A Letter to Bishop Eaton and her response.

In response to the Bishop’s column in the Jan/Feb edition of Living Lutheran I offered the following comments to ELCA churchwide bishop Elizabeth Eaton. I attach her response as well. I would only say that I had hoped for something other than a report of a reader response poll.

Dear Bishop Eaton:

I have read your “Presiding Bishop” column in the January/February 2023 edition of Living Lutheran several times. I am puzzled and distressed by what I read.

You express concern that the Lutheran understanding of the word of God as both Law and Gospel and the distinction necessary for that understanding “is getting blurred.” If that is indeed the case, then I would share that concern.

You note that “some define the gospel as social justice…” I’m not sure if that is the case. I am sure that I don’t find the “some people are saying” language to be helpful or compelling. If there are specific examples of the issue you identify, I’d like to hear about them. But the “some people” language is a bit like saying there’s trouble right here in River City.

I understand you have limited space in the column, but this language is too general to be helpful or actionable. I would have wished for greater clarity and specificity. Or it would have been best to omit this generic accusation.

I have concerns as well about the historical theology and the theological analysis you offer in your column. The categories of “Law” and “Gospel” in our theological tradition are dynamic realities rather than static categories. The very same word of Scripture can function as Law for one person and Gospel for another, depending on one’s position and circumstance.

I hear echoes of the in-house Lutheran debates that preceded the final version of the Formula of Concord. On the one hand, there were those who argued that good works are necessary for salvation. On the other hand, there were those who argued that good works are dangerous to our salvation. Neither reflects Luther’s position. However, you seem to flirt a bit with that latter assertion.

You note that works of social justice are not the gospel. Rather these works flow from the liberation we receive by means of the Gospel. I find that to be a description from a position of colonizing privilege. Works of social justice are indeed good news for the poor – part of the proclamation included in Jesus’ own inaugural sermon in Luke 4. Again, the Scriptural functions of Law and Gospel are dynamic, not static.

I am concerned that your analysis focuses exclusively on the “work” of Christ and does not adequately include the “person” of Christ. The work of justification is certainly central to the Gospel. However, the presence of Christ through faith in the heart of the believer is also central to the Gospel. Luther makes precisely this point in his 1535 commentary on Galatians.

The “wonderful exchange” which you reference in your writing encapsulates this inclusion of the “person” of Christ in the gospel. Through this exchange, the believer is freed and equipped for a life of loving service to the neighbor. We are not, by the way, free (at least according to Luther’s own analysis of the bondage of the will).

I can make neither head nor tails of the last two paragraphs of your column. We Lutherans aren’t quietists, you say. I hope that is more and more true. However, we must be careful not to blur our in-house theological distinctions as we seek to be more active. I think that’s all true, but I’m not clear what you would urge me to do with those two paragraphs.

I am distressed that this cautionary column is the last word in an issue that begins with a reflection on Dr. King’s words and work. Whatever your intention, the very structure of the issue could give the impression that you are offering a corrective to over-eager attempts at self-justification by social justice. As we read this issue during Black History month, I find the conjunction unfortunate and unhelpful.

If I have misunderstood your words and argument, I gladly will be corrected. If that is the case, I will offer my heartfelt apologies. I hope you will have the time to read this over-long query.

Thank you for your time and leadership.

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Lowell Hennigs

Omaha, NE

Dear Pr. Hennigs,

I appreciate receiving your comments about my article in Living Lutheran. I was aware that some faithful members of the ELCA would raise questions and concerns.  Other faithful members have been encouraged and grateful.

My prayer is that God’s Holy Spirit continue to guide us all in the ways of faithfulness and love as we live together in Jesus Christ.

God’s blessings,

Elizabeth A. Eaton

Presiding Bishop

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