There is no more timely book than The Paradoxical
Vision. Given issues like war, peace, sexuality, and how
the "public" voice of the Christian community ought to be
expressed, this book provides a theological and ethical framework
that is vital. Its vitality lies in a clear articulation of
Lutheran "public theology" or "social ethics." Written by an
elder among Lutheran ethicists, this book delivers on its
title. How Benne does this is a matter worthy of
 One of the claims made by theologians and ethicists in the
Liberation Theology movement has been the truthfulness of
authors. Social location is critical to the development of
any theology or ethics. The reader is entitled to know how
the author's social location informs and shapes one's thinking.
 The Preface to The Paradoxical Vision certainly
fulfills that need. Here Benne reveals those social,
religious, and intellectual sources that nurtured his spirit,
thinking, and understanding of the Lutheran concept of the
relationship between the church and society. Thus, Benne
writes that he wants to share his "thoughts on Christian social
ethics, Lutheranly conceived" (pp. ix).
 What is the fundamental problem according to Benne?
The organization of the book answers this question. Part I
assesses the state of "public theology" in America. In a
clear, yet highly nuanced argument, Chapter 1 presents an analysis
of public theology in America. Public theology for Benne is
"the engagement of a living religious tradition with its
public environment-the economic, political, and cultural spheres of
our common life" (pp. 4). This engagement involves knowledge;
that is, interpretation of the world according to the tradition and
action by institutions and individuals (7-10).
 The reader catches a glimpse of Benne's latter argument;
namely, that all living traditions (Benne sometimes uses the word
religious) form and shape individuals, and institutions make
corporate statements that the world receives. With the
decline of the Enlightenment project, the rise of a form of
"individualism" that grounds moral activity in the self, and a
world that is increasingly fragmented, Benne concludes that "The
older cultural coherence is gone. New interest groups
practice their hermeneutic of suspicion on whatever is left of it"
 Chapter 2 presents an interesting assessment of American
public theology. Benne agrees with the argument of a
religious historian, Mark Noll, who suggests that American public
theology has been shaped by Calvinistic theology and could use "a
Lutheran nudge." Through its focus on the doctrine of
sanctification, the religious impulse of the 1950s led to an
assumption that individuals through their individual and collective
actions could bring in the Kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit
would transform the Christian who would transform the society in
which they live. However, those who embraced a Marxist
interpretation of the world (i.e., being on the side of poor and
marginalized people), partially contributed to a reversal of all
 It is here that one can agree and disagree with Benne.
On the one hand, mainstream Protestantism lost its voice in the
public arena. No one really cared what the church thought
because what Christians professed to believe lacked intelligibility
and credibility. That is, since one's salvation comes from
God alone through Jesus Christ alone, one's treatment of people
created by God often was allowed to be inconsistent with that
 On the other hand, one can disagree with Benne who
attributes this reversal, in part, to "adversarial movements"
emerging within America and mainline Protestantism (pp.35ff).
Gender feminism, gay and lesbian liberation movements,
multiculturalists, and ecological militants challenged the
one-sided interpretation of the Bible and the Christian
tradition. Rather than view these new public voices as
adversarial, a more charitable view argues that these movements
enhanced the public square. One can hardly forget the Civil
Rights Movement and its religious and theological basis for both
its indirect and direct nonviolent action. In fact, some
Lutheran clergy and lay people, in some parts of the church and the
country, found adequate theological justification in classic
Christian and Lutheran documents for expressing Lutheran public
 Chapter 2 ends with a description of the rise of the
neo-conservative theological movement (Benne locates himself
here). This movement, which includes theologians and
ethicists from both the Jewish and Christian tradition, organized
and published articles that publicly engaged those perceived to be
more liberal and left wing progressives. Peter Berger and
Richard John Neuhaus (who has since joined the Roman Catholic
Church) figure prominently as Lutheran contributors to this new
movement. The future of public theology in America resides
not in those "adversarial groups," but in "orthodox groups" who are
"self-consciously connected to classic Christian sources" (pp.
 Part II, then, is a commanding part of the book. In
three chapters, Benne outlines the paradoxical vision, examples of
"official Lutheranism," and individual exemplars of the paradoxical
vision. Chapter 3 argues that the core of the paradoxical
vision is justification by grace through faith on account of Jesus
Christ. God acts and human beings receive. Moreover,
individual Christians are called says Benne, in our various
"locations to exercise our Christian discipleship" (pp. 67).
