The Author's Response


[1] Is doctrine of interest anymore to theologians and ethicists? If the answer to this is no, if doctrine ceases to incite curiosity and inspire questions, then the work of Christian theology and ethics too, will end. If the answer is no, then theologians will no longer inquire into the nature of doctrine, study doctrinal formulations from the past, and figure out how to best construct doctrine. Ethicists will no longer ask how human behavior relates to God; they will not prescribe action in community that is predicated on the doctrine of redemption. The end of doctrine would be the end of both theology and ethics.

[2] So I am grateful to my interlocutors in this volume for assurance that doctrine has not come to an end. Their essays demonstrate excitement for a new conversation about doctrine that takes a critical look at how doctrine is assessed and where it can go. The new “end” of doctrine requires a wrestling with the binaries that have been so constitutive of postmodern theology—Barth versus Schleiermacher, experience against language—and instead the integration of difference into constructive moves. How can doctrine both refer to God while being articulated in human categories and language? How can claims about God that are fallible be true? What criteria are required to negotiate between competing options? Can doctrine be approached without automatically addressing normativity and authority? These questions of epistemology and content, knowledge and truth claims, criteria and the power of exclusion are at the center of theology today.


[3] These questions prompt my response to the issue that Ekaterina Lomperis notes at the end of her essay: “My first question—perhaps shockingly simple—would be what does and does not count as doctrine?” Does any articulation of faith count as doctrine? The question, given my hopeful inspiration towards more doctrinal “production,” is an important one. Perhaps my proposal concerning more (rather than less) doctrine runs the risk of “anything goes,” as Lomperis intuits.

[4]This is a good place to start because it begins a conversation not with the familiar discussion about normativity, but about what doctrine is and is not. As all terms in history, doctrine’s meaning changes. Luther thinks about doctrine in terms of both referent and meaning, while nineteenth-century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) famously defines dogmatic theology as “the knowledge of doctrine that now has currency in the evangelical Church.”[1] Even different people in conversation with each other might mean different things when they use the same term!

[5]Given difference, what doctrine is and what counts as doctrine are questions open for negotiation. Is doctrine a teaching (as the German Lehre suggests), a referential term, a linguistic proposition, faith’s grammar? If doctrinal production requires intellectual effort, can it also be lived in personal and communal contexts? Why is the term “authority” significant in the semantic field of doctrine (as Lomperis suggests with her question about the “crisis of authority” in the face of competing doctrine)? Is doctrine primarily a product of theological consensus regarding a community’s significant ideas about self, God, and world, as Schleiermacher sees it, or is it determined primarily by church authorities?


[6] The Lutheran tradition has historically been interested in doctrine, particularly its “purity.” “Pure” is an adjective that can be found in the preface of the Latin text of the Augsburg Confession. This “doctrine” taught “among us,” we read there, is “based on the Holy Scriptures and the pure Word of God.”[2] Doctrine, as the word appears in the Augsburg Confession, alludes to Luther’s reformation struggles. A God whose gospel was compromised by the addition of church tradition terrified Luther. Was Christ’s gift to his disciplines (cf. Matt 16:19[3]) identical with the papal power to excommunicate? When confronted with Romans 1:18,[4] Luther cried out: “Where can I find a gracious God?”[5] But when the church offered absolution in the sacrament of penance, did God’s pronouncement of forgiveness truly occur? Luther confused church power with Christ; human tradition with divine word; law with gospel. The Bible—the Psalms, Hebrews, and Romans—became the foci of his study, his academic lectures, and his existential searching, as Luther strove to ease his terrified conscience and quiet his soul. When the truth came, it was distinct, concise, and certain: “For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith [Habakkuk 2:4]’” (Romans 1:17; NRSV). Christ’s cross is the place of the revelation of divine mercy. The word of absolution is Christ’s testament, sealed with his blood and set into eternal effect by the resurrection. The pure gospel in its distinction from human works and words was the divine word that set Luther’s conscience free. This word, then, became the criterion for judging all other words about God, and would inform all construction of doctrine.

