January 3, 2014

On “Lutheran” Anglicanism

Filed under: Anglicanism,Spiritualty,Theology — William Witt @ 7:56 pm

Luther"Last summer, my friend David Koyzis started a conversation about why there are so many Baptists who call themselves “Calvinists,” but no “Lutheran” Baptists.

David might be surprised to know that there are Anglicans who call themselves “Lutherans.” They have historical connection with Trinity School for Ministry in connection with a former Dean/President, and every year I discover at least one or two new students in my classes who identify with this “Lutheran” Anglicanism. The recent publication of this book reminded me that “Lutheran” Anglicanism is alive and well, and has prompted me to post my own assessment of “Lutheran” Anglicanism.

Before I give my own assessment of Lutheran Anglicanism, I should perhaps say a little about my own acquaintance with Luther and Lutheranism before I encountered the “Lutheran” Anglicans. During my years at graduate school, I came across Luther as part of my studies, and knew several Lutherans who were fellow students. I studied Luther primarily in courses on Christology and liturgy, and included a chapter on Luther in my dissertation. My assessment of Luther was mixed. I appreciated most Luther’s Christology and his sacramental theology, although I found his theology of the ubiquity of Christ’s ascended human nature problematic. I was less happy with Luther’s Bondage of the Will, where I thought he could have learned a thing or two from Thomas Aquinas or Augustine. Luther’s failure to distinguish adequately between natural and moral freedom combined with a failure to distinguish adequately between foreknowledge and predestination led to a determinist doctrine of human will and divine predetermination that made God responsible for sin. Luther’s way of stating the distinction between the “hidden” and “revealed God” was rightly repudiated by Karl Barth as undermining the fundamental theological thesis that God is in himself who he is in his revelation. I was also less than happy with Luther’s “law/gospel” hermeneutic, which, while it had some validity for interpreting certain passages in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Romans was largely a case of eisegesis if imposed on the Bible as a whole. As a Reformation Christian, I embraced Luther’s doctrines of sola scriptura, and justification by grace alone through faith alone, not because they were Luther’s but because I believe them correct – although I tended to understand the Reformation sola’s through Anglican eyes.

As part of my doctoral research, I read quite a bit in modern secondary literature on Luther. I read not only Luther, but became familiar with some of the key hallmarks of Lutheran theology – the Augsburg Confession, and much of the material in the Book of Concord. I also became familiar with a few modern Lutheran theologians: Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gustaf Aulen, Helmut Thielicke, and contemporary Lutherans such as Wolfhart Pannenberg, Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, Gilbert Meilaender and David Yeago. Overall, my assessment of Luther and Lutheranism was mostly positive.

I discovered a very different “Luther” and approach to “Lutheranism” among the “Lutheran” Anglicans, a kind of Lutheranism I had never encountered before. This “Lutheran” Anglicanism was a variant on a way of reading Luther that Lutheran theologian Gilbert Meilaender calls “dialectical Lutheranism”1

Dialectical Lutheranism is distinguished by the following key characteristics:

Justification and Sanctification

It is arguable that one of the most significant theological advancements of the Protestant Reformation was to distinguish clearly between justification as a forensic declaration of righteousness, what Luther called “alien righteousness,” and sanctification, a real intrinsic change by which the sanctified actually do become holy. If the error of Tridentine Roman Catholicism was to equate justification with sanctification, making justification an “infused righteousness,” dialectical Lutheranism tends to err in the opposite direction, reducing sanctification to just another way to talk about justification, and thus to confirm the critique of Trent, that Protestants reduce justification to a “legal fiction.”

A classic example can be found in Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, who begins an essay on “Lutheran Spirituality” by writing: “Sanctification, if it is to be spoken of as something other than justification, is perhaps best defined as the art of getting used to the unconditional justification wrought by the grace of God for Jesus’ sake.”2 Forde continues: “Sanctification . . . is not something added to justification.”

Moreover, Forde denies that sanctification is about moral transformation: “[L]iving morally . . . should not be equated with sanctification, being made holy.” (14) Indeed, Forde is suspicious of language of sanctification: “Talk about sanctification is dangerous. It is too seductive for the old being.” Forde suggests that the tradition was mistaken when it “sharply distinguished” sanctification from justification: “God alone does the justifying,” But sanctification “enters the picture to rescue the good ship Salvation from shipwreck on the rocks of Grace Alone. Sanctification, it seems is our part of the bargain.” (15)

Consequently, “dialectical Lutheranism” tends to understand sanctification using the language of returning “again and again” to the moment of justification. There is no sense of progress, no sense in which righteousness can grow, no sense in which grace can be understood as a power that transforms and “makes possible the Christian’s journey toward holiness,”a “growth in grace” in which one becomes “more and more” holy, in which we are “gradually transformed and perfected along the way.”3 Forde is a good example of the approach that Meilaender criticizes as a “returning again and again” to justification. In Forde’s words: “The description of sanctification as a process leads to the temptation to make the process itself into the basic theological scheme.” (119) Such schemes inevitably become a “a kind of ‘practical Pelagianism,’ where original sin does not exist and sanctification is gained by our exercise of free will.” (120) Rather, suggests Forde, sanctification just is returning again and again to justification: “[W]e find ourselves always starting afresh. . . . One is always at a new beginning.” Accordingly, sanctification is then “not a continuous or steady progress,” but simply a return, over and over, to justification: “Our sanctification consists merely in being shaped by, or getting used to, justification.” (28-29)4

Law and Gospel

“Dialectical Lutheranism” tends to make “law and gospel” the hermeneutical key for interpreting both Scripture and life. Lutheran David Yeago has written about the way that Lutheran theology in the 20th century made “the assumption that a radical antagonism of law and gospel is the ultimate structuring horizon of Christian belief.”5 For those who hold this view, says Yeago, law and gospel are “irreducibly opposed” and “incompatible”: “The law is sheer oppression, the gospel sheer liberation, and this total opposition can only be ended by the negation of the law.” (40). Forde again provides an example in his book On Being a Theologian of the Cross, which contains numerous passages such as the following: “The law is not a remedy for sin. It does not cure sin but rather makes it worse. . . [T]he law multiplies sin precisely through our morality, our misuse of the law and our success at it.” William Hordern equates “law” with “works-righteousness,” and “demands that come to us with threats of punishment and promises or rewards” (137). Law is about “extrinsic” rewards and punishments (146). “Lutheran” Anglican Paul Zahl states: “[T]he law is always heard as an attack.” “[T]he law . . . accuses, and it accuses always.”7

