The Presiding Bishop's "Core" Convictions
I promised that I would review Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson’s Reconciling Works Keynote Address that he gave on July 7. The text was made available by the Bishop’s Office to Pastor Daniel Ostercamp of Webster, SD, who made it available to me. I will leave to others the critical analysis of Hanson’s remarkably rosy picture of the ELCA. I will also ignore the several self-justifications of his own partisan (or insufficiently partisan!) leadership that pepper the address. The theological question I posed in my previous post was whether the bishop would nurture God’s people with the word of God’s law and gospel and whether he would speak as pastor of the whole, which in Lutheran understanding (see Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession) is what a bishop is supposed to do...
I promised that I would review Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson’s Reconciling Works Keynote Address that he gave on July 7. The text was made available by the Bishop’s Office to Pastor Daniel Ostercamp of Webster, SD, who made it available to me. You can read it for yourself here. I will leave to others the critical analysis of Hanson’s remarkably rosy picture of the ELCA. I will also ignore the several self-justifications of his own partisan (or insufficiently partisan!) leadership that pepper the address. The theological question I posed in my previous post was whether the bishop would nurture God’s people with the word of God’s law and gospel and whether he would speak as pastor of the whole, which in Lutheran understanding (see Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession) is what a bishop is supposed to do.
Hanson is certainly a preacher. If theology is only for preaching, I suppose that there is not much to complain about here. We can be certain that the audience loved it. He begins with a text—a great text, actually, if understood as the Apostle meant it, II Corinthians 5:14–21—on reconciliation (no doubt to connect with the LGBT lobby’s self-designation), which he claims will frame his “presence and presentation.” I summarize his address as follows. 1) Hanson reviews his relation as presiding bishop to “members of Reconciling Work,” acknowledging their experience of exclusion by power and privilege, thanking them for staying in the ELCA and for their “prophetic” work in it, and asking them patiently to continue on in spite of the recalcitrant. 2) Indeed, he then challenges one and all to belong to Christ, to reject drawing lines in the sand, and he quotes Luther on faith as a living, daring confidence in God’s grace to explain belonging to Christ as tearing down walls and giving up power and privilege. 3) He next extends this challenge to “building bridges of reconciliation with those who do not proclaim Jesus as savior” in a lengthy aside on interfaith dialogue. 4) He then returns to the various ministries of the ELCA because this “is who we are as the ELCA... a church whose unity is in this Jesus Christ who gathers us... [which] means we will define ourselves first on the basis of our relatedness to others and to God’s creation and not on the basis of our distinctiveness—that which sets us apart...” Finally 5) Hanson indulges in a dubious victory lap, claiming that no ecumenical relationships have been ruined (except with the LCMS), but on the contrary the ELCA is doing God’s work in desperate places like Haiti, curing Africa of malaria and sending its youth to New Orleans to help that hurricane-stricken city rebuild.
What’s not to like? How could we ever judge against a winsome preacher who manifestly loves Jesus and wants the church to be engaged in Jesus’ work of reconciliation and justice? To his credit, that is Hanson’s consistent vision. He is to be acknowledged as a principled person and a consistent leader. Let’s grant him that personally and even officially. Now let’s take a deeper look at the theology expressed in this address.
First, how does Hanson understand the problem traditionally identified as sin, the “trespasses” God was not counting when He reconciled the world in Christ, as per his chosen text of II Corinthians 5:14–21? He says repeatedly throughout this address that we live “in a culture and world that continues to fortify borders and erect barriers to protect and preserve power and privilege.” Second, then, Hanson’s understanding of reconciliation in the gospel flows directly out of this entirely horizontal understanding sin as social oppression, as he asks rhetorically: “Yet is it not the call of the Gospel to lay down our privilege? Aren’t we to be with all who are excluded, marginalized, shunned and shamed in order to engage in the work of reconciliation to which God calls us?” This understanding of the gospel as a call or summons is Hanson’s most profound conviction—quite literally, his “core” conviction: so he related in the address how he responded to this very question of “core,” that is, non-negotiable convictions at an interfaith symposium. So, third, here we get a depiction of “God” that accords with the foregoing “core,” Who, in Hanson’s words, “continuously and improvisationally is creating paths to us so that God might reveal the depths of God’s grace, God’s reconciling love and mercy for us and the whole creation.” So the Christian conviction that “we will never give away is the Good News that God is always giving God’s self away for the life of the world, showing God’s gracious and forgiving love for you and me and the whole creation.”
I have little doubt that in wide swaths of the ELCA this sappy and at the same time legalistic preaching prevails. Stacked up against classic Lutheran confessional “core” convictions, however, consider the following three objections to the three points above. First, sin as a problem with God, as in Romans 1–3 (note—the source from which all of Luther’s theology sprang), is not even on the horizon. Second, Hanson’s good news operates as law: a summons to engage in God’s supposed work, which is the earthly Jesus’ supposed inclusiveness, not His Messianic bearing of the sin of the whole world as our representative on the cross under the wrath of God; this is a divine work of reconciliation with God by God that, of course, is Christ’s alone and ours only passively and by faith and repentance. As I pointed out three years ago, we go from this gospel, which is a gift to the sinner, to inclusion of all who repent and believe. If, however, we reverse the order and try to move from universal inclusion back to Jesus and His cross, we will have to take offense at the cross, both Jesus’ and the one laid on the believer by His Spirit, namely lifelong repentance from sin and separation from the culture of this dying epoch. Third, Hanson’s kenotic God performs a strange disappearing act, making no claims for His own glory or name but yielding to whatever theological improvisations activist churchmen need in order to get folks on board with the latest cause.
Hanson could really give up power and privilege by humbly joining the audience at the CORE theological conference at Golden Valley, Minnesota, in August, thus exhibiting a heretofore invisible will to reconciliation with the droves of confessional Lutherans whom his leadership has marginalized and excluded. He doesn’t need a written invitation or a platform. He needs to listen to voices really other than his own rather than the echo chamber he experienced in Washington, DC, on July 7.
Paul R. Hinlicky is the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.