A Review of The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century


[1] "When [the American Churches] are less able and willing to form their members spiritually or morally, [they] put heavier emphasis on their role as public actors." (p.189)  Anyone who has come to think that his\her denomination is just publishing too many "social statements" and is doing a bit too much lobbying, might jump for joy at this not so subtle critique of our current state as the church in society.  In some ways he or she would have Robert Benne as an ally - but not totally. 

[2] "The Lutheran" (January 2005, p. 8) reports the words of David Gibson:  "The rift in America is between differing views of how religion should work to alleviate society's ills: Is religion principally a matter of personal morality leading to uplift through personal conversion, or is it about social progress through faith-inspired policy changes?"  A question I gladly answer: "Yes!"  But then, I am a "middle child" and used to living between the vigorously asserted opinions of younger and older brothers. 

[3] Maybe this is a problem for the contemporary Lutheran vision of the Christian and her role in society, and therefore, for Robert Benne's fine book.  The Lutheran vision is a paradox and people do not readily relate to paradox.  There are just not enough "middle children" out there.

[4] The heart of this book, chapter 3, "A Contemporary Interpretation," is a statement of the Lutheran paradoxical vision of how the church is present in the political world as a credible voice.   The building blocks of this "Public Theology" are: 1. God's work of salvation; 2. human nature; 3. God's active reign in this world; and 4. the nature and meaning of history.  All these building blocks are paradoxes in action, according to Benne.  We resolve the paradox at the risk of losing our way.

[5] To begin with: God works salvation, all of it, but humans do not wish to have it that way.  Instead, humans insist upon having a hand, even if only a small part, to play in their own salvation.  Individuals under the delusion of being involved in the work of their own salvation are bad enough.  Groups or societies of under the same delusion are even more dangerous since they eventually claim salvific powers for being part of the group.  Communism and Nazism are mentioned as two common examples for this thinking. 

[6] Benne adds an extensive caveat to this first concept.  He makes the case that, even though all options of human group effort are finite and penultimate at best, there are differences between choices nonetheless.  He presents a diagram that has the work of Jesus Christ as its core around which is a layer of Old Testament and Apostolic principles that describe the vision of the core; and then the core's, and therefore the churches',  relation to the world around.  This layer contains such things as the doctrine of the Trinity, Justification, the concept of Christian mission, Callings of Christian in marriage, family, and the 10 Commandments. The layers that follow represent a) the Churches contemporary theological reflection on the inner layer, b) actual public policy that may or may not relate to the center, and c) general cultural issues. 

[7] The argument is that the further out from the core an issue falls, the less important it is and the less the church should be tempted to make pronouncements about it.  On the other hand, if a political scheme arises that contradicts or violates the layers closer to the core, or the core itself, then the church increasingly has no choice but to speak.  The scope of the book does not allow Benne to argue the case on what issues are closer to the core and which are further out.  That is sad since that is where the root of most arguments among us seems to lie.

[8] The second concept is fairly obvious to Lutheran thinking.  Humans are saints according to their salvation but at the same time sinners.   In spite of the image of God built into our very being we are always in the process of attaching our highest hopes and aspirations to something less than God.  Humans have many good capacities such as the capacity for love and justice, yet, when these are put into the service of "lesser gods," they produce hell on earth. 

[9] The third concept seems to be the hardest to grasp, says Benne.  It holds that God reigns over this world in two ways; in law and Gospel.  The twofold rule of God does not mean that there is a spiritual kingdom of the soul which is the only place the church is to work or speak and a worldly kingdom, completely autonomous where even Christians meekly submit to its ways and means.   Instead Benne suggests that the left hand reign of God governs the interaction between humans and the right hand reign governs the interaction between humans and God.  

[10] The final concept is History.   History is the place where "the Kingdom is in your midst." (Luke 17:11)  But yet history is also under judgment, it is finite; it is where human sin is rampant.  Any victory in history must always be seen as temporary since only God can bring the Kingdom to full victory.

[11] Benne goes on to present an assessment on how the expressions of the Lutheran tradition have conformed to this vision.  At the book's publication, 1994, the LCA and ALC were still living memories and the ELCA still in its infancy.  Maybe that dates the book but the discussion is valuable.  It should be noted that since 1994, the LCMS, whose work Benne also scrutinizes, has published its booklet on Church in society entitled: "Render unto Caesar... Render unto God" which makes good use of part 3 of this book on the mode of the connection between church and world.

[12] Benne then makes an assessment of the work of three prominent American theologians to show how the Lutheran vision can be fruitfully employed in public work.  The tragedy in this chapter is that, of the theologians he reviews (Niebuhr, Tinder, and Neuhaus) only one was ever "Lutheran." Richard John Neuhaus, who by the time of this books' publication already had left the Lutheran fold, is the nearest thing to a living, practicing Lutheran who displays the vision allegedly unique to Lutherans.  Maybe the lack of prominent paradoxical voices is a contemporary Lutheran problem all in itself. 

[13] Further, I muse what would have happened had Benne gone all out and reviewed the most prominent public theologians of the early 1990's like Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon who certainly were most prolific writers and lecturers in that time period.

[14] As Lutherans in a Puritan-rooted,  Calvinist-dominated America it would probably be good for us to see not only how the paradoxical vision was followed by Niebuhr, Tinder, and Neuhaus, but also how American popular public theology negates the Lutheran vision.   I say this because in Benne's own framework our reflection on the core and its traditions is a more inner circle concern and therefore would need attention and assertion against a Calvinist culture. 

[15] The third part of the book is a study on how the Lutheran vision comes to influence public life.   Benne distinguishes between the Church's direct and indirect influence upon the public consciousness.  "Indirect" here means that the church has formed the consciences of her members, who then act out the vision in their lives.  "Direct" methods include direct, public statements by the denomination and direct action, as for example a boycott.  Though Benne allows for the need of the latter, he clearly prefers indirect methods.  

[16] One might note that Luther engaged in both of the above modes of interaction with the political life of his day.  Yet, Luther's direct addresses to the princes were usually occasioned by requests from those very princes to put a situation under the scrutiny of the word of God.   The princes have stopped calling with such requests long ago.   Yet, we live in a democracy and all of us are 1/250 millionth of a prince.  I grant that less than 5% of "the prince" now listens to the Lutheran voice, but maybe we Lutherans finally need to, humbly and patiently, come to terms with this and work on the spiritual formation of the souls that sit before us every Sunday.   Is not every sermon then a direct address to the "prince" or to the culture?

[17] Martin Luther's pamphlet on "Christian Liberty" and his letters to prince and peasant alike seem to suggest that he felt that a heart captive to the word of God would naturally serve the neighbor.  Even the prince "served" his subjects.  And, did not Luther warn the princes that they deserved rebellion in their realms for seeking power instead of service?  And did not Luther lament that "there are so few Christians in the world?" 

[18] We, Benne included, lament the lack of voice "the church" has in the public square today.  Yet, the solution is to make more and better disciples.   Maybe the "public square" is not as "naked" as we think after all.  I find myself wishing that instead of the lament over the state of the public square in chapter 2, Benne had taken Luther's tack and started from the state of the individual soul, each soul a bit of prince after all.

[19] This book has left me wishing.  I wish for a theological description on the Lutheran Christian in a democratic society.  Luther deserves a hearing, even in 2005, but we really need to reinterpret him for a non-monarchial political situation.  Having read this book, I hope it will be Benne who would do so.

See Benne's response.


© March 2005
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 5, Issue 3