Two qualifications exist that shape our response to God's grace:
rare direct expressions of faith to institutions and the sinful
nature of human beings (simul justus et peccator).
What we do in our various locations (Benne later uses "places of
responsibility," (pp. 195) carry no salvific significance; yet, the
Christian is motivated to love the neighbor.
 Benne moves forward by outlining four themes that
constitute the "Lutheran attitude" in public theology. These
themes constitute the theological framework for public
theology. Christian public theology can be nudged in a
Lutheran direction by recognizing, first, the distinction between
God's act of salvation and human activity. The gospel is
radical and universal because it presents salvation as a
gift. God's people no longer have to be preoccupied with
their salvation. The Christian response is faith, followed by
love directed to the neighbor.
 Closely connected with this core vision is a moral
vision. The moral vision includes the "Ten Commandments,"
"faith active in love and justice," "preciousness of all created
life," "and the covenantal structure of God's creation." As
with the religious vision, the moral vision must be interpreted and
"applied creatively to each new historical situation" (pp.
73). The mission of the church is clear. It is to
proclaim the radical nature of the gospel and its universality.
 The second theme of the framework is the paradoxical nature
of human beings. God's people are both justified and
sinner. As God's people, we are prone to idolize and worship
self. One wonders how the argument presented by Benne would
look if there had been a naming of a sin. While one can agree
that all people sin, there are specific sins that reside within
specific communities for which repentance and God's forgiveness is
called for. Sin prevails; yet, Christians are (Benne says)
"capable of 'civil righteousness' (pp. 77). Christians have
the capacity of doing "the right thing," but in the end, God
 The third theme of the framework is the paradoxical rule of
God. The linchpin of Lutheran social ethics, the Two-Kingdom
doctrine or the twofold rule of God, is discussed. God rules
through the law (the kingdom on the left) and the gospel (the
kingdom on the right). Here the reader encounters traditional
Lutheran theology. God creates and sustains the world.
God's law, therefore, rules through orders of creation; that is,
through the state, economy, family, and church. All people
and all of existence encounter the dynamic nature of the law which
is non-redemptive (pp. 83-85).
 God rules the kingdom on the right through the
gospel. Word and Sacrament address the world, the task of the
church. The individual who receives Word and Sacrament
through the Holy Spirit lives in both kingdoms
simultaneously. God's twofold rule of the world, then, "comes
together creatively in this world" (pp. 86-87). Christians
creatively enter the world through their calling by exercising
one's vocation. The church is the place where God's twofold
rule comes together. Word and Sacrament have indirect
influence in the world through judgment and lure, and there is
confession of "the conjoining of the two kingdoms" (87-89).
 The final theme Benne articulates is the paradoxical nature
of history. God's kingdom is here; yet, it is not here.
While there is judgment of human sin, on the other side is
hope. Christians can expect that there will be changes, but
those changes in history are not guaranteed says Benne (pp.
 Benne provides a helpful correlation between the Lutheran
attitude and the views of the Reformed tradition. The
tendencies of Reformed theology include the law becoming the
gospel, turning the gospel into law, and an emphasis on a third use
of the law (moral guides). The Lutheran attitude, with its
understanding that human beings are both justified and sinner
contributes a healthy skepticism about our knowledge about issues
people face in the world (90-98).
 These views lead to a more direct encounter with the
world. The goal is transformation of the world. Benne
identifies two organizations that exemplify these tendencies, the
National Council of Churches and the World Council of
Churches. Through their statements and actions, these two
church organizations have accepted social ethics as their primary
task. The Lutheran attitude suggests attending to its task:
"forming persons in its central religious and moral vision".
Lutherans, therefore, prefer an indirect mode (persuasion) of
engaging society rather than power or coercion associated with the
direct mode of engaging society (98-103).
 Chapter 4 is wonderful analysis of how the paradoxical
vision is embodied in "official Lutheranism." Benne provides
a review of the development of social statements developed by
predecessor bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
(ELCA), the ELCA, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Readers may benefit from Benne's discussion of how social
statements develop. Moreover, Benne, while not wanting to
focus on all the social statements of the predecessor church bodies
of the ELCA, does assess several documents to show how they reflect
the four principles of Lutheran public theology.
 Given the aftermath of September 11 and the war with Iraq,
Benne's assessment of the "Peace and Politics" social statement may
be of interest to readers. In a meticulous manner, Benne
shows how "Peace and Politics" reflects the four themes of the
paradoxical theological framework. There comes a time when
the state may engage in violence and this can be supported through
the just war theory (112-119).
