Theses for 2017: A Reformation 500th Anniversary Offering for the Sake of the World
Apr 26, 2018
By the Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.
Five-hundred years ago in 1517, Martin Luther offered his 95 Theses to the church for debate about matters essential to faithful witness to the gospel for the sake of the world. Every season in the life of the church provides its own occasions for continued discernment and wrestling in discussion. The issues may be different, but the same gospel beckons our courageous, forthright, truthful proclamation.
It is in the spirit of Lutheran reforming impulses that I offer the witness that follows, inviting reflection about what is at stake in our day. I speak for myself, but also as a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and one who has additionally been called as a teaching theologian who is a life-long student and interpreter of the Lutheran tradition. Much of what follows is spoken in distinctively Lutheran accents that have claimed me, and that I have come to know more deeply, embrace, and love.
But the theological voice speaking here is also recognizable by many in other Christian traditions. That is to say, Lutherans do not have an exclusive claim on the theological affirmations that I articulate. Thus, I undertake this conversation with an attitude of openness to and desire for ecumenical engagement. It’s also true that not all Lutherans would necessarily appreciate the particular accents of my Lutheran voice. In other words, diverse Lutherans may well give different voices to and interpretations of recognizable Lutheran themes.
Who is my intended audience? Well, I certainly speak to other Lutherans as we contemplate what Lutheran identity means today, and how it speaks to the churches and world now during this 500th Anniversary year of the Reformation’s beginning. But I also have in mind a wide range of other Christian audiences who may share a passion for living voices of renewal and prophetic relevance in our own day. Moreover, should persons of other faith traditions, and indeed, a non-church, wider public be curious about what contemporary Lutherans have to say about the current state of affairs in our churches, nation, and world, I offer my voice also to those in such wider communities.
The "theses" that follow make contrasting values statements, revealing differences between the mores of the "world" and principles in keeping with a vision of God’s reign. By "world" I have in mind the way John’s gospel uses the word, that is, the finite, misdirected, unhealthy, broken, rebellious, sinful, idolatrous, and dare I say, sometimes evil human values which are contrary to the ways of God revealed in the gospel.
By using the word "church" in connection with "world," I mean churches and Christian traditions which actively teach values contrary to the gospel, which are actually more in keeping with worldly perspectives, and also churches (including my own) whose actions are not always consistent with gospel values, despite official public proclamation and teaching.
When I use the word "we," I am bold to presume to speak for the Lutheran theological tradition as I have come to understand it – and for those in other traditions who may affirm the following statements – fully acknowledging also that our Lutheran church does not always consistently "practice what we preach." Indeed, many of the following theses may well be addressed to me when my trust in God falters, and I forget my moorings, and fail to live up to my own theological affirmations. Lord, "I believe; help my unbelief." (Mark 9:24)
So here I stand as a Lutheran with theses for 2017 which address and counter the spirit of our age and our world’s and churches’ ills with healing themes of gospel proclamation in Lutheran accents:
Gospel Foundations on which We Stand
To a world and church inclined to presume that there’s no "free lunch," and that you always have to "earn it" and "make it," we proclaim God’s gift of free grace alone for salvation, and for our being seen as worthy in God’s eyes – sola gratia
To a world and church of anxious striving and seeking control, we proclaim letting go, radically trusting in God, with faith alone – sola fide
To a world and church competing for our various idolatrous loyalties and allegiances, we proclaim that for us Jesus is Lord, that our salvation is through Christ alone – solus christus
To a world and church in which sacred scripture is too often used as a weapon and a tool to win arguments, we proclaim the Bible as an open book, fully revealing the living and loving Word of God in Christ, and grounding and norming our theology and our life together – sola scriptura
To a world and church of cynicism, despair, and nostalgic regression, we proclaim that we are spiraling into God’s promised future in hope, ever reforming as we go, ever singing "to God alone be the glory" – soli deo gloria!