Third Use of the Law

Correlative to this understanding of law as entirely negative is a rejection of what the Lutheran Confessions and Reformed theology call the “third use” of the law – law understood not as condemnation of sin or as a restraint of wrong-doing through threat of punishment, but rather as guide for living for the Christian who lives under grace. Forde writes that “talk of a ‘third use’ mistakes the relation of the Christian in this present age to the law. . . What the Christian knows is not a different use of the law, but just the difference between law and gospel, and thus what law is for.” (81) Similarly, Hordern suggests that the “third use of the law” is a “logical impossibility.” Echoing the “dialectical” understanding of justification, Hordern suggests that the only point of a “third use” would be subsumed under the “first use,” to “turn again to the good news of forgiveness.” (120)


Given its reluctance to speak of “progress” in the Christian life, “dialectical Lutheranism” uses a very different kind of language to talk about the effects of grace – the language of “spontaneity”: Forde suggests that a “truly good work” is one “that is free, uncalculating, genuine, spontaneous.”8 Again, he writes: “The insistence that only those works are truly good that are done spontaneously and joyously out of faith, hope and love belongs to the very heart and soul of Luther’s Reformation.”9 Grace cannot be prepared for in any way. It is not correlated to any human activity whatsoever. If sanctification exists, it is something that “just happens,” spontaneously.


Reluctance to speak of Christian sanctification in terms of “progress,” or “journey,” combined with an insistence that grace is always spontaneous naturally leads to a dilemma when it comes to Christian practices such as prayer, worship, or sharing in the sacraments. Specifically, dialectical Lutheranism seems not to know what to do with Christian practices. The temptation is to interpret them as “works righteousness”” rather than “means of grace.” Forde does not mention the sacraments in his discussion of either sanctification or Luther’s “Theology of the cross”; he does refer to Aristotle, where he picks up Aristotle’s claim that we become just by doing good deeds, as we acquire skills by practicing. To the contrary, it is only the one who is already righteous who does good works. Works performed on the premise of “becoming righteous” are “not good works to begin with.”10 Hordern has a chapter on “Justification and the Practice of the Church.” He notes that “The doctrine of justification puts more emphasis upon serving the neighbor than upon religious actions such as attending worship services.”11 He is willing to say that worship centered in Word and Sacraments “has proven in the experience of Christians to be a means of grace whereby believers have found new strength for the living of the Christian life.” (170) But the bulk of the chapter is concerned to assert that “The doctrine of justification means that Christian life is not guided by a set of rules and regulations.” (177) Much of what Hordern writes about the manner in which Christians should be patient with and forgive one another, recognizing that we are all forgiven sinners is valuable. Having granted that, it is significant that Hordern says little about the sacramental and liturgical practices of the church except to insist that “A church that patterns its actions after justification will not pursue its members and harangue them into attending worship services.”(171) He does say that a church “committed to justification will . . . search for ways to make the worship experience, meaningful, joyous and relevant to the Christian life.” (172) But this is a minimal discussion of the sacramental and liturgical dimensions of the church’s life. It is perhaps significance that in in Paul Zahl’s book entitled Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, the words “baptism,” “eucharist,” “Lord’s Supper,” “liturgy,” do not appear. Zahl does state that “A theologian of grace has no ecclesiology. The ecclesiology of a theologian of grace is a negation of ecclesiology. . . . grace trumps church every time.”12


I would suggest that “dialectical” Lutheranism is, first, a poor reading of Luther. It ignores the kinds of things that Luther says in his sermon on “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” in which he does not reduce sanctification to simply returning to justification, “again and again.” Luther is willing to speak of moral progress – using the language of “more and more” even in respect to justification: “Christ daily drives out the old Adam more and more in accordance with the extent to which faith and knowledge of Christ grow. For alien righteousness is not instilled all at once, but it begins, makes progress, and is finally perfected at the end through death.”[my emphasis]13

Luther is willing to speak of the “second kind of righteousness” (sanctification) using language such as “that manner of life spent profitably in good works, in the first place, in slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self,” as “crucify[ing] the flesh,” “work[ing] love,” “living soberly with self, justly with neighbor, devoutly toward God,” “his righteousness follows the example of Christ in this respect and is transformed into his likeness.”

Similarly, in “The Councils and the Church,”14 Luther speaks of “sanctification” and “virtue” in a way that would make Methodist “virtue” ethicist Stanley Hauerwas proud, and would no doubt sound like “works righteousness” to a “dialectical Lutheran”:

For they, rejecting and not understanding the Ten Commandments, preach much about the grace of Christ instead. They strengthen and comfort those who remain in sins, telling them that they shall not fear sins or be terrified at them, since through Christ, these are all done away; and yet they see people going on, and let them go on, in open sins, without any renewal or improvement of their lives. From this one observes that they really do not understand the faith and Christ aright, and abolish Him even as they preach Him. For how can a man preach rightly about the works of the Holy Ghost in the First Table and speak about comfort, grace, forgiveness of sins, if he neither heeds nor practices the works of the Holy Ghost in the Second Table, which he can understand and experience, while he has never attempted or experienced those of the First Table? Therefore it is certain that they neither have nor understand either Christ or the Holy Ghost, and their talk is mere foam on their tongues, and they are, as has been said, good Nestorians and Eutychians, who confess or teach Christ in the premise and deny Him in the conclusion, or idiomata; that is, they teach Christ and destroy Him by teaching Him.