 What is Benne's assessment of official Lutheranism?
While there is a critical assessment of the Lutheran
Church-Missouri Synod's public theology, Benne thinks it "is of
high quality" (pp. 141). What makes it so? They have
limited statements. Moreover, they closely adhere to their
theological and ethical core vision.
 The assessment of the ELCA effort at public theology
receives affirmation; yet, it is highly criticized. Benne
identifies four problems in the ELCA approach to public
theology. Benne writes, "The most threatening has to do with
the processes of representation so indebted to the 'interest group
liberalism' begun in the predecessor bodies." Furthermore,
Benne believes this, along with other problems, leads to "the
gradual erosion" and a lack of "theological continuity in
everything the ELCA does" (pp.142). Those who are included at
the table simply do not bring the same commitment to the core
religious and moral vision of the Lutheranism.
 I could not more disagree with Benne. One example
that comes to mind is the deep commitment to the core Lutheran
vision by so many rostered leaders, lay people, and teaching
theologians from communities of color. Why else would members
of these diverse communities of color remain in the ELCA?
Moreover, to lay a problem of the ELCA onto those communities now
being included is somewhat disingenuous. It seems to me that
the problem is far deeper theologically; namely, how can the ELCA
through its members, congregations, and church wide expressions be
disciples of Jesus Christ and witness in its contextual
reality? The issue, it seems to me, is can the ELCA, as Benne
says earlier in the book, fulfill its task of interpreting and
applying creatively its core vision in this historical
 Chapter 5 identifies three persons (all white males) who
represent the paradoxical vision, Reinhold Niebuhr, Glenn Tinder,
and Richard John Neuhaus. Each was selected because each "had
a significant effect on public theology of this Reformed-shaped
nation," they "were or are devotees of the paradoxical vision as
individuals, not as communicants of Lutheran churches," and each
goes "in somewhat different political directions from within the
framework of the paradoxical vision" (pp. 148-150). Lutheran
public theology, in the final analysis, has had witnesses in the
 Part III suggests how public theology, with its Lutheran
nudge, connects with the world. While the reader received
some early indications of the direction of Benne's thinking, he now
provides a typology of how the paradoxical vision connects with the
world. The typology includes indirect unintentional, indirect
intentional, direct unintentional and direct intentional
 Chapter 6 focuses on the first two modes of the indirect
connection. The indirect unintentional focuses on forming
individuals in the core living tradition. These individuals
communicate this core through their various callings. Thus,
the church has no direct intention of affecting the world.
Among Lutherans, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod does this well
(pp. 184-190). The second type of this mode is indirect
intentional which relies on persuasion. The church does not
control the actions of the laity, but rather seeks to bring its
core vision into conversation with the world. The church,
therefore, can "play a mediating role," provide space as it were,
for discussion of issues similar to what the Evangelical Academies
in Germany or the American version, the Lutheran Academy did along
with independent voluntary associations. Accordingly, the
church is better equipped to engage the world because it is not of
the world (pp. 191-200).
 Chapter 7 brings the reader, finally, to the direct mode of
public theology. The difference between this mode and the
indirect mode lies in the church being an actor in the public
square. Through its public statements, the church seeks to
affect the world in which we live. The church has a
responsibility to address, corporately, the world but with some
guidelines. These include credibility, distinguishing levels
of authority, and intelligibility (pp. 206-214).
 The final mode, direct and intentional action, Benne
considers the most controversial. This mode differs from the
others because the church uses power to enact its intentions.
The church marshals its members, its finances, and political status
to move public policy makers in a particular direction the church
thinks the world should go (215-218).
 It may come as a surprise to some readers, but Benne would
support a "soft" form of advocacy. He concedes that there is
a biblical basis for speaking to policy makers on behalf of the
poor. However, advocacy is limited by two principles:
"calling attention" rather than "calling the shots" and by
"focusing on extremes and living the middle ground alone." Fewer
efforts by the church will be better; that is, the church should
exercise restraint (221-224).
 At times, Benne laments the situation within the
ELCA. Yet, he is hopeful. The paradoxical vision will
survive through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
 Since the arrival of The Paradoxical Vision, I
have required this book in my courses on Christian ethics and
church and society. I do so, not so much because I agree with
everything Benne writes. I do not. However, since I am
an ethicist of the church, I want students fully prepared to
critically engage and articulate that living tradition. It
has formed and continues to form many of the members of the
ELCA. Maybe then we can have communities of moral
deliberation fully informed as to what exactly is the core of the
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 5, Issue 3