Presentation given at the Luther Colloquy of United Lutheran Seminary

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

October 30, 2019

Unedited version of article published in Dialog 59, 2 (June 2020), pp. 138–146.

            If the purpose of theological education is the proclamation of the gospel, then in order to do theological education right, we need to get the gospel straight. As I have argued in my 2011 book Redeeming the Gospel: The Christian Faith Reconsidered and elsewhere, five centuries after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, that still has not happened.[1] To understand why, we need to go back to the time prior to the Reformation.

The Gospel in Traditional Protestant Thought

            Since at least the eleventh century, when Anselm of Canterbury wrote his work Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), the Western Church had been teaching that God’s justice would not allow him to forgive sins freely.[2] God either had to punish the sins of human beings or receive satisfaction from humanity for those sins. Following Anselm, it was taught that in his death Christ had made satisfaction for past sins, but that the faithful themselves needed to make satisfaction for the sins they continued to commit. If they wanted to avert God’s punishment, they had to obtain his grace and forgiveness by doing things such as attending church, fasting, venerating relics, adopting the monastic life, doing penance, going on pilgrimages, paying for masses, and buying indulgences. By holding up the image of an angry God who needed to be placated through activities and practices such as these, the church exerted control over people and gained possession of their resources and even their bodies and souls.

            Luther and most of the other Reformers attempted to liberate the faithful from this oppression by claiming that, in his death, Christ had made satisfaction for all human sins.[3]

This claim was central to the understanding of the gospel as it came to be articulated by Luther and the Reformation tradition in general: in his death Christ had put away God’s wrath at the sins of human beings as a whole once and for all and had merited God’s forgiveness for them so that they did not have to merit that forgiveness themselves.[4] To attain salvation, human beings merely needed to accept the forgiveness God offered them through faith in Christ and his atoning death.

            This way of defining the gospel, however, raised new problems. First of all, if in his death Christ obtained for human beings the forgiveness of all their sins, including even those that they have not yet committed, then what need is there for them to refrain from sinning? Does not the certainty of God’s forgiveness for any sins that they commit give them license to sin freely? If it is claimed that any who willfully persist in sin after coming to faith fall back under God’s wrath and forfeit the forgiveness of their sins, then that forgiveness ultimately depends on them and their behavior rather than on what Christ has done.

            A second problem has to do with the concept of God associated with such a definition of the gospel. God continues to be presented as a wrathful judge whose justice must be satisfied before human beings can be forgiven and saved. To illustrate this problem, I like to quote a passage from a book titled Theology of the Pain of God, originally published in 1946 by the Japanese Lutheran theologian Kazoh Kitamori. To explain what salvation involves, Kitamori tells the following parable:

A traveler is walking across a field in summer, when suddenly a thunderstorm breaks out above him. There is neither tree nor habitation; the traveler must walk on alone, in danger of being struck by lightning at any moment. Around him the lightning is striking here and there; in a minute it may strike him dead. But look! A mysterious hand is stretched above the traveler, covering and protecting him. Guarded by this loving hand, he can safely walk on through the thunderstorm. Because of that wonderful hand the lightning will not touch him. But look further. Like a linen cloth pierced by countless bullets, the hand which protects the traveler is being repeatedly struck by the lightning. This protecting hand is catching and intercepting the thunderbolts, which should fall on the traveler.[5]

            Kitamori continues: “the meaning of this allegory is obvious. The thunderbolts of God’s wrath were trying to pierce through us, the travelers. . . . But God’s wrath never falls on us. God so loves and protects us that the very hairs of our head are numbered.” Kitamori then asks: “But what transforms this God of wrath into a God of love?”[6]

            Now what kind of a God is this? With one hand he is angrily throwing down lightning bolts on us, and with the other he is catching those lightning bolts to save us from them. What is this God saving us from? From himself! Supposedly, that is the good news: God sent Christ to have the lightning bolts he is angrily throwing down fall on him instead of us! One can only wonder why God does not simply stop throwing lightning bolts in the first place. Supposedly, God’s holiness and justice leave him no choice: he has to punish sins, either by punishing us or having his Son endure that punishment in our place.[7] This is how the doctrine of law and gospel has traditionally been understood: God’s law accuses us as a tyrant and tells us that we are under God’s wrath because of our sins, but the gospel tells us that through Christ God has saved us from that wrath and now forgives us our sins.

