From the Worldwide Faith News archives

ELCA Commissions 'The Promise of Lutheran Ethics'

From Brenda Williams <>
Date 28 Oct 1998 14:29:43


October 28, 1998


     CHICAGO (ELCA) -- Ten Lutheran theologians worked together and on
their own for two years to produce "The Promise of Lutheran Ethics."
Augsburg Fortress, publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America (ELCA), released the nine-chapter volume in August.  The ELCA's
Church Council and Division for Church in Society commissioned the work.
     The Rev. John R. Stumme, the division's associate director for
studies, traced the purpose of the volume to a stalled attempt of the
church to develop a social statement on human sexuality in the early 1990s.
That process revealed significant differences on what Lutherans think the
church should teach about sexuality, he said.
     "Behind these differences there often existed different
understandings of Lutheran ethics.  It became apparent that in order to
further discussion on this and other controversial moral issues, there was
a need for teachers in our church to examine in a fundamental way the
nature of Lutheran ethics today," Stumme wrote in the book's introduction.
     The authors took a variety of approaches to dealing with tradition
and change, said the Rev. Karen L. Bloomquist, ELCA director for studies.
Some "call for retrieving traditional themes," while others "set aside
certain characteristically Lutheran conceptualizations."  In yet other
cases, "Lutheran themes or emphases are nuanced or reworked," she wrote in
the introduction.
     "Together, these different approaches are part of a common
conversation," said Bloomquist, "in which shared theological understandings
and dynamics make it possible to converse."
     In the chapter "Lutheran Ethics," Dr. Robert Benne, professor of
religion, Roanoke College, Salem, Va., calls Lutheranism "a living
tradition."  His purpose for writing was "to identify the basic themes of
Lutheran ethics" and "to reflect critically about the points at which the
modern world challenges the tradition of Lutheran ethical reflection."
     "I believe Lutheranism as a living tradition is at risk" of not
communicating a "distinctive Lutheran ethos" to future generations, Benne
wrote.  So, he takes on his task with a sense of urgency.
     Dr. Reinhard Hutter, associate professor of Christian ethics and
theology, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, wrote that his chapter,
"The Twofold Center of Lutheran Ethics," revisits the birth of "Protestant
Ethics" in the context of the "Western world" and offers a Lutheran
response to the 1993 papal encyclical, "The Splendor of Truth."
     The twofold center of Christian ethics is "Christian freedom and
God's commandments," said Hutter.  "Christian freedom is the embodiment of
practicing God's commandments as a way of life."
     "I will describe Lutheran ethics as an ethics of formation shaped by
certain practices," Dr. Martha Ellen Stortz, professor of historical
theology and ethics, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley,
Calif., wrote in the chapter "Practicing Christians."  She continued, "Then
I will focus on one of the practices central to that community of faith,
personal prayer, and investigate how this practice shapes the people who
use it."
     "A Christian trained in the practice of prayer," said Stortz, "not
only practices but acts in the world and on behalf of the neighbor."  She
added, "Prayer informs moral vision ... to be oriented to the God in whom
we place our final faith and trust."
     "African American Lutheran ethical action is rooted in the African
American ethical tradition and similar to the pietistic tradition of
Lutheranism articulated in the United States during the mid-nineteenth
century," the Rev. Richard J. Perry Jr., assistant professor of church and
society, urban ministry, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, wrote in
the chapter "African American Lutheran Ethical Action."
     Perry examined historical examples of African American pietism and
then identified "some implications for a 'Lutheran' ethic in the twenty-first century."  He added, "Retrieving the legacy of those who reflect
their community of origin while members of the Lutheran church is critical
for moving the church from a preoccupation with 'right doctrine' to 'right
     The Rev. James M. Childs Jr., dean of academic affairs and professor
of theology and ethics, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio, wrote
the volume's chapter on "Ethics and the Promise of God."  He said,
"Standing over against our historical existence, God's future gives birth
to faith, hope, and love -- the energy of the Christian ethic."
     The chapter looks at "the complexities of moral choice," said Childs.
"In matters of both personal choice and public policy, we are constantly
mired in the ambiguity of life in a fallen world," he wrote, examining "how
far and in what ways it is appropriate for the church to engage in social
concerns and public policy."
     The Christian Bible includes the teachings of St. Paul on a number of
moral topics confronting the early congregations.  In the chapter on
"Pauline Ethics," David E. Fredrickson, associate professor of New
Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., noted that Lutherans have
drawn on Paul for the bases of their ethics, but he claimed that Paul
actually offers an alternative to the common Lutheran interpretation.
     Instead of focusing on individual motivation for good works,
Fredrickson "makes thematic the power of persons in community to influence
their corporate lives and the world for good or for ill."  He challenged
Lutheran congregations to test "all things by those who must bear the
consequences of the decisions reached."  By doing that, he said, "the
church aligns itself with the reforming work of Martin Luther."
     "The Reform Dynamic," the chapter Dr. Larry L. Rasmussen, professor
of social ethics, Union Theological Seminary, New York, authored with
Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda, doctoral student, Union Theological Seminary, New
York, said, "A sustainable world requires that large-scale systems and we
ourselves be changed."
     The Lutheran church addresses new issues by accepting change and by
examining the past and the present as a "believing community," Moe-Lobeda
and Rasmussen wrote.  "The community proceeds carefully, attentive to the
needs of justice for order in an uncertain age," they said.
     The final chapter is "A Table Talk on Lutheran Ethics," a transcript
of "important threads" from a conversation all the authors had about the
contents of the whole volume during their final day-long meeting.  "Table
Talk" refers to the published words of Martin Luther that were transcribed
by friends as he discussed a variety of topics.
     "This Table Talk is offered as an example of what needs to be an
ongoing, deepening moral conversation in the life of the church," wrote
Bloomquist, who edited the chapter.  "The writers interacted with one
another and in ways that communicate their common, complementary and
differing emphases," she said.
     The book concludes with an extensive bibliography on Lutheran ethics.
     The ELCA's Division for Church in Society sent a post card to the
church's 18,000 ordained and lay ministers, offering a complimentary copy
to those who returned the card.  The division has sent out about 9,000 free
copies of the volume, and Augsburg Fortress has begun sales.

For information contact:
Frank Imhoff, Assoc. Director 1-773-380-2955 or NEWS@ELCA.ORG

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