"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.
 "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
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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
 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.
 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
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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
 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.
 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
 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
 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.
 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.
© March 2005
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 5, Issue 3