            Of course, this interpretation of Christ’s work has been heavily criticized, especially by feminist theologians, who have said that it portrays God as a child abuser. While that criticism may not be entirely fair, there is definitely some truth to it. Any who have worked with abuse victims know that such behavior is typical of abusers. Most of the time they are sweet, friendly, and kind and repeatedly tell their victims how much they love them. From one moment to the next, however, at the slightest provocation, they explode into anger and become violent and abusive. After a short while, their anger blows over and they go back to being the nice, sweet, friendly persons who claim to love deeply those who have endured their abuse. Yet their victims always know that anything they do or say may trigger another explosion at any moment and for that reason never feel safe or at ease in the presence of the abuser. They also know that what the abuser calls love is not really love. Instead, it is manipulation, domination, and abuse that seeks to pass itself off for love. Any such “love” is always conditional on one doing what the abuser wants.

            Unfortunately, this is precisely what we find in our tradition. As an example, I need only cite the Conclusion to Luther’s explanation of the Ten Commandments in his Small Catechism, where he writes: “God threatens to punish all who break these commandments. Therefore we are to fear his wrath and not disobey these commandments. However, God promises grace and every good thing to all those who keep these commandments. Therefore we also are to love and trust him and gladly act according to his commands.” Here again, if Christ has put away God’s wrath definitively and irreversibly, I am not sure how Luther can still say that believers who disobey those commandments come back under that wrath. But more importantly, here we have this God who is threatening us with his wrath one minute, yet the next minute promises “grace and every good thing” to us as long as we love and trust him and do what he commands with gladness. While I may do what this God tells me to do, frankly, I will make sure to keep my distance from him rather than getting very close to him, because in essence he seems to be doing exactly what abusers do: angrily threatening to hurt me if I do not do what he wants, and then telling me how good and nice and kind he will be to me if I do what he tells me to do gladly.

             This is precisely the “gospel” we have inherited. Such an understanding of the gospel has by no means disappeared today. In his book Justification: The Article by Which the Church Stands or Falls, for example, Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten writes that the gospel addresses “the question of what has to happen to make us right with God, to get God off our backs,” and then points to Christ as the one who has accomplished this.[8] Is that the good news that we are to proclaim: that Christ has gotten God off our backs?! What kind of God is this? In essence, Christ’s task is once more to save us from God, and the gospel announces that in Christ God has saved us from himself.

            Today, of course, in churches such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), one rarely hears such an understanding of the gospel proclaimed from church pulpits or taught in seminary and university classrooms. Few pastors and theologians in our church continue to speak of an angry God whose wrath at our sins had to be put away by Christ in his death in order for us to be forgiven and saved. Such an idea, however, remains firmly entrenched in the writings of Luther, our Lutheran Confessions, our textbooks, and even our latest hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship. From my perspective, it is high time that we not only denounce and condemn such an understanding of the gospel but also ask the world to forgive our church for ever having proclaimed it. As a church, we have apologized and asked forgiveness for the horrific things that Luther wrote about Jews, the atrocities committed against Anabaptists by Lutherans in past centuries, and the complicity of our church in the enslavement and oppression of people of African descent. However, I have never heard of anyone in our church proposing that we publicly condemn this view of God, salvation, and Christ’s work. Yet it too has destroyed countless lives. One need only read the work of theologians such as Delores Williams, Rebecca Ann Parker, and Rita Nakashima Brock to see the pain and suffering that such ideas have brought into the lives of countless women.[9] One of the most graphic descriptions of the nature of the God associated with this understanding of the gospel appears in Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. There we encounter a God whose justice can be satisfied only by having his Son brutalized and beat bloody. Incredibly, it is expected that this portrayal of God will move viewers to marvel at the enormity of God’s love and be filled with gratitude toward such a God rather than being terrorized and repulsed by him. The harm that such an image of God can hardly be overestimated. How can we not repent and ask forgiveness for the tremendous damage that our tradition has done by calling such ideas the gospel?