Built on this Rock with more Good News
To a world and church where talk is cheap and words are often robbed of meaning, we proclaim the power of words and language to convey the realities of God, and to shape policy to transform lives and promote God’s justice
To a world and church of self-justification, we proclaim God’s justification of and forgiveness for us sinners by grace alone
To a world and church focused on making our own choices by our own efforts, we proclaim first and foremost the sovereignty of God’s gracious choice for us, and what God in Christ has done for us and for the world
To a world and church of all-or-nothing striving and fear of losing it all, we proclaim that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39b), and that Christ will not leave us orphaned. (John 14:18a)
To a world and church held captive by fear exploited as a marketing tool and an instrument of governance, we proclaim courageous, confident faith and trust that all shall ultimately be well by God’s gracious promise
To a world and church pursuing perfection and tolerating no weaknesses, faults, or foibles, and rendering "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" judgments where people are deemed either good or bad, we proclaim that we are simultaneously saints and sinners, and that we have this treasure of our humanity in beloved earthen and broken vessels that God uses anyway to accomplish the divine will
To a world and church oriented to worshipping a culture of death in its many sinister forms, we proclaim that death does not have the last word because Jesus has been raised from the dead, and that we are thereby called to nurture and advocate for life in all of its forms and stages
Engaging the World with Gospel Attitude
To a world and church marked by an attitude of ungrateful entitlement, we proclaim thanksgiving for God’s many gratuitous blessings to us, which we don’t merit on our own
To a world and church of complaint and depreciative living, we proclaim life lived with hearty appreciation for God’s abundance, rooted in the Eucharist, which means "thanksgiving"
To a world and church drawn to cruelty, we proclaim God’s compassion and mercy
To a world and church clamoring after the spectacle of the extraordinary, we proclaim the sacredness of the Ordinary
To a world and church addicted to noise, overstimulation, distraction, and constant screen-based connectivity, we proclaim the fullness of simplicity and silence to listen for and to hear the echoes of the still small voice of God’s Word in the power of the Spirit
To a world and church inclined to defund and marginalize the arts, and to be fascinated by the macabre and ugly, we proclaim, promote, and sing the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty
To a world and church inclined either to be humorless or to engage in humor derisively at the expense of others, we proclaim healthy laughter with others in response to human foibles, and in the light of God’s lavish, forgiving grace, and Christ’s victory over sin and death
Breaking out of Me, Myself, and I
To a world and church of unbridled living for oneself, we proclaim freedom for the discipline of living for others as disciples of Jesus, serving others in thanksgiving for God’s lavish grace
To a world and church of tit for tat moral transactions, of "you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours" morality, we proclaim a no-strings-attached ethic where we are freed by Christ to love you simply for your sake, and not as a means to some other end
To a world and church in pursuit of solo-act-celebrity-stardom that privileges the lone voice, we proclaim good news for the world together in the choir, along with the power of quiet, faithful, unremarkable serving behind the scenes of center stage
To a world and church seduced to prize walking alone, we proclaim walking together – which is what our beloved and curious word "synod" means!
To a world and church of radical individualism, autonomy, and growing disconnection from one another, we proclaim the life-giving reality of interdependent relationships in communities
To a world and church of "us vs. them" divisive discourse and separation, we proclaim conversation along with dialogue that seeks reconciliation among Christian churches, as well as life-giving relations with persons of other faith traditions
To a world and church driven to provoke competition in all arenas of life, even among our churches, we proclaim cooperation and collaboration as we work for ever greater signs of visible unity for the sake of our shared endeavors and mission
Life Together under the Gospel
To a world and church oriented to living by contracts, we proclaim living in covenants, rooted in baptism and baptismal living for the sake of the world, nurturing and forming disciples as Christ draws people to himself
To a world and church increasingly driven to legislate constraints on basic freedoms, we proclaim freedom in the gospel, and liberation of God’s people for becoming who they are called to be by God
To a world and church vacillating between law-and-order-judgment-and-punishment and a "cheap grace-oriented" licentious freedom from any constraint, we proclaim in creative, life-giving tension both the claims of God’s Law on us, as well as our responsible freedom in the Gospel of grace
To a world and church seeking either to eliminate Christ from culture or otherwise to Christianize culture, we proclaim Christ and culture in paradoxical tension towards approximating God’s justice in our life together in the world
To a world and church steeped in violence which has a multiplicity of explicit and implicit expressions, we proclaim the peace of Christ that first seeks non-violent resolutions to conflicts
To a world and church disposed to marginalize, ignore, silence, and sometimes to imprison or even kill prophetic seers, we proclaim courage for prophetic confrontation, protest, and resistance to unjust rule and the powers that be – they have called us Protestants for a reason!