[7] Luther’s gift to Christianity was his discovery of the pure gospel, unfettered by human tradition and work. Yet doctrine produced in the tradition of Luther’s conviction may come to an end, when repetition turns into cliché and words lose their capacity to refer. Doctrine can become a relic from the past. While the Lutheran tradition relishes in its distinctive legacy of “pure” doctrine, the danger of petrification threatens. How soon after Luther’s linguistic vitality—the analogy of bridal exchange, the evocative image of the babe in Mary’s arms, the words of the everyday—did theology crystallize, constrain, and congeal doctrine? To fix truth in place is taken as an intellectual imperative, perhaps even a social and political responsibility. Identity and control are part of the nature of doctrine. Diversity is unsettling, the will to power is inevitable, and apathy really domesticates.

[8] Thus purity is not a guarantee that doctrine retains its capacity to inspire theology in new contexts. Rather, it is the work of theologians and ethicists in every generation to apply intellectual, spiritual, and experiential resources to test past formulations and to discern terms that convey meaning in the present. Doctrine’s adequacy to communicate its referent is theology’s commitment; ethics must be prepared to introduce novelty if God decides to surprise. If what Luther meant by purity has to do with the single-minded and confident focus on Christ alone, then this “purity” requires negotiation. Words gain novelty in new semantic contexts, and thereby require clarification. Doctrine’s referent might be understood and experienced in new ways, urging theology to construct anew. The gift of doctrine that is received in a theological tradition is to be appreciated by actively engaging it.

[9] The history of Lutheran theology reveals times of intense creativity and intellectual generativity. While the term “orthodoxy” might sound like coerced uniformity to some, the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy in the 17th and 18th centuries was actually a period of intensely sophisticated and beautiful theological work. Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) and Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), among other theologians, discussed doctrine in their writings, which are replete with detailed explorations of the divine nature, Christ, Scripture, and salvation.[6] While inheriting the doctrinal gifts of their reformation predecessors, these gifted theologians produced doctrine for their times. The interest in justification expanded into a series of doctrinal topics that addressed questions such as divine cause of justification, sources of knowledge concerning this cause, and effects of justification under the guidance and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Philosophical, historical, theological, and biblical resources were creatively mustered in order to construct doctrine from an intellectual perspective that simultaneously mapped onto the spiritual life. Theology is, as these theologians from Lutheran Orthodoxy agree, a spiritual “habit” that is oriented to salvation. These texts—unfortunately underrated in contemporary theology—are exemplary of a theological tradition committed to doctrinal purity while upholding intellectual robustness and spiritual depth as indispensable to the task.

[10] Lutheran theology at the turn of the 20th century in Germany is another example of a time at which theologians undertook generative intellectual work on doctrine. In fact, the theology and ethics produced in these years set the conceptual parameters for Lutheran theology of the rest of the century. Familiar categories, such as law and gospel, word and faith, reformation and Romans, were carefully worked out at this time in relation to Luther’s texts. Karl Holl (1866-1926), famous for initiating a scholarly movement that would be characterized by a historical approach to Luther—the Luther Renaissance[7]—studied Luther’s newly discovered Lectures on Romans (1516-1517) and worked out an understanding of religious experience that he identified as Luther’s reformation breakthrough. Since Holl, Lutherans speak of Luther’s dramatic experience of the gospel as the event precipitating the Protestant Reformation. Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), to cite another example of a systematic theologian working at the turn of the 20th century, wrote a doctoral dissertation on Luther’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The results prompted his creation of a term for the divine, the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans,” that became the focus of his famous book, The Holy (1917). The theologians of the Luther Renaissance would provoke the development of Lutheran doctrine by their interest in religious experience.

[11] All theology is contextual; theirs was contextualized by the political turmoil of Germany at war. Holl supported German nationalism around World War I with his promotion of the “Germanic Luther.” This legacy—which would continue into the association of particular Luther scholars with National Socialism—weighs on the work of Lutheran theologians today. It is theology’s task today to identify more clearly than ever before the anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic, and anti-Islamic entrenched habits of thinking about doctrine.[8] Doctrine must bear witness to its referent: the God of the gospel of justice and truth.