A Different God

            Yet if that is not the gospel, what is? Surprisingly, I think that we find that answer in the writings of Luther himself. Standing alongside the God just described is another God who is very different. Precisely how Luther reconciled these two views of God with one another is not entirely clear, but both are definitely present in his writings. In contrast to the God whose justice will not allow him to forgive sins until Christ makes the necessary satisfaction, there is another God who acts purely out of love in everything he does.[10] In fact, Luther even writes: “Anyone who regards him as angry has not seen him correctly, but has pulled down a curtain and cover, or even more, a dark cloud over his face.”[11]

            According to this alternative understanding of the gospel, our fundamental problem as human beings is not that we are under God’s wrath but that the sin that dwells in and among us is like a sickness or illness that needs to be healed. That is what God does through Christ: she sends her Son, not for the purpose of making it possible for her to forgive us, but rather so that through that Son we may be restored to health and wholeness.

            Actually, this is how salvation is understood in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, salvation is the equivalent of shalom, a Hebrew word that we generally translate as “peace” but in reality means literally “wholeness.” In Greek, the word for “whole” is sōs, and thus the verb sōzō, “to save” actually means to “make whole” or “heal.” This is the verb used in a number of passages from the Synoptic Gospels in which Jesus heals someone and then tells them, “Your faith has saved you,” that is, “Your faith has healed you” or “made you whole.”[12] Our English words “save” and “salvation” are derived from the Latin noun salus, which can be translated as “well-being,” “health,” or even “wholeness.” This understanding of salvation is reflected most clearly in Jesus’ saying, “It is not those who are well who have need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous but the sinners” (Mark 2:17). Here Jesus presents himself as a physician whose task is to heal people. Luther repeatedly speaks of Jesus in that way. He especially likes to compare Jesus to the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable in Luke 10:25-37: just as the good Samaritan came to the aid of the man who had been left for dead and provided what was necessary for him to be restored to health, so Jesus comes to our aid and is active to restore us to health.[13]

            According to this understanding of Christ’s work and the gospel, sin is everything that destroys our well-being and prevents us from being whole, both individually and collectively. In this case, instead of being a tyrant that is constantly accusing us, the law is a means by which God mercifully shows us how sick and broken we are and how desperately we need help. Luther speaks of this as God’s strange or alien work.[14] We become like the alcoholic who touches bottom and finally has to admit that he is sick and has a problem. Only when that has happened can we be helped. Another analogy would be that of going to the doctor for a physical and getting your lab results that indicate that you have serious health problems. When a physician points out to you just how sick you are, she is not angrily accusing you of anything. On the contrary, she is trying to help you be healthy. In the same way, once God shows us how broken we are as a result of our destructive ways, in love, she points us to Jesus her Son and tells us, “Here is the physician who can heal you. Follow him and look to him; put your life in his hands, because he is the one who can make you well.” Here I think it is important to follow Luther in defining faith in terms of “clinging to Christ.” As we cling to Christ in faith, he restores us to health by allowing us to live in ways that make us whole.

            This understanding of the gospel also speaks of the forgiveness of sins, yet the basis for that forgiveness is not Christ’s death. Instead, it is the transformation that our faith in Christ brings about in us. The reason God forgives us is that she knows that, as long as we keep clinging to Christ in faith, we will continue to be healed and transformed into new people until the day when that healing and transformation can become complete.[15] This is the only thing that can ever satisfy God: that we be enabled to put away our destructive behavior and instead be changed by Christ into new persons who live in ways that make our well-being and that of others possible.

            According to this understanding of the gospel, God still wants us to be perfect, yet she wants this not for her sake but for ours. And in principle we want the same thing. I never want to do things that destroy my own well-being and that of others, whom I love as God does. When I fall into sinful and destructive behavior, it angers and frustrates me just as much as it angers God. And the reason we do not say, “Now that God has promised to forgive me all my sins, I can sin all I want” is that we realize that there is nothing good or attractive about sin. On the contrary, we see how sin destroys our lives and prevents us from experiencing all the good things that God wants for us and that we want for ourselves. For that reason, as Luther taught, we come to hate our sin and injustice just as much as God does. It is our concern for our own well-being rather than simply fear of God’s punishment that brings us to want to avoid sin at all costs.

