Somewhere on the Road to Freedom
by Frederick Niedner
(Our gratitude to Dr. Frederick Niedner and The Cresset , a publication of Valparaiso University, an independent Lutheran University in Northwest Indiana, for permission to reprint this article.)
At the heart of Valparaiso University’s public statement of identity and mission stands a phrase that describes a necessary pre-requisite, perhaps even a foundation, for a church-related institution of higher learning, namely “the Lutheran tradition of scholarship, freedom, and faith.” These days, as the various Lutheran bodies in the United States grow ever smaller and more distant from each other, many at Valparaiso want very much to assist the Lutherans in this country, and perhaps elsewhere, to find both common ground for shared ministry and a more clearly communicable notion of what it means to be Lutheran in today’s world.
Folks with such aspirations should know how large a stone they hope to push up a steep, old hill. Although one could say this of any Christian group, Lutherans have rarely agreed in circles wider than their own families about what it means to be Lutheran. Indeed, the Formula of Concord of 1580, the last of the foundational “confessions” of the Lutheran Reformation, even as it presumes to settle a score of controversies that had wracked the Reformation churches of Europe, seems, at the same time, to predict that more such disputes will inevitably arise and that whatever future this movement might have will include plenty of fighting.
At Valparaiso University, we occasionally remind ourselves that the Lutheran Reformation grew, at least partly, out of the ferment of learning that went on in a university, most particularly the emperor’s new university at Wittenberg where Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon served as young faculty members. We hope that universities today, including ours, can continue to serve as places where the continual reformation a healthy church requires draws some of its energy. Although Valparaiso University has always been an independent university, not owned or operated by any Lutheran church body, it sees itself as intimately connected to the church. It needs the church, most particularly because its thriving depends in part on having students in whom the church has formed a baptismal identity. Much of the time, however, the churches act as if they do not need a university. While they may need training institutions and programs of indoctrination and professional formation, it often seems they do not want their young people studying where no questions lie out of bounds.
In what ways do Lutherans today see themselves as beneficiaries of scholarship and the scholarly life? In what ways do Lutherans see themselves as free? Do Lutherans who repeat the shibboleth about “faith alone” really live by faith, or by something else? For almost seven decades I have lived among and watched Lutherans closely. The history I have witnessed and shared suggests that we Lutherans have a complex relationship with the rhetoric by which we publicly identify ourselves. Like most others in the world, our walk does not consistently match our talk.
Consider this story—one quite typical for my generation, I would wager.
The Nebraska town in which I grew up had three churches, two Lutheran congregations and one Roman Catholic parish the size of the Lutheran groups combined. In those Cold War days, relations between the Lutherans and Catholics had all the warmth of those between Washington and Moscow. Parents whose offspring married someone from the other side spoke of having lost a child and wondered openly about the errant youth’s salvation.
Despite the frosty veils between them, these ecclesial communities served each other. St. Mary’s parish at the top of the hill supported a convent whose sisters staffed a Catholic elementary school, high school, and the region’s only hospital and “old folks’ home.” Despite persistent rumors that the nuns secretly baptized as Catholic every baby born in the hospital, the Lutherans were grateful to have excellent healthcare so close to home.
Except for certain merchants, the Lutherans didn’t do much for the Catholics, but the two congregations, one Missouri Synod and the other part of the old American Lutheran Church, performed an invaluable service for each other. On paper, the only difference between them had to do with “lodges” or secret, fraternal organizations. The Missouri Synod forbade membership, while the ALC congregation tolerated it. Since there were no Shriners, Lions, Moose, Elks, or anyone else with a secret handshake within sixty miles, this distinction hardly seemed relevant.
Nevertheless, each congregation served as a haven for refugees from the other. Whenever a family feud boiled over, most often after a contested will, migration occurred between Grace and St. Paul. The poor Catholics were simply stuck with each other when a fighting spirit descended on one of their clans. Fissiparous Lutherans could go their separate ways and consign each other to the vast, ecclesial dumping ground called the “invisible church.”