Good News for All People
To a world and church often relentlessly unforgiving, we proclaim God’s gracious forgiveness for all in Christ
To a world and church drawn to commodifying, abusing, and desecrating our creaturely embodiment, we proclaim the sacredness of our bodies, because God’s Word has been made flesh in Jesus, our brother and savior, who restores our sacred image and renders all, therefore, worthy of dignity and honor
To a world and church of wall-building exclusion seeking to turn away immigrants, refugees, and the marginalized, we proclaim welcome and pursue hospitality because Jesus welcomed the perceived "strangers," and because we are historically a church of immigrants
To a world and church of racism, misogyny, classism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, prejudice, xenophobia, tribalism, nativism, and exclusivist nationalism, we proclaim a vision of God’s reign that embraces all people, and celebrates all nations that comprise the beautiful tapestry of human community, and we work for the end of divisive, unjust, exploitative, and oppressive treatment of people
To a world and church of drudgery and exploitation at work, we proclaim God’s gift of vocation, of a meaningful, life-giving calling, and work for all people
Commonwealth under the Gospel
To a world and church of greed and perceived scarcity, we proclaim God’s gracious generosity and abundance with plenty for all
To a world and church inclined to dismiss and diminish the common good, we proclaim communal well-being, social service, access to good healthcare, support, and advocacy for all in need, especially the poor
To a world and church driven to commercialize, market, and sell everything, we proclaim that not everything in the world can or should be reduced to the marketplace, its policies, and its values
To a world and church privileging profit and the "bottom line" over all things, we proclaim commonwealth, and a shared approach to the distribution of creation’s abundant blessings
To a world and church tending to accumulate things, and acquisitively regarding "more and bigger as better," we proclaim that "less is more," and that "small is beautiful" in seeking to provide enough for all
Leadership and Governance under the Gospel
To a world and church prizing raw power and glory, we proclaim a theology of the cross, where God’s power and glory are best known in suffering and vulnerability
To a world and church of arrogant bravado, we proclaim the gentle humility of Christ as a mark of faithful leadership
To a world and church drawn to "strongmen" and authoritarian rule where leaders exploit power for their own gain, we proclaim humble, shared leadership, where leaders are servants who honor the voices, perspectives, and needs of those in their care
To a world and church in which clergy are either exalted and idolized, or dismissed as boring and irrelevant, we proclaim a divinely instituted office of ministry, of servant leadership, and a culture of accountability for our leaders, even as we also proclaim that all the baptized share in the priestly ministry of Christ
Good News for Creation
To a world and church myopically and reductionistically focused on things human, we proclaim an expansive vision that embraces all of the cosmos, and which views humanity’s role principally as being faithful stewards and servants of God’s abundant blessings throughout the good creation
To a world and church that takes for granted our vulnerability to the forces of nature, we proclaim awe and reverence for the divine source of creation, and seek to embody ever greater humility about our small, contingent, but beloved, and privileged place in the universe
To a world and church inclined to profane earthly things, extracting, consuming, expending, and throwing things away, we proclaim the holiness of creation, and a sacramental view of life, rooted in the earthly delights of the created order in things like water, bread, and wine made holy by God’s good and gracious Word
To a world and church rapaciously willing to exploit, pollute, and degrade our natural environments, we proclaim just stewardship of all of God’s good creation, and we promote the reformation of our relationship to nature
To a world and church inclined to deny the realities of climate change, we proclaim the urgent need to heed the warnings of scientific seers about the short time we have to alter our use and abuse of natural resources as we work toward a genuinely sustainable future
Discerning Gospel Truth
To a world and church in which image and impressions are everything ("fake it ‘til you make it"), we proclaim freedom in God’s forgiving grace to really see, accept, and be who we most truthfully are as God’s beloved children