            The gospel, therefore, does not simply proclaim that through Christ God forgives us. Forgiveness alone does not make people whole. In fact, when people are living in destructive ways, simply forgiving and overlooking what they are doing only makes things worse. The way to make people whole is not to ignore their wrongdoing but to reach out to them in love in an effort to bring them to live in ways that enable them to be healed and transformed into people who practice that same love. That is precisely what God has done in Christ. What the gospel proclaims is that, as we cling to Christ in faith, through him God heals us and transforms us into new people who can live in ways that make it possible for us to be made whole alongside others. As long as that transformation is taking place, God forgives us, overjoyed that we are in the process of finally being made into the people she wants us to be for our own well-being and happiness.

            So where does Jesus’ death fit into all of this? To understand Jesus’ death, it is necessary to understand what he was all about from the start.[16] Everything he did in his ministry had the purpose of reaching out to others to heal them and bring them to live in ways that would enable them to experience wholeness and well-being. That is possible only when people live in love. In particular, however, Jesus sought to form a community in which all would share his same commitment to seeking the wholeness of others out of love for them, because only in that way could all be made whole.

            To seek the wholeness and well-being of others in love, however, requires that one also stand up to the evil and wrongdoing that make it impossible for people to experience that wholeness and well-being. Love for others requires that one point to the sin and injustice that is destroying their lives and demand that it come to an end, whether that sin and injustice be theirs or that of someone else. That is exactly what Luther did when he posted his 95 theses. What motivated him to do so was one thing alone: his love for others. As a parish pastor, he saw the grave injustices being inflicted on his parishioners through the sale of indulgences and other things that the church was doing and teaching, and so he stood up and said, “This is not right and it has to stop!”

            Jesus’ love for others led him to do the same thing. He speaks out harshly against those who use the law to oppress others and to justify all kinds of injustices, such as devouring the property of widows and those in need.[17] When others want to prevent him from healing and helping others by appealing to the law, he angrily criticizes them for regarding strict observance of that law as more important than the well-being of those who are suffering or hungry. He condemns the hypocrisy and cruelty of the religious authorities who place unbearable burdens on the backs of others without lifting a finger themselves and perpetrate all sorts of evils against others in God’s name, instead of practicing the justice and mercy that the law demands. He storms into the temple to protest the abuses and corruption of those in power who had turned the temple into a den of thieves by enriching themselves at the expense of others, including especially the poor. Jesus says and does these things, not because he hates anyone, but because of his love for all. He wants the oppression in God’s name to stop for the good of all, including not only the oppressed but the oppressors as well.

            As Luther himself would find out centuries later, if you stand up and speak out against injustice out of love for others, you are going to get in trouble. Those in power are not going to stand for it. And they are especially not going to stand for it if you are not only doing those things yourself, but trying to create a whole community of people who will do those same things as well. They will do whatever is necessary to silence you. In some sense or manner, they will end up crucifying you.

            That leaves you with two choices. You can become silent and put a stop to what you are doing, perhaps running off to a safe place where you can hide, so as to try not to get crucified and save your skin. But if you do that, you are never going to create that community of people who are fully committed to loving others no matter what the cost, because you yourself are not committed to loving others in spite of the cost. One cannot expect one’s followers to love others with a love that knows no limits or bounds and is willing to pay any price to see them healed and made whole if one is not willing to endure the consequences of loving others in the same way. So if Jesus wanted to create a community of followers whose lives would be characterized by that kind of love, he had only one choice: to stand firm and endure the cross. Yet, by doing so, he made it possible for that community to exist, a community stamped forever by that same love that will stop at nothing to see all people healed and made whole.

            From God’s perspective, the alternative was essentially the same. If God wanted to create that type of community, God could hardly step in to save her Son from the consequences of his efforts to bring others to live in that kind of love. One cannot expect others to be willing to love others without holding anything back if one is going to hold back what one values most rather than giving it up out of love for others—in this case, the life of God’s Son. The only way God could create a community of people totally committed to living in love was to give up her Son rather than holding him back. But by giving him up, God brought that community into existence and made it impossible for any who are not fully committed to that same love to claim that they truly form part of it. As a result of the cross, by definition, one cannot follow Jesus and call him “Lord” without being committed to that same kind of love, because if one refuses to love as Jesus did and calls on his followers to do, one is thereby denying that one is truly Jesus’ follower and in effect saying that he is not one’s Lord.

Church or Community?

