Review of “Luther and the Beloved Community” by Paul R. Hinlicky

Paul R. Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010).

I am writing in the hope of persuading pastors to read Paul R. Hinlicky’s recent books. They meet a crying need for the sort of books that were published in previous generations by authors like Gustaf Wingren, William Lazareth, Gerhard Forde, David Scaer, and Robert Jenson. Their books have helped pastors to orient themselves and their flocks, and Hinlicky’s books do, too.

I recommend that you begin with Luther and the Beloved Community. I consider it the most accessible of the four volumes. (In addition, there is a fifth book of sermons available from ALPB.) The subtitle is A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom, and Hinlicky leads us through the twists and turns of certain contemporary issues while, at the same time, making essential course corrections for followers of Martin Luther.

Along the way, Hinlicky uncovers surprises for those who think they know Luther. In a discussion of war, he observes, “To my knowledge, for the first time in Christian history, Luther articulates civil disobedience as a Christian social duty” (p. 342). Who knew?! Luther asserts that it “is not fitting for me, a preacher, vested with the spiritual office, to wage war or to counsel war or to incite it” (p. 341). The juxtaposition of Dr. Martin Luther’s admonition to peace and Dr. Martin Luther King’s preaching of non-violence is one example of fresh insights that await the reader.

Luther and the Beloved Community is a work of practical theology. It joins trinitarian theology with attention to the practices of the church in the Euro-American world. It ought to be of interest not only to academic theologians but also to practical theologians, i.e., pastors. A suggestion: don’t be put off by the first chapter and its introduction of a philosopher that most pastors have never heard of (Josiah Royce). Keep reading: it’s not necessary to be familiar with all of Hinlicky’s references.

The “Beloved Community” is a fine name for the church. Hinlicky is teaching us to develop the habit of remembering that the church is always communion with the Trinity.  I emphasize always, because forgetfulness is one of the degenerative ailments of church bureaucracies, synod assemblies, church councils, and most vulnerable of all, pastoral ministry.   In the name of being “realistic,” we easily slide into the liberal Protestant and secular assumption that the church is one thing and God is another. Hinlicky argues that this was not Martin Luther’s way of thinking, nor should it be ours. The church becomes unrealistic when it is unmindful of the love of the triune God.

The essential truth is: God is the Father who is always with the Son and Holy Spirit and is inseparable from his “Beloved Community,” the church. We might say the church recognizes this identity in the liturgy and creeds, like a mirror, but forgets herself when she goes away (cf. James 2). Hinlicky’s hypothesis is “that if we succeed in interpreting the old dogmas as Luther interpreted them, they do indeed come to life, and in coming to life, they can effect for us today a Luther-like critique and reform of the contemporary church’s practice and faith.” But it comes at a price that we might be reluctant to pay. “But the price of this is [a] hermeneutical act of violence against the historical Martin Luther: we must disavow Luther’s unreflective and self-serving resort to demonization of theological opponents, not least to be able to put the demons to flight in a better way” (p.30). The readiness to draw such distinctions an important aspect of the author’s approach that he calls “critical dogmatics.”

“Critical dogmatics” is a theology of the Word that presupposes “the encompassing reality of language in the human-social world.” All interpretation (and this is especially essential for pastors to understand) “tells a story of stories, that is of human persons understood as essentially storied figures—to themselves, as to others, individually and communally” (p. 8).  Dogmatics is “critical” because it, too, is intrinsically historical and a “story of stories” undertaken by finite and fallible creatures over the course of time. Critical “dogmatics” is the argumentative process by which the church articulates dogmas; that is, binding teachings and practices of the faith. It “depends on faith in the Giver of our sequence and His final reconciliation of all our provisional beliefs in the school of Heaven” (p.11, Hinlicky paraphrasing Philip Melanchthon). “If we find this process nevertheless trustworthy, it is because… we believe the dialectic of Word and Spirit to intend the Father’s goal of the Beloved Community… we believe that in the Spirit with the Son we will be presented—fragments of meaning that we are—purified and reconciled to all others, and so remembered eternally by the Father of the Son and Breather of the Spirit” (p.12).