To a world and church of diabolical false accusations, and deception about, denial, and repression of what’s really going on, we proclaim real presence, and thereby the courage to see and confront reality as it is in its fullness
To a world and church inclined to celebrate ignorance and "alternative facts," we proclaim truth discerned through rigorous study and formal education
To a world and church seeking certainty and pursuing "either/or" propositions, we proclaim the "both/and" gray areas of nuance, paradox, and mystery
To a world and church of cultural and moral relativism, we also proclaim in confident faith the sufficiency, trustworthiness, and fullness of God’s Revelation in Christ, the living Word of God made flesh
To a world and church of historical amnesia, willfully forgetting the past, we proclaim respect for history, and affirm the gift and claims on us of the Great Tradition of the Church throughout the ages
To a world and church regressively and nostalgically pining away for former ways and olden days, we also proclaim that in Christ we are ever being made new as the Holy Spirit guides unto into all truth (John 16:13a), leading us to creatively and contextually introduce renewed ways of being and doing church for the sake of the world
To a world and church either despairingly cynical or hopelessly romantic and utopian, we proclaim realism and idealism at the same time, that is, a sometimes brutally realistic assessment of human potential that nonetheless hopes in God’s promise for humanity and all of creation
So these are 59 theses. There could be more. There could be fewer. After all, Luther’s choice of 95 particular theses was completely arbitrary. This is a work in progress that seeks to offer a Lutheran voice to the debates, divisions, dilemmas, crises, and opportunities of our own day. The point is to evoke and provoke reflection and conversation in various settings. With what do you agree? With what do you disagree? What additional theses would you offer? How would you address these themes differently?
Each thesis has behind it significant biblical and theological content which could invite commentary in lengthy footnotes. Thus, each values-contrast-statement beckons further exploration in order to make the rich biblical and theological messages more explicit.
Admittedly, like Luther’s motivations behind the 95 Theses, I offer the statements here in protest of many features of our current world, its zeitgeist, and its ways, its ethos. I offer this witness also to churches (again, sometimes including my own tradition) which I believe can tend to fall short of gospel values both in proclamation and in the actual lived life of faith.
Such protest is made in the spirit of our baptismal covenant, which Lutherans passionately zero in on, and which calls us to "renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God," along with our renouncing the "powers of this world that rebel against God," and the "ways of sin that draw us from God" (quoted statements are drawn from current Lutheran baptismal rites in Evangelical Lutheran Worship).
Moreover, each statement here clearly has implications for stances on social issues, politics, party platforms, and policy decisions. The "theses" or values statements that I offer, and the conversations that they might provoke, can thus help Christians discern the nature of their political engagement as citizens for the sake of the world in our current day. In further conversation, one could fill in the blanks about what all of this means for particular policies in church and world.
Needless to say, the theological affirmations that I have made here lead me to discern the various stands I will be compelled to take in coming months and years, even as Luther stood firm in his defense of the gospel at the Diet of Worms in 1521 when he said, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."
Clearly I will be drawn to stand with those persons, churches, groups, elected officials, and organizations which embody in their work and advocacy the gospel values upheld in the affirmations offered here. In contrast, I will be drawn to oppose those whose beliefs and actions contradict the values that I here affirm.
So, as the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth amidst our shared future, I pray that Christians and others will engage in robust conversation about the crises and opportunities before us, for the life and well-being of God’s beloved world are at stake. Thus, I invite you to use these "theses," and the values they proclaim, to guide such emerging conversations.
God help us, and have mercy on us.