At the 2013 Trinity School for Ministry Ancient Evangelical Future Conference, Lutheran theologian David Yeago gave a marvelous talk on Luther’s shorter catechism,15 in which he pointed out that Luther’s Small Catechism has often been misread because of the Law/Gospel hermeneutic. Luther’s beginning exposition of the Ten Commandments has been understood to lead the sinner to despair; the third section of the catechism on the Lord’s Prayer is meant to lead the sinner to prayer for forgiveness. To the contrary, claims Yeago, the structure of the Catechism follows the structure of the Creed. The first section (on the Ten Commandments) corresponds to the first article and points to God as Creator and the moral law as reflecting God’s intentions for his creation. The second section on the Creed corresponds to the second article and the work of Christ. The third section on the Lord’s Prayer corresponds to the article on the Holy Spirit, and is meant to direct the catechumen to holiness. Luther does not even mention justification in the Small Catechism.


Concerning the “law/gospel” hermeneutic, the key question is whether what the apostle Paul means by law and gospel is what “dialectical Lutheranism” means. What does Paul mean by the expression ergon nomou (“works of the law”)? The “New Perspective” on Paul argues that “works of the law” refers specifically to those “boundary markers” that separate Jew from Gentile, namely circumcision and kosher diet. As I have written elsewhere, I think this too narrow a reading. “[T]he logical flow of Paul’s argument is to move from circumcision as one element of ‘works of the law’ (the New Perspective’s emphasis) to the greater moral demands of the law as expressed in the Ten Commandments, and, on that basis, goes on to claim that unless one keeps fully the moral requirements of the law as well, that circumcision and kosher will do one no good. Since both Jews and Gentiles are guilty of idolatry, theft, lying, and adultery, all stand condemned before the moral requirements of the law, and can only be justified by God’s free gracious gift in Christ. As I read it, Paul consistently uses ‘law’ language to push beyond mere boundary markers to focus on the violation of the moral dimension of the law.”16

As I read it, “works of the law” has a very specific focus for Paul. It refers to violations of the objective moral law contained in both Tables of the Ten Commandments. That is, when Paul talks about justification apart from “works of the law,” he is dealing with the question of “objective moral guilt.” If that is the case, then the New Perspective has Paul wrong here. But then, so does “dialectical Lutheranism” to the extent that “dialectical Lutheranism” tends to interpret “law” and “justification” psychologically. For “dialectical Lutheranism,” “Law” is any command that one perceives as restricting and demanding, and against which one tends to rebel. A nice illustration is found in Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice, where he talks about “law” in terms of driving his car and not wanting to obey the 45 mph speed limit sign, or wanting to smoke because everyone tells him not to do it. Dialectical Lutheranism also understands “law” to mean any performance standards that are imposed on one by someone else, leading to a sense of unworthiness. But this is not what the apostle Paul means by law. Paul is not concerned about my psychological disposition to break speed limits or feelings of inadequacy I might have because of overly demanding parents or my temptations to resist the unreasonable demands of authority figures. For Paul, justification “apart from works of the law” has to do with only one thing, concrete objective guilt for real violations of the moral principles expressed in the Ten Commandments.

In addition, for Paul, the threat of the law is not the permanent situation of the Christian, but, rather, the situation of those who live before the coming of Christ and the fulfillment of the law. Because we have been redeemed by Christ, and the Holy Spirit dwells in us, we can rejoice in God’s law as a reflection of his love, and, although we continue to be sinners, there is nonetheless real growth and progress in holiness.

If “dialectical Lutheranism” tends to interpret “law” psychologically, it tends to do the same with “grace.” If my problem is either one of “guilt feelings” generated by my own failure to live up to my own or others’ standards, or resistance against the arbitrary demands of others, then the solution to such “guilt feelings” is also interpreted psychologically. When I perceive that Christ loves me apart from my “performance,” then I am grateful, and I can respond in gratitude to Christ’s love.

While such gratitude is certainly a wonderful thing, it is not what Paul is talking about when he talks about justification, and it is certainly not what Paul is talking about when he talks about sanctification. When Paul writes about justification, he is concerned with genuine pardon for genuine objective wrong-doing. When Paul writes about sanctification, he does not use the language of gratitude but of “union with Christ,” of deliverance from slavery to sin. As Richard Hays states in Moral Vision of the New Testament: “There is, interestingly, no emphasis in Paul on gratitude as a motivation for obedience.”17

The problem with such a psychological interpretation of law and gospel is that it confuses the seriousness of objective guilt with psychological “guilt feelings” or resistance to the unrealistic expectations of parents or others, and it presumes way too much about the power of psychological feelings of gratitude to produce real change. I sometimes am grateful for what Christ has done for me, and I find myself having compassion on others in return, but sometimes I find myself feeling nothing – neither gratitude nor awe – and I resent that some inconsiderate jerk is making demands on me, and so I respond with resentment. And I do this even knowing that Christ has died for me.

What is missing from the psychological account is Augustine’s notion of the habitus. My problem as a sinner is that I have done objective wrong, and have not loved God and my neighbor; but I am also trapped in the continuing dispositions and habits of previous sinful behaviors. The only escape from such enslaving habits is the origination of a new habitus, which will replace my previous propensity toward self-aggrandizement with a genuine love for God and others. For this, the only solution is a real ontological transformation that takes place as, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, I am united to the risen Christ and share in his resurrection life. This union resulting in a genuine ontological tranformation takes place not through “spontaneous” psychological awareness, but through the objective means by which I come to share in Christ’s risen life: the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist, the practices of prayer, reading Scripture, living in Christian community. Such transformation is slow and gradual, and there are frequent setbacks, but it is genuine. The language that Christian tradition uses to describe this transformation is sanctification, deification, theosis.

