Why Don't Lutherans Do Apologetics?
Last week I wrote about some ways we can do apologetics better. This week I want to address why (apparently?) my own church body (the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) lags behind in or neglects apologetics altogether.
Let me first qualify this entire post. I’m sure that Lutherans are doing apologetics. A lot of ministry and daily conversation will inevitably require us to offer a reason for the hope within us, and so I'm sure that a lot apologetics is done behind the scenes. And there are certainly Lutheran apologists out there doing great things. A good portion of my reading on the evidentialist method of apologetics included the contributions of the unquestionably Lutheran John Warwick Montgomery. I also appreciate the work of Rod Rosenbladt and the White Horse Inn, and the more recent Podcast “The Thinking Fellows.” Trevor Sutton and Gene Veith have made some welcome contributions. However, when it comes to Lutherans who have contributed to mainstream conversations about apologetics, I draw a blank.
All the volumes I’ve read on the history of apologetic thought abound with Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Arminian apologists. The Lutherans are absent. Why? Is there an anti-Lutheran bias that stifles our voice? Or have we just dropped the ball on apologetics? I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this. Here are mine.
Where are the Lutherans?
Could it be that Lutherans haven’t contributed to apologetics in America because Lutherans are also generally absent from theological discussion outside of their own tradition? Kevin DeYoung, a Reformed pastor and contributor to the Gospel Coalition has noticed this trend. I’d recommend reading the entire article, but here’s a brief quote from his piece “What’s Up With Lutherans?”
I don’t know of Lutherans speaking at the leading conferences. I don’t know of many popular books written by Lutherans. I don’t know of church planting movements among Lutherans. I know lots of people who look up to Martin Luther, but I don’t see the influence of Lutherans. I’m genuinely curious to know why the big tent of conservative, confessional evangelicalism doesn’t have more Lutherans.
DeYoung makes a good point. And even Lutherans have observed the same. Consider the following questions Dr. Paul Raabe poses to the question of why so much Lutheran theological work goes unnoticed:
- Is it because we don’t interact in non-Lutheran circles enough? What I see in our circles is Lutherans talking and debating with Lutherans. It resembles a basketball team that only scrimmages with itself. That is necessary, but eventually you have to play another team.
- Is it because we don’t address the questions non-Lutherans are asking? We are so swamped with our daily work that we don’t have time to read and consider outsider questions. But that consideration is crucial to a broader understanding of church and world.
- Is it because we don’t respect the theological work being done by non-Lutherans? There is some excellent and very helpful work being done by conservative non-Lutheran theologians.
- Is it because we don’t speak, write and communicate in outsider language? When a piece is pitched as “a distinctively confessional Lutheran approach,” that pitch is only for insiders. A Mennonite is not interested in reading a “distinctively confessional Lutheran approach” any more than I want to read a “distinctively Mennonite approach.” The language we use comes across as addressed only to Lutherans.
- Is it because we don’t aggressively market our “brand” in non-Lutheran circles? We should think about marketing. Luther used the technology of his day, the printing press.
I suppose all of Raabe's questions about theology could equally be applied to the discipline of apologetics as well.
A Different Concern?
The driving force behind the Reformation was not “is there a God?” but instead “am I right with God?” It could be that since the writings of Luther, the Confessions, and the later Lutheran theologians primarily addressed questions of soteriology (how am I saved?), questions related to the existence of God and the validity of the scriptural accounts are taken for granted, or at the very least peripheral. I would guess that confessional Lutherans did apologetics in response to the rationalism of the 17th and 18th centuries. I'm not an expert on the Lutheran fathers from the age of so called "Lutheran orthodoxy," but I do know that many these doctors made use of natural theology and philosophy to argue for the existence of God. But why wouldn't the exponential skepticism of our age make us all the more committed to careful thinking and writing in response to modern and postmodern questions?
Polemics over Apologetics?
