Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Lutheran Canon

Last week, Edward T. Oakes wrote an interesting article for First Things about the nature and role of canons. He made the valid point that canons are indispensable in any field, despite efforts by postmodernists to dismiss the very idea of the canon as hegemonic and imperialist. He also mentioned his candidates for various canons - theological, philosophical, and literary - and remarked on their differing criterion for admittance (style is crucial for the literary canon, whereas orthodoxy is decisive for the theological). It's a fascinating subject, one that appeals to my need to classify and delimit, to formulate my "best of" list.

Of course, Oakes's piece got me thinking about the Lutheran canon. What theologians (other than Luther) and books (other than the Book of Concord) are central to Lutheran self-understanding? Who is on the Lutheran All-Star team? At first I thought it would be easy to answer such questions, but I soon realized that it was no easy task. Indeed, it became apparent that the composition of the Lutheran canon would be a contentious issue, one that would easily divide along denominational lines. We can all agree, of course, that Luther is the standard-bearer of our theology, but who are Luther's true successors? Questions like these have divided Lutherans from the very beginning.

After writing down a few names, I concluded that "canonical Lutherans" can essentially be divided into two lineages, with Luther as their common ancestor. Here's my preliminary list,* which includes Lutherans from every century except our current one (the verdict is still out on living theologians). Please feel free to suggest additions and/or subtractions:

Group 1: Melanchthon (1497-1560), Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), C.F.W. Walther (1811-1887), Werner Elert (1885-1954).

Group 2: Philip Jacob Spener (1635-1705), Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Paul Tillich (1886-1965), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).

The two groups can perhaps be labeled "insiders" and "outsiders", although some may call the latter group "confessional". Another distinction might be "pietist" (or "existential") versus "orthodox", although this is also imperfect. Regardless, members of Group 2 were typically devout Christians raised in Lutheran countries who often clashed with the established church of their day (Kierkegaard is the classic example). These thinkers were unmistakably Lutheran in their theological orientation, but they were in no sense trying to repristinate Luther's theology. They admired Luther but did not feel beholden to him. In contrast, those in Group 1 were determined to preserve the "pure doctrine" of the Reformation. They viewed their task as principally one of expounding upon what had already been perfectly revealed in Scripture and the confessions - style was less important than a clear and forceful exposition of the faith.

Readers of this blog should not be surprised to learn that I am most drawn to the "outsiders" wing of the Lutheran canon - Kierkegaard and Hamann are particular favorites of mine. It is also this group that has received the most attention from non-Lutherans, perhaps because they better capture the boldness and excitement of Luther's theology, if not always the exact content. But I really believe that the two groups need each other, since they represent the tension that is always present in Lutheran theology between radicalism and conservatism. As I've mentioned before, this tension can be traced back to Luther himself, who led a very conservative Reformation with one foot in the Catholic Church and one foot outside. But it's my belief that this incongruity has contributed to the incredible richness of Lutheran theology.

* I have deliberately left Lutheran church historians and biblical scholars off the list, although Bultmann and Harnack would probably make many people's list of most influential Lutherans. I also omitted philosophers that had been heavily influenced by Lutheran theology, such as Hegel and Nietzsche. Finally, I did not include musicians, although some would say that J.S. Bach is the greatest Lutheran to have ever graced our planet.


CPA said...

Another question here is language. Not reading German myself (let alone Swedish, Danish, Finnish, etc.), I have to rely on translations. But I imagine that there are lots of great Lutheran writers who have never been translated.

In group #1, you could add as the main (only?) English-speaking insider before 1920 Charles Porterfield Krauth.

Thomas Adams said...

You’re absolutely right about the importance of language. It didn’t occur to me when I was writing the post, but all of the theologians on my list wrote in German except two: Kierkegaard and Tillich (and the latter only learned English late in life). The language barrier is still with us today – living theologians like Oswald Bayer and Eberhard J√ľngel would be much better known in the Anglo-American world if their works didn’t have to be translated.

That said, it seems to me that any Lutheran worthy of canonical status would have to be well known to English-speaking Lutherans. Demographic trends and the rampant secularization of European society mean that Germany and Scandinavia are no longer the undisputed capitals of Lutheranism. The center of gravity has shifted to regions where the first or second language is typically English. So any Lutheran theologian whose works are not readily available in English will be at a distinct disadvantage in shaping the future of Lutheran thought.

Thanks for the plug for Charles Porterfield Krauth. I had never heard of him before, but I browsed his Wikipedia entry. Unfortunately, it looks like most of his works are out of print.

Lee said...

I realize he's probably too recent to make it into your typology, but I wonder where someone like Gerhard Forde would fit in? He seems to me to be both "confessional" and "existentialist" in interesting ways.

Thomas Adams said...

Lee – I really should have included Gerhard Forde, given his considerable influence on American Lutheranism. I would probably put him in Group 1 because he is so self-consciously Lutheran and he adheres very closely to Luther (if not always the Confessions).

Here’s another way to think about the difference between Groups 1 and 2: the former are committed and self-conscious members of the Lutheran “team”, whereas the latter are Lutheran almost despite themselves (or one could say unconsciously). For instance, Kierkegaard was by no means trying to write Lutheran theology, but it came out that way due to his upbringing in a thoroughly Lutheran environment. The same could probably be said for Hamann and Tillich. Thus, these Group 2 thinkers all produced theologies that were both highly original and distinctively Lutheran, even if they rarely cited Luther or the Confessions.