Why is it that contemporary “dialectical Lutheranism” tends to interpret law and gospel psychologically rather than in the objective language of forgiveness from genuine guilt, and the objective ontological transformation following from union with Christ? I suspect that the source may lie in the dependence of contemporary interpreters on the readings of Paul found in mid-twentieth century Lutheran biblical scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann and Ernst Kasemann. Bultmann, in particular, was a liberal Protestant, who, because he rejected the miraculous, interpreted the New Testament in terms of Martin Heidegger’s existentialist philosophy. Because Bultmann did not believe in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, he interpreted justification existentially – in terms of “self-understanding.” Because he did not believe in a second coming of Christ, Bultmann re-interpreted eschatology in terms of an existential “moment of decision.” Bultmann’s re-interpretation of justification was, consequently psychological and a-temporal. Such an interpretation was a far remove from either Paul or Luther’s understanding of justification as an appropriation of Christ’s objective work “outside of myself” and my own “self-understanding”(“alien” righteousness).

One of the more helpful insights in Aquinas and Hooker is the distinction between various kinds of law, particularly the distinctions between eternal, moral, and positive law.

Any command, whether written or oral, is an example of positive law. But the only positive laws that are morally binding are those that are in accord with the moral law to love God with all of our heart and our neighbors as ourselves. (There can be positive laws that bind even if they are not moral in themselves. So, the existence of speed limits on highways is an example of positive law that is not arbitrary, but prevents automobile accidents in which genuine harm could occur.) The gospel frees us from all kinds of positive laws, not only the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, but also the arbitrary positive laws of others’ expectations for us or our own perfectionism or scrupulosity or mere demands for social conformity. At the same time, it is important not to confuse such social expectations with those positive laws that echo genuine moral law.

There are real dangers in not clearly distinguishing between positive law and moral law. The law that Paul addresses in Romans is not the law of either our own or others’ expectations of us, but the real moral law (expressed in the Ten Commandments), and this is the law that we are guilty of violating. Thus, in Romans 7, Paul is not discussing a struggle with “law” as social disapproval, but with genuine violation of the divine moral law: coveting is a sin because it violates the command to love my neighbor as myself, and it demonstrates a lack of trust in God’s providence and care in my life.

Is Justification by faith therapy?

I would suggest that any adequate theology of justification and grace must contain at least the following: a) divine initiative: the human role is always one of response to grace, not its condition; b) genuine forgiveness of real sins: the human role is not a condition of, but a response to forgiveness; c) real transformation and participation in holiness: grace is effective; it produces real change, and this happens through union with the crucified and risen Christ.

These are all objective realities that, while they affect the self, take place outside the self. This, I think, is the primary insight of Luther’s notion of alien righteousness. Even “c) real transformation,” takes place through a union with the risen Christ who is outside my consciousness.

While justification may have consequences in terms of my self-understanding, as well as emotional and psychological consequences, justification is primarily about the forgiveness of sins, not about the psychological or emotional consequences of forgiveness of sin. Does the repeated use of personal anecdotes in “Lutheran” Anglicanism lead to the impression that justification is primarily about a change in my “self-understanding” rather than about an objective act that has taken place outside myself? Is this focus on transformation of self-understanding (how I “see” myself and others) the legacy of Schleiermacher and Bultmann more than Luther?

Paul’s standard paradigm for Christian behavior is indicative followed by imperative. (Because . . . therefore . . ) Karl Barth is consistent with Paul here in his insistence that theologically we need to begin with gospel, not law. It is only in the light of the good news of our redemption in Jesus Christ that we can appreciate our own sinfulness. But that does not mean agreement with the standard “dialectical Lutheran” trope that the “law always condemns.” It is very clear that, for Paul, the law condemns “prior to Christ,” whether chronologically or experientially. However, after Christ, the law has a positive function. Romans 7 is not a description of the “normal Christian life.” As Paul makes clear in Romans 8:2, “The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” (Cf. Gal. 6:2) Brevard Childs suggests (following Paul W. Meyer) that the radical Lutheran understanding of ‘law’ in Romans 7, crucial to the Law/Gospel hermeneutic, is mistaken: “Paul is not concerned in Romans 7 with the malevolent power of the law, but rather with that of sin. . . . [C]hapter 7 concerns the demonic force of sin in perverting the law that was intended by God to procure life, but has actually brought forth the exactly opposite result. . . .By isolating works from law, Paul is able to contrast God’s righteousness, not with righteousness from the law, but with Israel’s own righteousness. The just requirements of the law have been fulfilled in Christ, and are now made available to all who walk in the Spirit (8:4).”18

Paul never suggests that sanctification rests on a forensic declaration. To the contrary, Paul uses two different words to discuss two different aspects of grace: dikaiosune (justification) is a forensic declaration, and Paul uses this when discussing the objective problem of guilt. When discussing the Christian life, however, Paul uses hagiosmos, translated “sanctification” or “holiness,” and Paul associates hagiosmos with metaphors of being set free from captivity, union with Christ, and the indwelling Spirt, not with courtroom language. Paul’s common language for both justification and sanctification is that of “union with Christ,” which has two aspects, dealing with the two characteristics of sin: objective guilt (justification) and indwelling sinfulness (sanctification). So I am not holy because I believe that Jesus died for my sins. I am forgiven (and accounted righteous) because I believe that Christ Jesus died for my sins, but I actually become holy because, through faith, I am united to the crucified and risen Christ, who shares his resurrection life with me. Sanctification, which is a real intrinsic transformational change in me is not to be confused with justification which is forensic and concerns Christ’s alien righteousness outside me.

Practices as “means of grace”

It is not enough then simply to return to justification “over and over again.” Sanctification involves a real progress and a real growth in grace. Far from Christian practices being “works righteousness,” they are the necessary “means of grace” through which God makes the church holy.

As mentioned above, dalectical Lutheranism does not seem to know what to do with Christian practices, interpreting them as “works righteousnesss ” rather than “means of grace.” My own limited reading of Forde confirms that he rejects a notion of sanctification as “progress” as an example of a “theology of glory.” In On Being a Theologian of the Cross, Forde seems to equate such notions of “progress” as Aristotelian, as becoming righteous “by practice.”

However, there are a number of “practices” connected with the Christian faith: the reading of Scripture, the practice of prayer, corporate worship, the celebration of the sacraments. It is surely no coincidence that numerous spiritual writers – Medieval mystics, Anglican George Herbert, contemporary writer Kathleen Norris – speak of the practical necessity of continuing the mundane tasks of praying the Daily Office, of reading and meditating on Scripture, of receiving the sacraments, of worshiping in community, when one is beset by doubts.