[12] So to return to where Lomperis ended, does anything go when it comes to doctrine? While doctrine should concern academic theologians and ethicists, it is also relevant to the church’s intellectual leadership. This is a pressing issue for contemporary Lutherans, particularly the ELCA today. Over the past decades, there has been an exodus of academic theologians from the ELCA. Many of them associated with “postliberal” theology have gone on to embrace Roman Catholicism. “Postliberal” theology has specific commitments to doctrine. Simply put, doctrine is the “grammar of faith” that informs the way Christians speak. The esteem for doctrine as significant for church identity was the reason why Lutheran theologian George A. Lindbeck investigated the nature of doctrine in the first place.[9] An ecumenical impasse centered on two distinct takes on doctrine, namely the Lutheran theological emphasis on the centrality of the doctrine of justification and the Roman Catholic understanding that doctrines can be organized into a “hierarchy.” Lindbeck proposed a rule-oriented theory of doctrine that would facilitate ecumenical dialogue. A dialogue that had been impossible for five hundred years was given new life by Lindbeck’s understanding that doctrines functioned differently within specific discourses. Rather than pit one doctrine against its opposite, doctrines were embedded in specific denominational worldviews, generating their respective discourses. Thus Lutherans and Roman Catholics deployed doctrine differently, while committed to the truth of the Trinity, Christ, and justification. The irony of this ecumenical bridge-building is that some of the Lutheran theologians associated with postliberal theology have (re)turned to Rome, and with their departure, the ELCA has unfortunately lost a group of theologians serious about doctrine.

[13] “Social statements,” at least on the basis of the ELCA webpages,[10] seem to currently be the genre in which theological and ethical articulation takes place. As Professor Childs points out in his essay for this volume, “This description of the church’s process of moral deliberation [in social statements] I believe is a good description of the task of Christian ethics in general.” The development of new perspectives on ethical questions and the articulation of the appropriate terms and concepts to articulate positions requires participation in intersubjective dialogue, commitment to common sources, and reliance on divine guidance. This method, Prof. Childs writes, that informs the production of the church’s social statements “show[s] some genuine resonance with Helmer’s concerns for a theological development of doctrine that takes God’s work and human experience seriously in openness to novelty that is at the same time faithful.” Yet there remains in my opinion, the problem of naming. Why should “social statements” replace “doctrine,” if as Childs argues, the church’s particular understanding of social statements presupposes a regulated practice of study, intellectual activity, spiritual discernment, and intersubjective consensus? Could it be that the term “doctrine” has been monopolized by postliberal theology and that its exit from the ELCA means a tacit agreement that doctrine must be defined in the way in which postliberal theology requires? Could it be that the term “doctrine” has left the ELCA along with the theologians committed to its endeavor? I hope not, and hope very much that other theologians in the church will help imagine new ways in which doctrine can be understood. I am concerned that the term doctrine is too facilely rejected because of its monopoly by one kind of theology. But is there not enough room for negotiating the meaning of doctrine, the nature of doctrine, as a productive discussion in the ELCA? And thereby inherit a rich intellectual tradition of doctrinal study from the past that is also part of the contemporary activities of other Lutheran churches, such as the LCMS[11]?

[14] Doctrine, neither its definition nor the mechanism by which it represents dominant ideas, is not a done deal. Rather, and this is the reason why Barth is so appealing, doctrine represents human efforts to make intelligible and true claims about a God, who is always bigger, more exciting, more mysterious, and more generous than can be humanly captured. Barth radically insists on the primacy of God over doctrine.[12] Doctrines, such as Trinity, are human intellectual efforts at articulating aspects of the divine reality that are significant for knowing God and living in relation to God. Yet analysis and formulations change, as Professor Childs recounts in his essay. The Greek and Latin Trinitarian terms of early ecumenical councils have ceded to the vernacular in recitations of the Creed and theological explication. Medieval metaphysics used to explain the three-in-one relations has been replaced by Hegelian notions of “being” in “becoming.” Thus the doctrine of the Trinity has moved historically through particular linguistic expressions and their relevant semantic fields, through different historical contexts and relevant intellectual resources. Trinitarian “baby-talk” as Luther wrote about this doctrine, represents theology’s best efforts, yet the formulations are always revisable; the way they refer to the divine reality, always fallible. This is, I think, comforting news for those who have traditionally been excluded from the enterprise of doctrine. New experiences, alternate ways of reading the Bible, and the recovery of marginalized voices can and should contribute to doctrine’s production. Black theology, as Professor Hoffmeyer insists, is crucial to the conversation, as are feminist/womanist/mujerista theologies.