Those of us who attended the Missouri Synod congregation’s parochial elementary school learned all about Martin Luther and the Reformation. Much of the rhetoric had to do with grace, faith, work-righteousness, and freedom. So far as I could tell when comparing my life to that of the Catholic kids in my neighborhood, Lutheran freedom consisted of not praying with rosary beads and not having to go to confession. Of such foolishness we were free.
Mostly, however, being Lutheran involved a host of obligations. We had to believe, for the sake of our salvation, that the Bible was inerrant, which in turn meant we had to believe as well that the earth was created in six, twenty-four-hour days less than ten thousand years ago, that a flood had once covered the entire planet to a height that overwhelmed even Mount Everest, and that at Joshua’s command the sun had once stood still in the sky for an entire day. Such feats of belief proved difficult. My dad, a Missouri Synod pastor, was also an amateur astronomer who built his own telescopes and taught me the workings of the heavens. I had seen Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings and knew all about stars and galaxies and the millions of light years between us and some of them. The spiritual obligations inherent in Lutheranism’s official cosmology and physics, coupled with language about salvation by faith, led me to conclude that saving faith was the ability to believe unbelievable things having to do with physics, geology, and biology.
At the German-style gymnasium (high school and two years of college) where my pre-seminary studies commenced, my contemporaries learned a host of new obligations. We endured stiff penalties for missing the morning and evening chapel services that punctuated our days as well as for walking on the grass instead of the sidewalks, littering, or at any time being less than eighteen inches from a student of the opposite sex. One zealously righteous professor roamed the campus with a yardstick he had cut in half and occasionally measured the distance between student couples who crossed his path. Woe unto those he caught too close.
Nothing, however, approximated the strength of the prohibition against dancing. The school conducted “play party games,” which most others called “square dancing,” but strictly forbade ballroom dancing and the various aerobic activities performed to the accompaniment of rock ‘n roll music. One Friday night, a faculty member working late at his office witnessed two couples dancing “sock hop” style in an empty classroom to Doo-Wop music played on a transistor radio. The four students were suspended for two weeks and sent home. The next week, school officials canceled a full day of classes and put the rest of the student body through seminars conducted by area clergy on the evils of dancing. One pastor sternly explained that dancing did not fall into the category of behavior Lutherans identify as “adiaphora,” that is, things that in themselves are neither good nor evil, but might become one or the other given the circumstances or motives of those who engage in them. No, dancing was purely immoral, an act of openly defiant sin, and damnable. Another pastor informed us that in the course of his ministry, he had never known a married couple to dance who did not also later end up divorced.
We received periodic reminders that we were saved not by our works, but by grace, through faith. Much more effectively, however, we learned that we were saved by being right—right about moral issues like dancing and right about biology, physics, and the age of the universe.
Eventually, I would learn what an inconsistent and disintegrated working theology I had inherited. Teachers at the Missouri Synod’s Concordia Senior College and at its seminary in St. Louis taught us to read the scriptures and the Lutheran confessional documents, along with works like Luther’s On Christian Liberty, in ways that helped us discover for ourselves the genuine freedom of the gospel of the crucified Christ.
My aged, paternal grandfather, a retired Missouri Synod pastor who lived not far from the seminary, served as my teacher, too. Like so many old, lonely people do when memory remains clear but one’s body no longer allows much activity, my grandfather brooded about things he wished he had done differently, or things he once had said but would now take back. He, too, had pangs of conscience that started in a story about dancing.
Soon after he graduated from the same seminary I attended, while still in his twenties, a young woman in the Kansas parish he served died in a collision at a railroad crossing on her way home from a dance. Despite the family’s devastation and despair, the elders of the congregation informed their young pastor that in his funeral sermon, he would tell the congregation that the young woman was now in hell. Such was the consequence of dancing and not having time to repent. “That’s what I preached,” my grandfather told me, deep sadness in his voice, “but I didn’t even believe it myself as I said it, and I hadn’t the courage to defy my elders.” How often, he whispered, he wished he could find that family and take back those words, preach to them the true gospel, and remind them of God’s promise in that young woman’s baptism.
