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One of the familiar clichés within Lutheranism is that making the right distinctions is the key to doing good theology.  Admittedly, clichés are dangerous, as Robert Jenson warned in the book Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse. [1]   However, I still believe that making distinctions serves the Lutheran Church well.  Among those that I find helpful are the distinctions between Law and Gospel, and between the first, second and third articles of the Creed.

These distinctions are helpful in evaluating one of the recent declarations made on behalf of the ELCA by its leaders.   The Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) met from March 31 to April 2 of this year.  At that meeting, the Church Council adopted A Declaration of the ELCA to the Muslim Community.[2]   Like most of the declarations made on behalf of the ELCA, there are strengths and weaknesses.   Here’s where the distinctions come in.

When it comes to the distinction between Law and Gospel, Lutherans recognize that knowledge of the Law is not limited to the Christian faith.  The Law is accessible to all people, but not without distortions due to sin.  People of other religions, and people with no particular religious faith, have some knowledge of the Law.  Furthermore, we recognize that the Law impacts people in several ways.  We refer to this impact as the “uses of the Law”, but we should remember that we don’t really use the Law.  God does.   There are at least two uses of the Law.  A third use is debated among Lutherans.  However, in this article, I want to focus only on the first use of the Law. 

The first use of the Law is often called its civil use.  This is when the Law gives order to society, restrains evil, and rewards virtue.  No human society can function without some form of law, and regardless of the vast differences between religions and cultures, there are strong similarities as well.  While religions and cultures differ greatly on what is the proper way to worship God or the gods, they have large areas of agreement when it comes to how we ought to relate to fellow human beings.  Respect for elders, prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, lying and warnings against the danger of envy are pervasive.  As a result, the civil use of the law provides common ground between Christians, people of other religions, and with people in civil society.

Another helpful distinction has to do with the Apostles’ Creed.  Following Luther’s Catechisms, we identify three articles in the Creed, one on Creation, Redemption and Sanctification respectively.  It is under the article on Creation that Lutherans find the most in common with people of other faiths.  In particular, Jews and Muslims share similar beliefs with us, including the belief that there is only one God, that God is the creator of heaven and earth, that we are to love God and love our neighbors, and that God has revealed his will to human beings.  The article on Creation is the basis for our understanding of the civil use of the Law. 

When A Declaration of the ELCA to the Muslim Community speaks from the standpoint of the first article of the Creed and the civil use of the Law it does well.  Lutherans should find common ground with other Christians, with Muslims, and with all people, in rejecting “subtle and not-so-subtle acts of aggression and violence, including vandalism against [Muslim] community centers and masjids (mosques).”  We should “assure our Muslim neighbors of our love and respect and reaffirm our commitment to working together in our shared communities for the common good.”  As Christians we are to “pray for our neighbors of other religions and worldviews; to seek understanding; and to stand in solidarity” with our neighbors. 

It is also right to admit and lament the fact that Lutherans have often failed to recognize that the protections of God’s Law extend to all people and not just to fellow Christians.  Jesus clearly taught that our neighbor includes all people, not just those who share our religion, nationality, or language.  (Luke 10:25-37)  Not only violence, but harsh rhetoric and “crude polemics” are a violation of the Law, namely the 8th Commandment.  Therefore, it is correct to reject the harsh polemics of the past, even when they come from Martin Luther himself. 

Perhaps this is one place where Lutheran clichés have been abused.  We are to distinguish Law from Gospel, and Creation from Redemption and Sanctification.  However, we are not to separate them.  It is possible to become so focused on preaching the Gospel of salvation and the need for redemption that we forget that we still live within this world.  We have no right to abandon the Law in its first use, to fail to care for Creation, to neglect our families, communities, nations and world.  Instead, we are called to do good works that benefit our neighbors in our various vocations within the world.  In the words of the second offertory prayer in the LBW, we are to “dedicate our lives to the care and redemption of all that [God has] made,” not merely to the redemption of all things.  Just as the separation of Old and New Testaments has led to many evils within the Church, the same can be said about the separation of Law and Gospel and the separation of the article on Creation from those of Redemption and Sanctification.  We are not “Unitarians of the Second Article.”  We are Trinitarians. We cannot neglect the Law and the First Article. 

The greatest problem with the Declaration of the ELCA to the Muslim Community comes about when it attempts to talk about repentance and the Gospel.  For instance, in the first paragraph the Declaration says:

As people who know that we live by the grace and in the sight of the one, almighty and merciful God, we have confidence that our engagement will result in mutual learning, growth, and enrichment.

That is a vague statement at best.  What is this grace about which the Declaration speaks?  Is it the grace of creation or the grace of redemption in Jesus Christ?   It’s important for us to know.  To which God does the Declaration refer?  A Muslim might suspect that the ELCA is attempting to get him to affirm the Trinity and salvation in Christ by sleight of hand.  On the other hand, a Christian might conclude that the ELCA is avoiding a clear confession of its faith in Jesus Christ in order not to cause offense.  She might further wonder whether such an avoidance actually constitutes a denial of salvation through Christ alone. 

Later, in the fifth chapter, the Declaration promises to:

“confess when our words or deeds (or lack thereof) cause offense, harm, or violence to our neighbors” and to “repent and seek forgiveness from God and reconciliation with our neighbors.”

The same problem arises as above.  Is this a subtle attempt to coopt our Muslim neighbors into a confession of repentance and forgiveness in Jesus Christ?  Is it a subtle denial that forgiveness from God and true reconciliation with our neighbors is available only through Jesus Christ?  This ambivalence can easily cause offense to Muslims and Christians. 

What’s missing, in other words, is any attempt to address the Elephant in the Room.  Christians and Muslims are divided over the question of who Jesus of Nazareth is.  They are also divided over the doctrine of the Trinity.  Christians can find common ground with Muslims under the first use of the Law and under the article on Creation.  It is the Gospel and the Second and Third Articles that divide us.  How do we live together in a way that asks neither Christians nor Muslims to sacrifice the integrity of their faiths?  Neither orthodox Christians, nor orthodox Muslims, are willing to settle for a vague universalism.  My hope is that the ELCA is not willing to settle for that either.  Doing a better job of making important distinctions (but not separations) would have helped this Declaration a great deal.

[1] Jenson, Robert W. Lutheran Slogans, Use and Abuse.  American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 2011

[2]A Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the Muslim Community” 

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • George Rahn says:

    The center of Christianity is Jesus Christ and him crucified for sinners. This center opens the wide abyss between Christianity and Islam. Jesus’ cross is the stumbling block which cannot bridge Christianity to either Islam or Judaism. Statements like the ELCA’s to Islam will never name Jesus as God because of the offense it creates. But if one omits this offense, Christianity loses is basic value, it’s uniqueness among the religions.

    • David Allen Charlton says:

      I agree completely. We should seek to avoid the offense caused by sinful behavior on the part of Christians. Violence, calumny, injustice and prejudice towards Jews, Muslims, or other religions are sins, that violate the 10 Commandments, and as such should be rejected by Christians.

      We should not, however, try to avoid the offense of the Cross. The doctrines of the Trinity, of Christ, and of the Cross are inherently offensive to Muslims, because the Koran explicitly rejects all three. That constitutes the elephant in the room.