            These ideas provide the basis necessary to turn to the title I have given to my presentation: “Gemeinde Transformata Semper Transformanda Evangelio: Theological Education for What?” It should be evident that the title is an adaptation of the Latin phrase Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda, which can be translated “the reformed church is always in the process of being reformed.” Why the modifications?

            When Luther translated the New Testament into Greek, he did something that upset his Roman Catholic opponents a great deal. When he came to the Greek word ekklēsía, which we almost always translate into English as “church,” instead of using the German equivalent for “church,” Kirche, he used the word Gemeinde (or in his day Gemeyne), which essentially means “community.” Thus, for example, rather than translating Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16:18, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (meine Kirche), he rendered Jesus’ words, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my community” (meine Gemeinde).[18] The reason why Luther did that and why it irritated his Roman Catholic opponents so much was that he wanted to make it clear that Christ had not come to establish a church in the sense in which that word was understood in his day, and especially the kind of church that the Roman church had become. Instead, he had come to establish a community of followers, which is what the church was supposed to be from the start.

            One of the exercises I like to do with my students in Mexico is to ask them, “Did Jesus intend to found a church?” Most will respond, “No.” I then ask them, however: “Did Jesus intend to leave behind a community of followers?” To this question, just about all of the students answer, “Yes.” And then I ask: “Well, is that not precisely what the church is: the community of Jesus’ followers?” It quickly becomes evident that, in their minds, those two are not in fact one and the same.

            Today, as we are all aware, the church as we know it is in a serious crisis. One needs look no further than the membership statistics of the ELCA to demonstrate this: membership has declined from 5.3 million in 1987 to about 3.3 million today, and every year it goes down even more. Obviously, this decline has also led to a crisis for the church’s schools and seminaries. When one asks what is behind this crisis, a variety of responses are commonly given: cultural factors, modern and post-modern ways of thinking, worship and music preferences, and demographics, among many other things. I would insist, however, that there are two main causes for this crisis. The first is that we are clinging to a model of church that in many contexts is no longer viable or functional. And the second is what I have just explained: we still do not have the gospel straight.

            One thing that is not in crisis, I would argue, is our need for community. People of every age and background still long to belong to communities. Of course, in our modern world, a lot of these communities look very different from what communities used to look like. They take different shapes and are defined and organized in ways that are constantly changing and evolving. But in spite of slogans like ecclesia reformata semper reformanda, I do not see that happening to the same extent in the church. Undoubtedly, there have been changes and reforms, but for the most part, if you walk into a church today you find the same things you found a hundred years ago, or even five hundred years ago. You may see a woman leading worship instead of a man, and the music and message and style of worship will also be somewhat different, but in general terms things remain basically the same. I am referring not only to worship, however, but the way in which the church operates; its organization and structure; the manner in which it is run and financed; the distinctions between clergy and laity; the educational programs that it offers; the spaces where people gather; the days and times that activities are held; and the way that leaders are trained.

            To question such things is by no means to say that they are bad or wrong. On the contrary, we have a wonderful church and a wonderful tradition. What I am saying is that they have changed very little. I am also saying that what is in crisis and I think will continue to be in crisis is a certain way of being a community, the community we call the church. As long as we insist that the community that we call the church continue to take the same form and shape that it has for centuries, it will remain in crisis.

            This brings us back to the title. I chose that title for a number of reasons. First, I wanted to use the German word Gemeinde, rather than ecclesia or even something such as communitas, because Luther used that word to make a statement, and it is the same statement that we need to make today—not only to others but to ourselves. What Jesus came to create, and gave up his life to create, was not what we now call the church per se, but a community that would be defined by his same love. Certainly, the form which that community has traditionally taken is in continuity with what Jesus sought and by no means contrary to it, but the church as we know it is one form among many others which that community may take and still be the community God and Jesus originally intended it to be. Second, I wanted to use the German and Latin words I used in the title to stress that we remain in continuity with our tradition, as symbolized by those two languages, and seek to remain grounded in that tradition rather than breaking with it. Third, while it runs contrary to tradition to combine German and Latin in the way that I have in the title, I would argue that we need to take our tradition and start doing things with it that we have not done previously—things that are unorthodox and break with the molds of the past, but in the right way. Fourth, while reformation is important, I would insist that what really matters is transformation. We can make all the reforms we want, but if people are not being transformed and transforming others, those reforms are meaningless. And fifth, that transformation can only take place through the gospel, when we get that gospel right. This form of the Latin word for gospel, evangelio, means “by the gospel” or “with the gospel.” That is what we need to focus on: a gospel that revolves around transformation and speaks of a God who is love from beginning to end rather than proclaiming that Christ’s death has changed a God who could not forgive sins into one who can.