Not until well into my seminary studies did the full brilliance and liberating quality of Luther’s distinction between law and gospel become clear to me. God’s law wasn’t merely rules, nor the gospel a source of dispensations doled out to those who confessed and repented of violating those rules. Rather, the law of God to which the scriptures bear witness is the very righteousness of God that exposes us as hopelessly selfish sinners and frauds with no righteousness of our own whatsoever. Indeed, trying to keep the rules we find within God’s law only makes things worse, as our tortured brother Paul, the apostle, describes so well in Romans 7. In the words of a Scandinavian theologian (whose name I cannot recall) my late colleague David Truemper often quoted, “God’s law demands that we be the kind of people who don’t need God’s law to demand that we be that kind of people.”
Into that hell of hopelessly deepening alienation and indebtedness comes the crucified Christ. He comes to preach, says 1 Peter 3:18–20, and from Martin Luther I learned that what he proclaims is, “This place is undone. You are free. Come with me.” That is the gospel, which Article IV of the Apology to the Augsburg Confession describes as the message that both honors the death of Christ as totally necessary and fully sufficient for God’s reconciliation with humankind and also comforts penitent hearts rather than casting them back on their own rightness as a condition of that reconciliation.
Even as I learned all that from teachers at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, the school was under investigation for false teaching. By the time I had finished some of my graduate studies there, the majority of the faculty members were condemned first by church officials and then by a church convention for teachings “not to be tolerated in the church of God.” Instead of teaching that the scriptures were law and gospel, those who condemned them wanted the teachers to teach that the scriptures were science and history. That is, they were supposed to teach that the story in Genesis 2–3 not only exposes humankind as shamefully disobedient creatures bent on being their own gods and covering their shame with excuses and lies, but that all of Genesis 1–4 is a transcript of something one could have caught on videotape had such equipment been available in 4004 bc. The investigators wanted additions to the gospel, too. It would never do merely to trust Christ’s word of invitation and thus to have the gift of righteousness. In addition, one must believe that women cannot proclaim that message or serve in the role of leading a congregation in acting out that word in the rites of baptism and Holy Communion.
The Lutheran denominations of which I have never been a member have their own versions of these battles, and while they may differ in some or even many details, they appear to me as versions of the one I have witnessed my whole life. Despite all our talk about the freedom of the gospel, we Lutherans still love the confinement of rules and the satisfaction of knowing that we are right and others are wrong. We are willing in some general way to affirm that all those others out there who call themselves Christians and claim to put their trust in Christ might actually be Christians and part of some elusive, invisible church. But the only church we really care about is our own club, the collection of like-minded souls who follow our set of rules and add-ons to the gospel. When we fight—and we do love fighting—we almost never fight about how effectively and truly we honor the death of Christ or comfort penitent hearts. Instead, we fight about keeping, or changing, our club rules.
In my decades of watching Lutherans, I have also witnessed the gospel at work in powerful ways, most often at funerals and in other crisis moments in the lives of a community. I have read in the family archives some of the funeral sermons my grandfather preached in the years after that fateful, God-forsaken preachment in Kansas, and he consistently comforted families and friends with the gospel of the crucified Christ who joins us, who reconciles us to God, even in the places of our most awful cussedness and despair. My father once told me that of all the things required of him as a pastor, he felt most capable at comforting the dying, conducting funerals, and counseling the bereaved.
Those are the moments, of course, when the only hope we have is the gospel, and even back in the dark ages of my youth, I never heard a pastor say at a funeral, “Well, at least old Herman, our dearly departed, never danced.”
I have also witnessed Lutherans of all kinds come together to respond in mercy and generosity when tragedy of large proportions strikes somewhere in the world. Then, like the Catholics and others, we don’t ask whether you take Genesis as history or science before we help you find food and shelter, nor do we quiz you on the Athanasian Creed as a condition for bandaging your wounds.
I would love to believe that all of us Lutherans could come together around the conviction that we can do these two things very well and without fighting. We can console the frightened, the dying, and those who mourn with the news of the crucified Christ, and we can show mercy to the battered and broken—all of them. In the first of those we live out our freedom; in the second we live out our vocations.
Officially, on paper, that is what it means to be Lutheran. To all else besides those things we cling only loosely, and study carefully, with as many questions as we can think of as a university community that draws its charter in part from values like scholarship, freedom, and faith. Maybe our efforts can help.
Frederick Niedner is Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University.