To judge by the current volume, the enterprise of "Lutheran
ethics" is alive and well. Indeed, it's a growth industry. The
exhaustive bibliography provided by co-editor John Stumme lists
some 45 books and articles on the subject by recognizably Lutheran
scholars in the first 50 years of the present century (1900-1949),
115 in the next 25 years (1950-1974), and more than 300 in the next
23 years (1975-1997). And this just includes items in English,
whether written as such or in translation. Clearly, Lutheranism has
"come of age" if this means, or includes, dealing critically and
creatively both with its own theological-ethical heritage and with
the moral dilemmas cast up by contemporary life.
 An appealing aspect of this book is its interactive
character, in the sense that its authors, unlike most authors of
essays in symposia, give evidence of actually having talked with
one another. The device of using asterisks to highlight footnotes
in which authors make direct comments on one another's views
enables the reader to eavesdrop, as it were, on their interchanges.
Also invaluable is the concluding chapter, presenting a skillfully
edited transcript of a day-long "Table Talk" the authors had with
one another following the completion of their essays.
 Perhaps the most striking contrast is between the essays by
Robert Benne of Roanoke College and Larry Rasmussen of Union
Theological Seminary (the latter co-written with Union doctoral
student Cynthia Moe-Lobeda). Benne expresses his anxiety about
those who practice a "hermeneutics of suspicion" against the
Lutheran tradition, i.e., who emphasize its shortcomings - usually
as measured by the concerns of contemporary liberation movements -
so strongly that they threaten, in Benne's view, the very continued
existence of this tradition, at least in any coherent and
self-confident form. Benne also adduces the profound religious
ignorance of today's college students, including Lutherans, to
drive home his point that Lutheranism today is "a tradition at
risk." That is the background against which he sets forth a cogent
summary of Lutheran distinctives, largely along the lines developed
in his previous writings. Thus he emphasizes such themes as the
given structures of life as places of both divine blessing and
divine calling ("places of responsibility"), and the theology of
the cross as enabling believers to cope with the ambiguities of
life. In a nice turn of phrase, he speaks of the Christian's dual
duty of "making clear judgments when possible and maintaining a
humble uncertainty when necessary" (14). On the whole, he sees the
Lutheran tradition as tending toward a "Christian realism" in the
Niebuhrian mode, urging towards ameliorative action but always on
guard against utopianism.
 Rasmussen and Moe-Lobeda, on the other hand, set forth a
position that is more transformative in nature. This they see as
very much in the tradition of Luther, who bravely stood up to the
dominant power in his society (the Papacy) and instituted
"oppositional and reconstructive practices." They urge us to do the
same today vis-a-vis an industrial civilization that is in danger
of rendering the earth uninhabitable. Building on Luther's
remarkably positive appreciation of the natural world, they call
for an ethic as much oriented to the biophysical and geoplanetary
dimensions as to the sociocommunal. "A sustainable world," they
write, "requires that large-scale systems and we ourselves be
changed." A thorough transformation (or "transition") is called for
- demographic, economic, social, institutional, informational,
technological, moral, and religious (148). Benne would probably
object to such visionary language, but is this utopian in any
objectionable sense, or is it not a "greater realism"? Perhaps much
depends on whether the vision would be implemented by mandatory
means, or in freedom; the truly destructive utopianisms in modern
times have been the totalitarian ones.
 Rasmussen/Moe-Lobeda are much more explicitly critical of
Luther than are most of the other contributors to the volume.
"Luther's radical teaching on the justification of the godless and
his cross theology," they write, "did not recast his social theory.
He remained medieval, Constantinian, patriarchal, and anti-Semitic"
(142). Their tack is, in effect, to appeal to the radicalism of
Luther's direct reformatory work over against the conservatism of
some of his social-ethical positions. However, in so doing, I would
suggest, they overstate his theological/ecclesiastical radicalism
(not for nothing has Lutheranism been known as "the conservative
reformation"), while at the same time underestimating his
reformatory thrust also in the sociopolitical sphere, from the
Address to the Christian Nobility on. Luther, on most
questions, is neither as good as his uncritical advocates would
have it, nor as bad as his unsparing critics maintain.
 There is much of value in the rest of the volume as well; it
is meaty indeed. Of special interest is the study of Pauline ethics
by David Fredrickson, professor of New Testament at Luther
Seminary, which depicts the Pauline church as a prototype of the
"community of moral deliberation" that recent ELCA statements have
set forth as a model for the church's moral role today. There is an
instructive parallel, Fredrickson notes, between Paul's view of the
congregation and the assembly (ekklesia) of the Greek
city. "The community of believers is a speaking place, where the
future of the congregation is determined through unhindered
conversation that seeks to arrive at consensus through persuasion"
(117). It is a place where moral reflection, formulation, and
action occur. Fredrickson proposes a number of striking
re-translations to highlight this "political" dimension of Paul's
thought. Phil 1:27, for example, is rendered: "Engage politically
in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ."
 The entire book will repay careful study, and is an
encouraging sign of the vitality of Lutheran thought today.
Copyright © 1999 dialog. Used with permission.
From dialog, Volume 38, Number 2 (Spring 1999).
Bloomquist's response to reviews of The Promise of Lutheran
Stumme's response to reviews of The Promise of Lutheran
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 2, Issue 8