Dialectical Lutheranism tends to repudiate all of this as a form of “works righteousness.” But that rather misses the point. Traditional definitions of the sacraments speak of them as “means of grace” – grace, not works! Biblical language about prayer and meditating on God’s word uses the language of “refreshment,” of “quenching one’s thirst,” of “satisfying hunger”: “Taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps. 34:8). Hebrews 6:5 speaks of those “who have tasted the goodness of the word of God.” In John 6:53, Jesus says, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Engaging in Christian practices of prayer and meditating on Scripture, receiving the sacraments, reciting the daily office, and worshiping with fellow Christians is not “works righteousness,” trying to “earn our salvation.” Rather, these are the means by which the risen Christ shares his life with us. When we are starving, we do not think of eating as a “good work,” but as a way of keeping ourselves alive. Similarly, when beset by doubt, when we are suffering from spiritual sickness, the last thing we need is to starve from lack of spiritual nourishment. In times of spiritual aridity, when prayer and worship and Bible reading might seem meaningless, one of the best things we can do is to just keep on doing it anyway. Pray, read the Bible and meditate on Scripture, receive the sacraments. These are means by which God feeds the starving soul.

Luther was more than willing to criticize external rituals, and people who put faith in pilgrimages or indulgences. However, he never suggests that the external practices of the church – reading Scripture, liturgical worship, or administration of the sacraments – are examples of “works righteousness.” To the contrary, they are the means by which God communicates holiness to the church. They are “means of grace.” About Scripture, Luther says:

This is the main point. It is the high, chief, holy possession from which the Christian people take the name “holy,” for God’s Word is holy and sanctifies everything it touches; nay, it is the very holiness of God. Romans 1:16 says, “It is God’s power, which saves all who believe thereon,” and 2 Timothy 4:3, “It is all made holy by the Word of God and prayer”; for the Holy Ghost Himself administers it, and anoints and sanctifies the Church, that is, the Christian, holy people, with it and not with the pope’s chrism, with which he anoints, or sanctifies fingers, garb, cloaks, cups, and stones. . . .

On preaching:

We speak, however, of the external Word orally preached by men like you and me. For Christ left this behind Him as an outward sign whereby His Church, His Christian, holy people in the world, was to be recognized. . . . Wherever, therefore, you hear or see this Word preached, believed, confessed, and acted on, there do not doubt that there must be a true ecclesia sancta catholica, a Christian, holy people, even though it be small in numbers; for God’s Word does not go away empty ( Isaiah 55:11), but must have at least a fourth part, or a piece of the field. If there were no other mark than this one alone, it would still be enough to show that there must be a Christian church there; for God’s Word cannot be present without God’s people, and God’s people cannot be without God’s Word.

On baptism:

God’s people, or the Christian holy people, is known by the holy Sacrament of Baptism, when it is rightly taught and believed and used according to Christ’s ordinance. That, too, is a public sign and precious, holy possession whereby God’s people is made holy, for it is a holy bath of regeneration through the Holy Ghost, in which we bathe and are washed by the Holy Ghost from sin and death, as in the innocent, holy blood of the Lamb of God. Where you see this mark, know that the holy Christian people must be there, even though the pope does not baptize you or even if you know nothing about his holiness and power. . . .

On the eucharist:

God’s people, or a Christian, holy Church is known by the holy Sacrament of the Altar, when it is rightly administered according to Christ’s institution and is believed and received. That, too, is a public mark and precious, holy possession, bequeathed by Christ, whereby His people is made holy [my emphasis]. By means of this sacrament it exercises itself in faith, and openly confesses that it is a Christian people, as it does also by means of the Word of God and baptism.19


Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas and Anglican Richard Hooker (but also Martin Luther and Karl Barth) insist that God always works through created intermediaries. The “dialectical Lutheran” focus on “spontaeneity” seems closer to Ulrich Zwingli here; for Zwingli, God always works directly, not through created intermediaries. Rather, for Aquinas and Hooker, conversion is a supernatural act, but an act of grace restoring and perfecting an original creation. It is not a miracle. That which provides for continuity between the fallen creature and the regenerate creature is the image of God, which is not lost in the fall, and cannot be. This means that, for Hooker (reading Aquinas through Reformation eyes), while Christ’s alien righteousness is the ground (formal cause) of my justification, justification is effective and produces a real change in the creature. Sanctification is real, and produces a real change from potency to act in the justified human being, as the transformed creature becomes more and more Christ-like. As such, language of “participation,” “deification,” or theosis, is not a problem. “Deification” does not mean that creatures cease to be creatures, but that, through union with the humanity of the crucified and risen Christ, who is, in his personal identity, God the Son of God, justified sinners are transformed as they participate in the life of the risen Christ.

To the contrary, for dialectical Lutheranism, justification seems to be a direct creative act, a miracle, in which God does not restore an original creation, but creates something entirely new. There is no continuity whatsoever between the fallen creature and the new creation, except God’s word of proclamation, which destroys the sinner before justifying through the word.

This leads to the question of continuity. Aquinas and Hooker retain both teleology and the potency/act distinction as a way of explaining continuity and identity through change in time. Does “dialectical Lutheranism” embrace an ontology of immediate creationism, in which, at each moment God simply creates a new world? Is there a way to account for continuity of identity, especially in creation, fall, restoration, and regeneration if one rejects the Aristotelian distinction between potency and act?