[15] The relation between doctrine as social construction and the God who transcends doctrine, as Professor Hoffmeyer continues, is an important point for further exploration. Hoffmeyer insightfully points to this tension in my book, a tension that I admit remains unresolved. The intuition towards a productive conversation places Barth and Schleiermacher together towards the same end. I appreciate Barth’s insistence on the advent of divine word that calls human doctrinal efforts into question and equally appreciate Schleiermacher’s proposal on how theologians can apply their best intellectual efforts to doctrinal analysis and construction. The way forward points in the direction of bringing two different concerns together: the one issue of making claims about God, admitting epistemological presuppositions, the other of making claims about God, focused on content. Barth and Schleiermacher were acutely aware of both considerations, while each emphasized one side of the equation. I highlighted Barth’s contribution in the book because I was pleasantly surprised to discover how human an enterprise Barth considered the production of doctrine. But more questions need to be asked in terms of how doctrine is a product of intersubjective experience and articulation. Here we are in Schleiermacher’s territory. Schleiermacher was profoundly interested in intersubjectivity: Christ experienced in the community, and the dialectic of theological dialogue of diverse articulations of this experience. If all we have are human efforts, then we must be prepared to radically dispel with appeals to transcendence for verification, confirmation, or even judgment. Yet theology is about the divine Speaker—not reified speech considered apart from Speaker. Can this subject of doctrine prod theology to construct a concept of intersubjectivity that brings consensus and correspondence back into consideration?

[16] Yet doctrine represents that part of theology’s work that requires specific intellectual training. Language competence, in-depth knowledge of church history, philosophy, and theology are the resources needed to work competently with doctrines from past and present. The intellectual formation of the theologian and ethicist is thus an institutional and political issue. It is on this significant point that I think attention needs to be paid. Over the past decades there has been a significant loss of intellectual fire-power in theology due to two perhaps inevitable economic and cultural shifts. The first issue concerns the financial viability of denominational seminaries. Many seminaries have been deleteriously affected by the economic woes of 2008. Impact is felt in institutional rearranging, accommodationist hiring strategies and salary freezes, and drastic curricular revision with online/hybrid course options. The classic four-year classroom curriculum is a luxury that few seminarians can afford, let alone seminaries support. Perhaps for the first time since Schleiermacher outlined the basis for a modern theological education is the intellectual formation of a theological elite being radically called into question. Will the tradition be mediated in such a way that it inspires the next generation to rise above the status quo?

[17] The second difficulty concerns the intellectual excellence required for maintaining a robust theological tradition of doctrinal production. Many levels of education participate in the channeling of energies in forming a clerical and theological elite. Gifted undergraduates are, by virtue of economic and political realities, siphoned off into majors that promise high-paying jobs. The number of wonderful students who might be attracted to seminary education is thus squashed early on. Even if some of these students retain their idealism in a future clergy paycheck, their humanities formation is compromised by cutbacks in classics and language departments. Exposure to basic linguistic tools—Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and German—and courses in history sensitive to religious studies that would facilitate historical knowledge of doctrine and church history are rarely part of an undergraduate transcript. Attraction and education are crucial to the future of the church’s intellectual leadership. Both Luther and Schleiermacher were heavily invested in pedagogical reform, from grammar school to doctoral studies, as evidence of their commitment to a lively theological tradition. If the church is serious about doctrine, then its current leaders must be prepared to address the issues of preparing and supporting those who will produce it.

[18] Lomperis, Childs, and Hoffmeyer agree with me that doctrine has a referent. The language of doctrine is about something. Doctrinal language refers to a God, who is interested in the flourishing of the human project and restoration of a beautiful world. Because doctrine is about God in relationship with persons, communities, and world, the intellectual work of articulating doctrine should reflect this compelling referent. Doctrine comes alive when connected to the reality of the living God. Theology and ethics can be responsible and creative when producing this kind of doctrine.