            The second part of my title is: “Theological Education for What?” From my perspective, our theological education programs and institutions have been designed and continue to function for the purpose of serving and maintaining the same way of being church and community that is in crisis. That is the reason why many of those programs and institutions are also in crisis. If that is to change, we need to address the two issues to which I have pointed above as being at the root of that crisis. First, we need to get the gospel straight. We need to recognize that the crisis we are facing is primarily theological in nature. And second, we have to offer theological education that not only serves but promotes and generates new forms and shapes and ways of being community and living as community, as well as new ways of structuring, organizing, leading, and financing such communities.

Theological Education for New Forms of Community

            About 10 years ago, when our daughter was doing her PhD at Ohio State University, she and her husband were very active in the ELCA campus ministry there called “Jacob’s Porch.” The pastor, Jay Gamelin, had pulled out all of the pews from the church sanctuary and had created a very different atmosphere with couches and lounge chairs. Instead of a traditional Sunday morning worship service, they had Sunday evening gatherings followed by meals that the students would organize. At their gatherings they would break off into groups to share experiences and reflections and to talk and pray together. During the week, the building would be open for students to come in and eat, study, or just “hang out” and relax. As I recall, they were also free to propose and organize their own projects and activities there.

            Roberto Chávez is one of my former students at the consortium of seminaries where I teach in Mexico City. He was originally a pastor in an interdenominational church, but broke with that church when he no longer shared its vision and values. In that church and most Evangelical churches in Mexico, pastors like Roberto are prepared in a Bible school and then are expected to go establish their own church with their own resources. They have to find a way, and are obviously in the ministry because they really want to be in the ministry. Roberto is a musician, and so he rented space to start his own music school to make a living and used the same space to start a new congregation there after he had broken with his previous church. It is called “Communion Christian Community,” though in English that sounds rather redundant. Instead of saying, “I’m going to church,” many of those who attend on Sundays say, “I’m going to the community.” Some of the musicians that teach at his music school accompany the singing when the community gathers for worship, including Lorena and Manuel, both of whom were born blind. On Sundays they sing for a while and then read Scripture and reflect together on what they read, before celebrating the Lord’s Supper. One of the women from the community, María, makes a special communion bread by hand every week and, as she does so, she prays by name for those who will be partaking of it. Sometimes Roberto directs and distributes communion, while at other times some of those who attend regularly and have been trained by Roberto do these things. The people make their own decorations for their worship space. They also use confessions of faith that they have written together. Before Roberto or someone he has trained gives the final blessing, the people go around and bless one another. Afterwards they have a meal together, an agape if you will, which is considered just as integral a part of the Sunday activities as the worship. Naturally, all are welcome and made to feel that way. While neither Roberto nor his congregation are Lutheran, in some ways I consider them more Lutheran than many of the Lutherans I have known. Personally, I cannot think of any other place that I have experienced the gospel as powerfully as I have at Roberto’s community.

            Under Roberto’s leadership, the members of the community decided to rent another space and open a cultural center. There they teach children, youth, and adults music, classical and folkloric dance, art, embroidery, and foreign languages, among other things. Many of the members of the community serve as instructors, and the community itself generates all of the funding necessary for these programs.

            These are just a couple of examples of the different forms that Christian communities may take. There are, of course, many more. Those communities can be organized and structured and financed in different ways, worship in many ways, have many different types of gatherings and activities, train and empower leaders to exercise leadership in many ways, and use different spaces in different ways.

            What I really wish to stress, however, is this: our school works very hard to prepare students who are able to do exactly what Roberto is doing. We seek to stimulate their creativity and provide them with opportunities to develop that creativity. When I talk to new students at our school, I tell them that in essence our task is to provide them with a box of tools and teach them how to use those tools. Once that has happened, it is up to them to go out and build something. The first priority is to enable them to understand and articulate the gospel faithfully in the manner described above. The second is to stimulate their creativity so that they may find effective ways to share that gospel and form communities that revolve around that gospel. To do so, they need to become acquainted with the past and the traditions that have been passed down to us, yet they also need to be taught and encouraged to think outside the box and dream up new possibilities. Once they have those skills and have a firm grasp of the gospel, it is simply a matter of turning them loose with that gospel, standing back, and watching them run with it. In many cases, what happens next is nothing short of amazing.