One of the unclarities in “dialectical Lutheranism” is that it simultaneously seems to affirm and deny a real change in the justified sinner. On the one hand, there seems to be a suspicion of any genuine transformation; yet, on the other hand, the very affirmation of justification by faith presupposes that there must be such a transformation, insofar as faith, which is indeed, an act of looking away from the self to the alien righteousness of Christ, is indeed, a human act. It is not God who believes instead of the sinner, but the sinner, who, certainly through grace, exercises a genuine act of faith. Given, however, that the will of the sinner is bound, is turned in on itself, such an act of faith demands a genuine transformation, a change. Even if I am not in charge, even if my faith is a gift from God, even if my faith looks away from me, “I” am the one in whom God gives the gift of faith, and the faith I exercise is indeed, my act. If, however, grace is effective in producing an act of faith, how can we consistently claim that grace is able only to effect faith, but not to produce other genuinely transformative acts in the justified sinner? How can we claim that the sinner, through grace, exercises genuine faith, and, yet that the same grace that enables faith, cannot enable “deification”? Does this not point to a limit, not in the sinner’s ability, but the divine efficacy? Are we not tying God’s hands in the name of a certain understanding of creatureliness and total depravity? Does God need to denigrate the creature in order to uphold his infinity and omnipotence?

Insofar as Aquinas and Hooker believe that God works through created realities, they also affirm that “grace perfects nature; it does not destroy it.” God and the creature are not two competitive realities operating on the same plane. In grace, God moves in creatures in such a way that human freedom is enhanced rather than destroyed. “Dialectical Lutheranism” seems to presuppose that where God acts, the creature must give way – thus a repeated insistence by “Anglican” Lutherans that there is “no such thing” as free will. Does this not presume that God and the creature are two competing actors in the same field of being? Does this denial of free will mean that it is necessary to deny the existence of human freedom in order to enhance divine freedom?

Why not embrace instead the scholastic dictum that grace presupposes and does not destroy nature? If one recognizes that evil is privation and not a positive reality, one does not need to deny the existence of “free will” to speak of grace. Rather, since all creation is already God’s good work, regeneration restores the creature to its proper telos; it returns the will to proper desires and proper use of created goods. One does not then speak of “free will,” but of “freed will.”

Is regeneration, strictly speaking, a miracle, or is it a mediated act? In Luther’s essay “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” he distinguishes between “alien righteousness . . . from without,” through which we are justified by faith, and a “proper righteousness,” by which we “work with the first,” “follow the example of Christ,” and are “transformed into this righteousness.” Does not such language of transformation demand the Aristotelian language of potency and act in terms of sanctification? Is not sanctification a real progress in righteousness, where we, by following Christ, become “conformed to his image”? Is not sanctification the place to talk about “pilgrimage,” “virtue,” and “transformation”, as those who have been “declared righteous” in justification, actually “become righteous” through inner moral transformation?

What about practices and habit? Is it not the case that practices such as prayer, Scripture reading, and worship form character, and result in real spiritual growth, even if they do not justify? It is, of course, a major thesis of the law/gospel dialectic that “law” does not enable performance. An exhortation “Do this!” does not enable me to do it. But does “gospel” understood as mere proclamation of pardon or forgiveness do any more to enable performance? If the problem is the “bondage of the will” (addiction to destructive habits of sin), then the proclamation that I am forgiven for the way I have lived out those destructive habits is indeed good news. It is wonderful to hear that I will not be condemned for offenses that I seem to have no power to stop doing. But that does not change the problem of the “bondage of the will” itself. The alternative to “bad habits” is “good habits.” In order to produce good actions, I must become good. There must be a real change within me. But justification is not something in me. It is, “alien righteousness.” It is “forensic.” It is “imputation.” Such an “alien righteousness” can not help me if what I need is to change, because change must come from within. As Paul says: I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20). Or, in the language of John’s gospel: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5). The “in Christ” language of Scripture is not associated with “imputation,” with declarations of forgiveness, but specifically with the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, and with mutual indwelling between the risen Christ and the church that is his body.

I would suggest that the ecclesial practices of the church (worship, sacraments, scripture-reading, prayer) provide the connection between the priority of grace as an alien righteousness, (the ascended Christ outside me) and sanctification as a change from within (Christ within me). The practices as practices do not make me righteous; nor do they encourage me to look within myself for righteousness. However, they do produce a change within me as they direct my attention outside myself to hear the proclaimed word of Scripture, to address the God who is outside me in prayer, to participate in union with the crucified and risen Christ who stands at the right hand of the Father, as through worship and the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, the indwelling Holy Spirit uses these practices as mediated channels of grace to unite me to the risen Christ and transform me from within.

Some Final Advice for my “Lutheran” Anglican friends

The above critique is not meant to turn my “Lutheran” Anglican friends away from Luther. Please read Luther, but read all of Luther, not only what he says about justification by faith and “law and gospel.” Particularly read material on his Christology, and his theology of the sacraments, his views on worship, his catechisms, his exposition of the Sermon of the Mount. Read the Lutheran Confessions as found in the Book of Concord. These are indispensable for understanding Lutheran theology, and I notice what seems a complete neglect of this material among “Lutheran” Anglicans.

Continue to read Lutheran theologians, but read other Lutherans besides Bultmann, Kasemann, and Forde. David Yeago is very helpful:

“Introduction: A Catholic and Evangelical Theology?” and “The Bible” in Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church, James Buckley and David Yeago, eds. (Eerdmans, 2001).

“Crucified Also For Us Under Pontius Pilate: Six Propositions on the Preaching of the Cross,” Nicene Christianity, Christopher Seitz, ed. (Brazos, 2001).

“The Catholic Luther,” The Catholicity of the Reformation, Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, eds. (Eerdmans, 1996).

“The Office of the Keys,” Marks of the Body of Christ, Braaten and Jenson, eds. (Eerdmans, 1999).

Explore other relevant theological texts on questions of “law,” “gospel,” “justification,” the sacraments, and Christian ethics.

Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, Living Together, and Ethics.

Karl Barth. Evangelical Theology (Eerdmans, 1992).

Karl Barth. “Gospel and Law,” Community, State, and Church (Peter Smith, 1968).

Stanley Hauerwas. The Peacable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, 2003).

Eric L. Mascall. Via Media: An Essay in Theological Synthesis (Longmans, Green, 1956).

Thomas F. Torrance, “Justification: Its Radical Nature and Place in Reformed Doctrine and Life,” Theology in Reconstruction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965).

Thomas F. Torrance. Theology in Reconciliation. Essays Toward Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West (Wipf & Stock, 1996).