Our “contentment” with the reality of critique and dogma permits us, as Lutherans, to be instructed by Luther and to see when Luther sinned in his approach to his opponents. The process of discernment expands to include friends and foes, in the church and in the world that God has reconciled to himself. Critical dogmatics is a form of simul justus et peccator in and for the Beloved Community. The discipline of mutual correction is a necessary and complex form of obedience, as we will see.

Part One of The Beloved Community examines Luther’s creedal theology in three chapters. Chapter Two concerns the “person” of Christ: “One of the Trinity Suffered: Luther’s Neo-Chalcedonian Christology.” I wonder if seminaries today teach the “communion of attributes”? In practice, the communicatio idiomatum determines whether a sermon is merely talk about an absent Christ or, alternatively, is the real presence of the ascended Christ to his beloved church.

Chapter Three is an eye-opening discussion of the wrath of God that Christ met in our place and overcame in the heart of God at Golgotha. It is worth all of the time and effort that a pastor can invest to study Hinlicky’s trinitarian narrative of atonement. “In that the Son in the power of the Spirit bears human sin in obedience to the Father, and in this uncanny way truly perishes in solidarity with sinners under the aspect of the same Father’s holy wrath—when, and if, the Father recognizes the Son’s love for sinners to the cross as his own love for them as well, by the same Spirit, they too are also raised, by faith in Christ, with Christ to the Father’s open arms” (p. 75). If this way of telling the story seems too difficult, the author offers an alternative.

Hinlicky would have us turn to LBW #299 in which the Beloved Community sings the same story. “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice” is an example of the “trinitarian advent” at work in Luther’s hymns, sermons, prayers, and formal theology. In Chapter Four, Hinlicky introduces us to this concept of Christine Helmer’s. (She develops it in her indispensable study, The Trinity and Martin Luther.) The Word preached “from faith to faith” (Romans 1) is nothing less than the coming of the Trinity to his Beloved. “Faith is divine faith, hearing God spoken as God intends… Whether or not God’s spoken Word, who is Jesus Christ the crucified, is heard by us as God hears it (that means raising, vindicating, exalting, and enthroning the Crucified with all those for whom he believed)—such hearing turns on the free movement of that Spirit, who blows as He will, who cannot be manipulated, bribed, or otherwise conjured. If this is right, the Spirit’s mission to the nations has nothing whatsoever to do with… the refined ambulance-chasing of the modern middle-class chaplaincy, running after the weaknesses, the failures, the crises, and anomie of modern life” (p. 133). Pastors, he’s talking to us! Critical dogmatics tests the spirits that speak at the present time, to see whether they are of God (I John 4:1).

Part Two of The Beloved Community guides us on explorations in theological anthropology. Chapter Five analyzes “the self” with the help of The Bondage of the Will. Luther considered it one of his essential works, but the heirs of Luther distanced themselves from it. Hinlicky points out an overlooked feature of Luther’s doctrine of election, its trinitarian dimensions: “Fundamentally, Luther thinks of Christ the Savior together with His people in the Beloved Community as the content of God’s election, and not a predetermined list of the saved and the damned” (p. 151). Likewise, he adds, the treatise “might as readily have been titled De Spiritu Sancti.” When the author assigns this text to students, he has them circle, in red ink, every occurrence of “Holy Spirit.” (The name appears on almost every page.) “Luther needs to assert, in full Trinitarian personalism, the Holy Spirit as the Lord and Giver of life in battle with that unholy spirit, Satan” (p. 160). I have long wondered if Luther does not pursue his own insights far enough. In The Bondage of the Will, Luther gives little or no mention of Baptism and Holy Communion and preaching as actual occurrences of the Spirit’s election of the Beloved Community, in the face of the evil one. The means of grace might even form a logical bridge between The Bondage of the Will and the Formula of Concord. This consideration would fit well with Hinlicky’s proposal of a narrative resolution to Luther’s dualism, that in the preaching and sacraments, God’s election is “something followable, as a narrative, as a passage, as a real becoming in God” (p. 162).