            This same mentality is at the core of the online program of the seminary where I serve, Augsburg Lutheran Seminary. When we designed that program in 2011, we designed it not just for traditional seminary students but for any and all persons who desire to grow in their understanding of the gospel. We decided to begin by offering two free courses in which anyone can enroll: an introductory Bible course aimed at breaking with fundamentalist and literalist ways of reading Scripture and stimulating liberating and transforming readings instead; and a course on Martin Luther and the Reformation, where we focus on the understanding of the gospel that I have mentioned here and try to open up an alternative vision of what the church can and should be. We offer these same two courses every two months, and have had over 2,500 students enroll from all of the Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Spanish-speakers from the U.S. and Canada, several European countries, and even Australia. They include Lutherans and non-Lutherans, people of other churches and traditions and some who belong to no church at all, women and men of all ages, pastors, leaders, and lay people, and people of a wide diversity of cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds. The students enroll for many different reasons and purposes. I had always been told that it is not feasible to teach the same courses to people from such a wide variety of backgrounds, yet our experience has shown that such is not the case. When the objective is not merely to impart knowledge but to form people in the gospel and generate discussion and critical reflection, it is possible to bring people of many different backgrounds and educational levels together, as our program has.

            We then offer two diploma programs online: one in the Christian faith in general, which includes introductory courses in Old and New Testament, theology, and history, and one in the Lutheran tradition from a Latin American perspective. Again, we get students of many different backgrounds in these courses, including Pentecostals and Roman Catholics who enroll in the Diploma program in the Lutheran tradition because they want to get to know our tradition. It is important to stress that our courses are designed for that diversity: they are intended for non-Lutherans just as much as they are for Lutherans, and the non-Lutheran students are given the same attention and treatment as the Lutheran students are. What we want is that our students grasp the gospel clearly so that, on the basis of that gospel, they can build up the communities of which they form part or establish new communities of different types, whether as pastors, as teachers, as youth leaders, or in other capacities. Once again, however, methodology is the key. That methodology must be focused on critical reflection and stimulating creativity and dialogue.

The Challenge of Theological Education Today

            From my perspective, therefore, the challenge our programs and institutions of theological education face today is twofold. First, as I have argued, we need to grasp and articulate more clearly the gospel. In general terms, I think the ELCA and many other Lutheran churches around the world already have an excellent grasp of the gospel and for the most part have been living and communicating that gospel effectively. I am constantly meeting people who have been attracted to the Lutheran church precisely because they have experienced the gospel in our church and have been deeply transformed by it. At the same time, however, we still need to articulate that gospel more clearly so that our proclamation of it can be even more powerful and transforming.

            Second, I believe we need to design theological education programs that not only enable more people to be immersed in that gospel but also empower them to form new models and types of communities of different shapes and sizes, as well as to transform the churches and communities that already exist. According to our Lutheran tradition, that gospel is the one thing that matters above all else. The church exists for the sake of the gospel, and it is the gospel that defines the church. That means that our primary concern has to be the gospel rather than the church itself. If we are reaching out to people with the gospel in ways that transform their lives, the church will take care of itself. To do that, however, we need to stimulate creativity, innovation, and artistic expression among those who have grasped that gospel. At the same time, we must also create spaces, opportunities, and platforms for them to build new forms of community alongside the old. That includes reaching out not only to Lutherans but to people of other Christian traditions and even those who have left the church or never formed part of it.