Investigate some other interpretations of Paul besides those of “dialectical Lutheranism”:

Brevard Childs. “Law and Gospel,” Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Fortress, 1992).

Brevard Childs. The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul. (Eerdmans, 2008).

Do not neglect your own Anglican tradition, and other classic texts on Christian spirituality, both contemporary and classical. There is much wisdom here. If I found myself stranded on a desert island, and could only take a handful of texts with me, I confess that I would prefer George Herbert’s poems or Thomas Traherne’s The Centuries or a volume of John Donne’s sermons to Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity of the Church or his Commentary on Galatians:

Simon Tugwell. Prayer: Living With God (Templegate, 1975), Prayer in Practice (Templegate, 1974), Ways of Imperfection:An Exploration of Christian Spirituality (Templegate, 1985).

Kathleen Norris. Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (Riverhead, 2008).

George Herbert. The Temple (numerous editions)

Thomas Traherne. Centuries of Meditations (numerous ediions).

John Donne. Sermons and Poetry (numerous editions)

Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (numerous editions)

Julian of Norwich. Showings (also called Revelations of Divine Love)

Walter Hilton. The Ladder (or Scale) of Perfection

Finally, do not neglect the practices of the church. Both Anglicanism and traditional Lutheranism have in common a spirituality that is ordered by liturgical worship. Develop a regular practice of reading Scripture, and of prayer. Do not neglect the Daily Office. Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are two of Cranmer’s great gifts to the church. And, finally, immerse yourself in the worship of the church. Do not neglect the liturgy or preaching of the Word or the sacraments. Christian “practices” really are “means of grace.” They are not “works righteousness.”

Further reflections from my blog:

“I Love Your Law: A Sermon about law and grace

“Anglican Reflections on Justification by Faith”

“What is Anglican Theology?”

1 Gilbert Meilaender “Hearts Set to Obey,” in Carl Braaten & Christopher Seitz, eds. I Am the Lord Your God: Reflections on the Ten Commandments (Eerdmans, 2005) 253-275. (This essay is required reading for every student in my introductory Christian Ethics course.)

2 Gerhard Forde, “The Lutheran View,” in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, ed. Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 13.)

3 Meilaender, , 259, 261

4 A similar approach is found in William Hordern, Living by Grace (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975).Hordern begins his discussion with two chapters on “Justification and Religious Paternalism” and “The Forgiveness of God,” both of which are about the Lutheran understanding of justification. There then follow two chapters on “Liberation from Sin” and “New Life in Christ.” The reader might approach these chapters expecting to find a discussion of sanctification, but discovers instead that they are further discussion of the importance of justification.

5 David S. Yeago, “Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology: Reflections on the Costs of a Construal,” Pro Ecclesia vol. 2, no. 1 (1993) 37-49.

6 Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heideberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 27.

7 Paul Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 6, 22.

8 Forde, Christian Spirituality, 30.

9 Forde, On Being A Theologian of the Cross, 109.

10 Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 104-105.

11 Hordern, 170.

12 Zahl, 252,254.

13 Martin Luther, “Two Kinds of Righteousness.” http://www.mcm.edu/~eppleyd/luther.html

14 Martin Luther, “On the Councils of the Church.” http://www.godrules.net/library/luther/NEW1luther_e14.htm

15 David Yeago, “Scripture and Rule of Faith in the Lutheran Tradition” http://www.tsm.edu/audio/aef_2013_scripture_and_rule_of_faith_in_the_lutheran_tradition

16 William G. Witt, “Anglican Reflections on Justification by Faith,” Anglican Theological Review Spring 2013.

17 Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (NY: Harper & Row, 1996), 39.

18 The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul” The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 105.

19 Martin Luther, “The Councils and the Church” http://www.godrules.net/library/luther/NEW1luther_e14.htm


  1. I deeply appreciate your “alien” and systematic mind dear friend!!
    This is a most helpful overview.

    Blessings on your mysterious head,


    Comment by Martha Giltinan — January 3, 2014 @ 9:38 pm

  2. Bill, thanks for this. It’s fascinating reading. I recognize that I’m out of my league in commenting on this, but a couple of things come to mind here.

    First, I am struck by the degree to which the word “guilt” has acquired an overwhelmingly psychological connotation in recent decades. So many people use the word “guilt” when they really mean “feelings of guilt.” But if we lose the original meaning of “guilt,” the feeling will cease to make sense. Moreover, it renders the reality of guilt in a positive legal system virtually incomprehensible.

    Second, I fear you are in danger of reducing gratitude to a mere emotion, which it is not. Yes, there is an affective side to gratitude, but gratitude is much fuller and richer than that. I think there is a great deal to be said for gratitude being a central category in the life of the Christian.

    The Heidelberg Catechism, whose 450th anniversary we observed last year, is divided up, not only into the 52 Lord’s Days for catechism preaching, but also into three major parts: (1) sin, (2)deliverance, and (3) gratitude. Under gratitude are treated the Decalogue and the Lord’s Prayer. There is no hint in this third section that gratitude is a subjective psychological condition. It is, rather, a basic attitude of the heart that conditions everything we do, including the very ordinary acts we perform in obedience to the precepts of the Decalogue and the life of prayer as exemplified in the Our Father.

    The many biblical references to “thanksgiving” see it, not as a matter of what we feel like at the moment, but simply of rendering to God what is due him. I can still say and mean, “Thank you, Lord,” without necessarily feeling the emotion that is so frequently associated with thankfulness. Thanksgiving is what we do, not what we feel. I do not mean to discount the feeling, but I don’t think that’s primarily what scripture has in mind in using the term “thanksgiving.”

    Comment by David — January 6, 2014 @ 1:41 am

  3. One more thing, Bill. I’ve often thought that Glenn Tinder (The Political Meaning of Christianity) is a Lutheran Anglican, due to his citation of Luther and his paradoxical mode of thinking, but whether he would conform to all the characteristics of the school you describe above I do not know. Just a side note.

