Nuremberg] would argue that they had to act toward the Nazis in their flocks, and their families, in ways that honored their deepest understanding of humanity, and its relationship to God. The chaplains believed that their duties toward the Nazis and their families revolved around how to return them to the good” (287).

But there is one overstatement that Townsend makes at just this point in his narrative. After summarizing the Lutheran view that spiritual consolation is indeed to be offered to people who commit evil against others, Townsend writes: [Luther] would have seen no principal difference between a criminal and an innocent. He would not have divided people into children of light and children of darkness. No one is innocent—neither a Gerecke nor a Kaltenbrunner [one of the Nazi mass murderers]—but everyone, Christians believe, is saved” (287).

While Lutherans have historically taught the universality of God’s grace, i.e., that God in Jesus Christ is indeed merciful and forgiving toward all—they have historically refrained from making the bold claim that therefore “everyone is saved.” Rather, Lutherans tend to stress that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Repentance and faith go together in response to the death of Christ Jesus and the message of his cross. Otherwise, grace becomes “cheap,” to use the Kierkegaardian/Bonhoefferian expression. Moreover, there is the tricky issue of divine election/predestination and the fact of the persistence of some to reject the freely-offered grace of God. Very few Christians actually teach that “everyone is saved” (even if many secretly hold out such a hope). Luther certainly did not teach this!

Nor did Gerecke. At the end of the many speeches about his war-time experiences, which he gave to large audiences after the war, he offered this prayer (which also ended his radio show, Moments of Comfort):

“Lord, lay some soul upon my heart and love that soul through me. And may I nobly do my part, to win that soul for thee. And when I come to the beautiful city, and the saved all around me appear, I want to hear somebody tell me: It was you who invited me here.”