            This past summer, I met for the first time a Muslim student studying at a Lutheran Seminary because he wants to do pastoral care among Muslims and felt that the Lutheran seminary in which he enrolled was the best place to prepare for that. I believe that our Lutheran understanding of the gospel had a lot to do with his decision. Should we not be designing programs precisely for that kind of variety of people? With all the options open to us now due to the advances in travel and technology, there are many different types of programs that our seminaries can offer, especially non-residential programs designed not only for pastors, leaders, and teachers, but also for people of a wide variety of different backgrounds and age groups. As we have seen in Mexico, these programs do not have to be accredited. In many cases, it may be better if many of these programs are not accredited, though other measures would need to be taken to ensure their quality. If our programs are communicating the gospel in transforming ways and empowering people to apply and share it in whatever way the Spirit leads them, there will be plenty of demand, and funding those programs should not be a problem. Such programs would even require that seminaries expand, though they would also of course need to make some structural changes. That does not mean setting aside or placing less emphasis on accredited graduate and post-graduate programs such as those currently in place. On the contrary, those programs are urgently needed, though they might need to be transformed in some ways so as to form part of a unified and coordinated whole with the other programs.

            In the end, it all goes back to vision. If we cannot or will not look beyond the model of church we have inherited to envision new forms of communities that are constantly in the process of being transformed by the gospel so as themselves to become agents of transformation in our world, our theological education programs will remain in crisis, together with the model of church to which those programs traditionally have been tied. If instead, however, our focus is on stimulating creative and innovative ways of being the Gemeinde transformata semper transformanda evangelio that God calls us to be, our programs of theological education will remain vibrant and invigorated so as to be transformed and transforming by a gospel that is truly the gospel.

David A. Brondos


[1] On the following, see especially David A. Brondos, Redeeming the Gospel: The Christian Faith Reconsidered (Studies in Lutheran History and Theology; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 179-213; Brondos, Jesus’ Death in New Testament Thought (Mexico City: Comunidad Teológica de México, 2018), 2:1243-1262.

[2] For reasons I have shared in my editorial “Can We Stop Neutering God?” in Dialog 58/2 (Summer 2019), 86-89, rather than using gender-neutral language when referring to God, I prefer to alternate between the use of masculine and feminine pronouns. Here I have used masculine pronouns in the first part of the paper and feminine pronouns in the second part.

[3] According to Luther, the gospel states that “with his blood [Christ] rendered satisfaction for sin, death, and hell. And whoever believes in him now has also rendered satisfaction and payment for sin, not by means of pilgrimage or works but through Christ alone. . . . For he alone, and no other, rendered eternal satisfaction for sin” (Luther’s Works [hereafter LW], ed. Jaroslav Pelian and Helmut T. Lehmann, Philadelphia: Fortress; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955-1986, 22:392-393, cf. LW 13:326; 52:252-253; Apology to the Augsburg Confession I.3.79.

[4] LW 12:331; 28:70-71.

[5] Kazoh Kitamori, Theology of the Pain of God (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1965), 126.

[6] Ibid., 127.

[7] On the idea that God’s justice required that satisfaction be made for sins in Luther’s thought, see Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 202-208; LW 51: 317; 52:280-281.

[8] Carl E. Braaten, Justification: The Article by Which the Church Stands or Falls (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 105. In this passage, Braaten is discussing the views of Martin Chemnitz.

[9] See especially Delores Williams, “Black Women’s Surrogacy Experience and the Christian Notion of Redemption,” in After Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World’s Religions, ed. Paula M Cooey, William R Eakin, and Jay B. McDaniel (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 1-14; Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009).

[10] On this point, see Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, 170-171. Althaus notes the “irresolvable contradiction” between these two views of God in Luther’s thought (170).

[11] LW 21: 37.

[12] Matt 9:22; Mark 10:52; Luke 7:50; 17:19; 18:42.

[13] See, for example, LW 10:191-192. 11:335; 25:260, 340, 433, 507; 27:364; 30:68, 118; 32:24, 232; 41:218; 51:373.

[14] Smalcald Articles III.2.4.

[15] See Brondos, Redeeming the Gospel, 74-75, 228n45.

[16] On what follows, see especially Brondos, Jesus’ Death in New Testament Thought, 1:279-368.

[17] On what follows, see especially Matt 23:1-36; Mark 2:23–3:6; 12:40.

[18] Luther’s rendering of Matt 16:18 is as follows: “Du bist Petrus, und auf diesen Felsen will ich bauen meine Gemeinde, und die Pforten der Hölle sollen sie nicht überwältigen.” On the Roman Catholic reaction to Luther’s translation, see Heinz Bluhm, “Emser’s ‘Emmendation’ of Luther’s New Testament: Galatians 1,” Modern Language Notes 81/4 (1966): 377.