    Comment by David — January 6, 2014 @ 1:46 am

  4. David,

    Your point about gratitude is well taken. As I distinguished between genuine guilt for objective wrong-doing and “guilt feelings,” so I should have distinguished between “gratitude” as an “emotional response” or a “subjective psychological condition” and gratitude as a “basic attitude of the heart.” Augustine and Thomas would say that gratitude in this sense is a “habitus” or, in modern English, “disposition.” Scripture is full of references to “thanksgiving” and genuine gratitude is indeed an important motivation in the Christian life. I say a bit about the sacraments above, and “eucharist” is simply an English transliteration of the Greek word meaning “Thanksgiving.”

    I also hope that I did not sound as if I were disparaging or downplaying the role of emotions or what Augustine and Thomas would call “passions” in the Christian life. Discussion of the passions is a significant feature in Thomas’s theological anthropology, and both Augustine and Thomas are emphatic that, if sin is the pursuit of lower or distorted goods, i.e., “false loves,” then conversion and sanctification is a process of learning how to love those goods that are genuinely good, and specifically learning how to love God, who is the “chief good” or summum bonum.

    I realized after writing this that I could have and should have said a lot more about conversion, repentance, the “cruciform” character of sanctification, and a proper and positive understanding of the emotions or passions in the Christian life. In criticizing what I think is a one sided approach, I could come across as offering a one-sided alternative.

    Where I would “correct myself” or add to what I have said, however, would be to qualify and not abandon what I wrote above.

    In reference to “gratitude,” I would reiterate that a “disposition” or “habit” (habitus) is not the same as a spontaneous “feeling” of gratitude. “Feelings” come and go; “dispositions” are formed over time. “Gratitude” as a disposition is part of the lengthy process of sanctification. The practices of the church are “means of grace” by which gratitude is formed.

    You mention the “heart,” which I think is significant. In modern English, “heart” is a largely emotive metaphor. I think the biblical understanding of “heart” refers more to something like the intentional center of one’s entire being, which involves not only emotions, but is rather a matter of intellect (knowledge), will (love), passions (emotions) and dispositions (habits).

    Choice of terminology can set things in a wrong direction from the beginning, and I think that one of the unfortunate problems during the time of the Reformation was the prevalence of a “voluntarist” understanding of anthropology. This “voluntarism” showed itself in debates over the role of “free will” in salvation, with “will” being understood as the simple ability to make choices. And the dialectical Lutherans” are correct that “free will” as the simple ability to make choices is fairly useless when it comes to radical change of life. I cannot simply become a different person by an act of will, no matter how much I grit my teeth. But I think the danger of “dialectical Lutheranism” is to substitute the language of psychologism for voluntarism. Change “just happens” when I return again and again to justification, and, realizing my own sinfulness, I am overwhelmed with a psychological sense of gratitude.

    I think the language of intentionality is more helpful here. Gratitude is not just a “spontaneous feeling.” It is a change of how I think about things; actions I engage in (“giving thanks”), and actions toward others: how I respond in love to both God and neighbor.

    In order for gratitude to exist, there must be a genuine transformation away from false loves to genuine loves. This can only take place through an “ontological” transformation at the deepest level of human intentionality (“the heart”). Gratitude is a “habit” or “disposition” that is created through the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit who unites the justified sinner to the risen Christ. Paul uses “in Christ” and “freedom from slavery to sin” and “sanctification” language to talk about this. Augustine and Aquinas and Richard Hooker use the language of the “infused virtues” of faith, hope, and charity, which are, again, made possible because the justified sinner is united to the crucified and risen humanity of Jesus Christ.

    This transformation of the passions and dispositions is not something that happens “spontaneously.” It takes time, and, for this reason, the language of “pilgrimage” and “narrative” and “virtue formation” is a more helpful way to talk about these things than returning to justification again and again.

    At the same time, justification is not a “one time event.” It is not a single moment in my past but is rather a permanent state. In this life, I never move “beyond” being a justified sinner. The basis on which I can stand with a clear conscience before God is the finished work of Christ outside me. That is not something I have to earn, and it is something for which I am certainly grateful. Moreover, justification is not something I need to earn or work toward. It is not the goal of sanctification. It is, however, the basis on which sanctification becomes possible. As I am united to the risen Christ, my sins are not only forgiven, but based on the reality that God loves me first in Christ, and shares Christ’s risen life with me, I am more and more enabled to respond to that love with gratitude and love in return.

    This “more and more” is not something that happens all at once or “spontaneously.” Sinful “habits,” including “ingratitude” are still part of who I am, justified sinner or no. So confession and repentance are ongoing aspects of the Christian life. And there are Christian practices through which God works to produce the “more and more.” The alternative to sinful dispositions (“ingratitude”) are graced dispositions (“gratitude”). Gratitude is not formed by an act of will, but by learning to love God. Some of the ways in which we do this include being addressed by the Word of Scripture prayer, worship, the sacraments.

    Comment by William Witt — January 6, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

  5. Thanks, Bill. I appreciate your taking the time to address my concern. You write:

    In reference to “gratitude,” I would reiterate that a “disposition” or “habit” (habitus) is not the same as a spontaneous “feeling” of gratitude. “Feelings” come and go; “dispositions” are formed over time. “Gratitude” as a disposition is part of the lengthy process of sanctification. The practices of the church are “means of grace” by which gratitude is formed.

    I think you and I would express this somewhat differently, but, putting that aside, I wholeheartedly agree with what you’re getting at here. As you know, I’ve struggled with bouts of depression throughout my adult life, and during these bouts, I find myself battling all sorts of destructive emotions, including envy. I don’t feel thankful, but in my 35-year daily office regimen I nevertheless offer thanksgiving to God, who, I am confident, accepts it, even if I cannot feel it at the moment. This is when I have to lean most on the larger Christian community and the historic faith handed down to us, including the ordinary means of grace you cite above. I have to rely on the promises of God, even if I have trouble believing them in my current state.

    I agree fully with your articulation of the relationship between justification and sanctification. Thanks again, Bill.

    Comment by David — January 6, 2014 @ 9:41 pm

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