[19] But the question that Lomperis asks about theology in the academy raises an important question. Does theological and ethical God-talk have any traction in the contemporary arts and sciences? On the surface, it looks as if the theological interest in doctrine is the church’s prerogative. The academy is secular, any God-talk necessarily excised. Yet this surface stalemate does not represent the facts. Historically, theologians, like Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Friedrich Schleiermacher and John Henry Newman (1801-1890), were committed to envisioning blueprints for the university. They located theology in the university precisely in order to maintain theology’s participation in intellectual discussion. This assignment was significant in both conversational directions. Theology would gain from new insights into humanity and world from other disciplines; it would participate in academic consensus regarding what it means to think and know, and to appreciate connections that would strengthen its own intellectual efforts. In the reverse, theology can expand imaginations limited by the elimination of God from the metaphysics presupposed by modern science, challenge assumptions about method and content that restricts human experience to the explicable, and point to the cultural memory of God embedded in the history of the western university. Recent work by American religious historian Robert A. Orsi, for example, challenges “secularist” assumptions informing modern historiography.[13] Religion’s uncanniness—miracles, spirit possession, encounters with the holy—complicates historical positivism. A historiography that is responsible to religious experience must stretch assumed restrictions and consider new possibilities for integrating religious experience into academic study. Theology can do the same. Theology can take up the God-factor in the academy in the hope that current hostility and misunderstanding would be alleviated. Perhaps academic fields will be transformed in the process!

[20] In closing, I thank my interlocutors in this volume for their beautiful summaries of my book, for their perspectives in moving the conversation about doctrine forward, and for their probing questions that I hope will continue to inspire more discussion. While the focus here has been on theology’s construction of doctrine, I hope that thinking about doctrine might prove productive for imagining a new “end” in the sense of goal or aim for theology and ethics.

Christine Helmer is Professor of Religious Studies and German at Northwestern University. She can be contacted at


© July/August 2015

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 15, Issue 7


[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study (1811/1830), trans. Terrence N. Tice (Schleiermacher Studies and Translations 1; Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), § 195 (p. 97).

[2] The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 33.

[3] The biblical passage that is regarded as biblical foundation for the office of the keys is Matthew 16:19: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (NRSV)

[4] “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness…”

[5] See Theodor Dieter’s brilliant essay on the doctrine of justification, in which the question of “how” is converted to “where”: “Thus the question of the real Luther of the Reformation is not, ‘How do I find a gracious God?’ but ‘Where do I find a gracious God?’ The answer can only be in the gospel.” (Theodor Dieter, “Why Does the Doctrine of Justification Matter Today?,” in The Global Luther: A Theologian for Modern Times, ed. Christine Helmer [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009], 199.)

[6] See the ongoing publication of 13 volumes of Johann Gerhard’s Theological Commonplaces in English translation by Concordia Publishing House: (accessed June 20, 2015). Concordia Publishing House has also published 8 volumes of theological works by Martin Chemnitz in English translation: (accessed June 21, 2015).

[7] Details of this movement are documented in a recently published volume of collected essays (in English and German): Lutherrenaissance: Past and Present, ed. Christine Helmer and Bo Kristian Holm (Forschungen zur Kirchen- und Dogmengeschichte 106; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015).

[8] Brooks Schramm makes this specific point the central task of Lutheran theology today: “When one reads Luther with a careful eye toward ‘the Jewish question’ (and without a predisposition to exonerate him), it becomes apparent that, far from being tangential, the Jews are rather a central, core component of his thought and that this was the case throughout his career, not only at the end. If this is in fact so, then it follows that it is essentially impossible to understand the heart and building blocks of Luther’s theology (justification, faith, salvation, grace, freedom, Law and Gospel, and so on) without acknowledging the crucial role placed by ‘the Jews’ in his fundamental thinking.” (Brooks Schramm, “Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People,” Introduction to Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People: A Reader, ed. Brooks Schramm and Kirsi I. Stjerna (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 3-4.)

[9] This is the title of his famous book. See the 25th Anniversary Edition of George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, with a New Introduction by Bruce D. Marshall and a New Afterword by the Author (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009; orig. 1984).

[10] The term “doctrine” as a way of organizing articulation of belief in an intellectually committed way is nowhere to be found on the site

[11] The website for the LCMS lists “doctrine” as rubric for two links, one on the doctrinal position of the LCMS, a second on the “Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles,” namely Christ, law/gospel, church, Scripture, sin, and confessional subscription: (accessed June 20, 2015).

[12] See part one of chapter 3 in Theology and the End of Doctrine.

[13] See for example his essay on recovering Rudolf Otto’s term “the holy” for contemporary religious studies in: Robert A. Orsi, “The problem of the holy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies (Cambridge Companions to Religion; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 84-108.