I just received an email from our denomination's publishing house with an advertisement for a series of essays on closed communion. This is an important topic that deserves attention, and I appreciate the attention given. However, the publication of these articles is a reminder that confessional Lutherans often prize polemic arguments over apologetic ones (and yes, I recognize that often the line between polemics and apologetics is a blurry one).
In other words, we often focus on areas of disagreement between Christians rather than disagreements between opposing worldviews. The lunch table arguments I encountered in my undergrad days were more often on infant baptism or predestination instead of the historical evidences for the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, I would say that while my training at synodical schools at both the undergrad and seminary levels taught me how to think carefully as a theologian among other theologians, my classes did not equip me to think apologetically. When looking to study apologetics, I had to look outside my own tradition.
Nancy Pearcey summarizes the issue as she looks back at her Lutheran upbringing in her apologetic masterpiece Total Truth:
I had memorized hymns, Bible verses, the creeds, and the Lutheran catechism... Yet I had never been trained in apologetics, or given tools for analyzing ideas, or taught to defend Christianity against competing 'isms.
Pearcey goes on to share her later journey into postmodern skepticism. Thankfully, the love of Christ reclaimed her as she encountered the apologetic evangelism of Francis Schaeffer and the L'Abri community in Switzerland. I believe she is now a member of the PCA. It's a shame that the very thorough catechesis of her youth did not adequately address her valid questions and doubts. I suspect her story is played out over and over among our youth, yet often without the happy ending. This is a life and death matter, and frankly, we need to do better. Closed communion is important and worth our attention, but what about our young people who are seduced by the siren call of secularism and moralistic therapeutic deism? Ought we not practice good triage and deal with the latter with at least the same scholarly vigor as the former?
Luther states in his Small Catechism, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.” From beginning to end, God does the work of salvation. This is most certainly true. My reason, will, or intelligence do not contribute one iota of merit to my conversion. Thanks be to God for that, or else I'd be in a hell of a lot of trouble.
With that said, I often wonder if Lutherans either consciously or subconsciously avoid apologetics because they believe that the Holy Spirit calls people to faith though the preaching of the Word “where and when he wills,” and so, the reasoning goes, "Why bother with arguments and reasons?" In other words, we should just preach the Word, and people will either believe, or they won't.
This is a problematic line of thinking. At the very worst, this same line of thinking can be used as an excuse for preaching sermons that are so boring and lifeless that they're barely even bearable for the elect. We ought to preach God's word with zeal, conviction, and care - like those who will one day given an account. Obviously God can use a sub-par sermon to "call, gather, and enlighten" his elect, and even the most polished proclamation of Law and Gospel can fall on deaf ears. Either way, we ought to give it our best by applying careful study, illustrations that connect, words that resonate with the heart language of our hearers, and delivery that is clear and persuasive.
The same applies to apologetics. By listening and asking questions when people make assertions about belief or unbelief, we are indirectly applying the weight of God's law. Worldview foundations begin to weaken. When the time is right, sharing the word of the cross and empty tomb as a matter of history rather than a leap of blind faith places good news on a good foundation. We ought to work hard to ask insightful questions and give informed answers. And yes, when and where God wills, the Spirit does the rest.
If the Reformed - who are avid monergists! - can come up with their own brand of apologetics without doing injustice to their beliefs about total depravity and conversion as an A to Z work of God, then why not Lutherans?
What Does a Lutheran Approach Look Like?
I wrote this post out of love for my church body and its theology. I am not trying to blog as the accuser of the brethren. Rather, I believe that our theology offers something vital for our postmodern context, and yet, for some reason or another, we often fail to apply the riches of what we believe in response to unbelief. Furthermore, if we do apologetics, we often end up looking for methods or materials outside of our own tradition, when all the while we have excellent theological resources from within to offer a defense for our hope. So, is there a uniquely Lutheran approach to apologetics? Yes. I think there is. That will be the topic of next week's post.
Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church - South Windsor, CT