What could have been the outcome if, like Hinlicky, the ELCA’s decisions about marriage and homosexuality had been prefaced with study of The Bondage of the Will? The stage is set for Chapter Six, “The Redemption of the Body: Luther on Marriage.” Hinlicky guides us to a Great Divide that pastors might wish they could avoid. “The notion assumed in this chapter’s undertaking—that evangelical teaching on marriage (or any ‘ethical’ topic) is intended to help us occupy public space, meet moral demands, and attain to creation’s promised blessing—offends a certain school of Lutheran thought, though in my view wrongly” (p. 189). He continues, “Antinomians hold that Christ is ‘the end of the law’ (Romans 10:4) not chiefly (or today at all) in Luther’s sense that His holy obedience to God’s law fulfills God’s ethical purpose and so counts for the helpless sinner who trusts in Him. Rather, they hold that Christ is the end of the law in the sense that Christ saves by a new revelation of true and higher morality,
which overthrows the false morality of this world, exposing it as oppressive ideology—the anti-Judaism of this new Marcionism is scarcely concealed… Then Christ is not the end of the law’s jurisdiction as the pedagogue to Christ (Galatians 2:23), but rather the end of the law’s (old, oppressive) ethical content (but see Romans 7:12; 13:8–10).” Here we arrive at a “critical” moment in “critical dogmatics”—the problem of continuity and discontinuity of doctrine within the Beloved Community.

Rather than the way of liberal Protestantism, Hinlicky pursues the Augustinian path mapped out in Luther’s Commentary on Genesis (p. 216): “What is most striking of all in these considerations, in Luther’s perspective, is the power of destructive illusions to which reason (even in the name of science!) succumbs apart from the Word of God. That is why Luther is adamant that apart from faith in the Word of God commanding marriage, reason is deaf and blind to the true linkage of sex and children, namely, that to continue in God’s work of creation we must replace ourselves. We must give birth, and care for the children of our love, indeed order our sexuality in marriage to that end, and in that way prepare to die. Just as each has received, so each is bound also to pass on to the new generation the gift of life, truly the gift of our time and space which cannot be hoarded but only spent. Because we must die, we ought to care for our children… if we wish to cooperate with God’s creative purpose for the human race. Gays and lesbians can, in the resource of such Christian faith and in recognized unions, practically and politically align themselves with this divine purpose, bearing their own crosses just as heterosexual couples must. The problem for both is that we flee the holy cross.” Here we arrive at another “critical” moment in “critical dogmatics”—the problem of legitimate diversity, of time and patience, after Christendom.

Pastors, you need to read this book! I hope you agree, because I can do little more than list the chapter titles of Part Three and hope that you are intrigued. In “‘New, Old, and Different Perspectives’ on Paul (Augustine and Luther),” Hinlicky weighs in on recent exegetical debates by demonstrating why and how Lutherans can embrace more than one construal to Paul’s words of the pistis Iesou. Next, “Communio: Luther’s Forgotten Ecclesiology” argues that Lutherans and Roman Catholics must both find unity in “a Christocentric ecclesiology of communion anchored in the Eucharist” (p. 289)—and confess their sins against charity. Chapter Nine, mentioned above, is a surprising conversation with Martin Luther King Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr, and Marxism (identified as a “Christian heresy”) on how to follow Jesus. The title is “Passion and Action in Christ: Political Theology.” Last but not least is “By Way of Conclusion: What Luther Meant by Theologia Crucis.” “What Luther meant by the theology of the cross is that God heals us by afflicting us” (p. 358). An Appendix is added, too: “The Problem of Demonization in Luther’s Apocalyptic Theology.” “We must break the spell of confessionalism with its need for a ‘prophet,’ a ‘martyr,’ and a ‘hero’” (p. 384).

What is Luther and the Beloved Community about? To summarize, it is about the church—the Beloved Community that is possessed by the Father and His goal of perfect communication, and by the Son who died and is risen and coming to be the Father’s Word to and for the Beloved Community, and by the Holy Spirit who captivates, reconciles, spreads, and perfects the Beloved Community in charitable interpretation without end. Pastors, if the previous sentence needs to be “unpacked,” make this the new book of theology that you tackle this year.

Jonathan L. Jenkins is Interim Pastor at Klingerstown Lutheran Parish in Klingerstown, Pennsylvania.


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