Luther’s Theology of Mission
Introduction: Are Missions Missing in Luther’s Theology? The Accepted Wisdom in Missiology Says Yes.
Lutheran churches did not move actively into “foreign” mission work in the wake of the Reformation era nor in the next two centuries that followed. This delay has nourished thewidespread opinion that in Luther – and other 16th-century Lutheran reformers (and John Calvin
too) — “We miss not only missionary action, but even the idea of missions, in the sense in which we understand them today. And this . . . because fundamental theological views hindered them from giving their activity, and even their thoughts, a missionary direction.” So says Gustav Warneck in his History of Protestant Missions, 1882ff.) [Citation from the 1901 English translation, p.9]
Warneck’s work was itself a critical response to other Lutheran mission scholars of his day(Ostertag, Plitt, Kalkar) who claimed the opposite for Luther. But, as far as I know, Warneck’s work was the only one that got translated into English. And English is the language of missiology. So his judgment has become the accepted wisdom of the trade.
Many reasons have been adduced to explain this:
- The massive task of organizing church life throughout large areas of Europe where the Reformation took hold demanded all the time and energy they had.
- Very few of the Lutheran territories had direct access to international waters and thus did not acquire overseas colonies to raise the mission issue.
- By contrast, Spain and Portugal (“Roman Catholic” nations) became worldwide colonial powers, opening the doors to Roman Catholic mission activity and mission theology.
Also internal factors get mentioned:
- Luther expected Judgment Day to arrive soon, perhaps still in his lifetime, and was convinced that the Gospel already had come to all nations, so no mission operations were needed.
- It was also said that early Lutheranism understood Christ’s mission mandate (Matt. 28 and Mark 16) to apply only to the apostles, not to the entire church, and consequently no one should engage in evangelization without explicit call and authorization.
Warneck’s critique goes deeper:
“The great reformer did not see the mission task of the church. Luther did require and encourage the ‘spirit of witnessing,’ but not really the ‘spirit of mission.’ Within Christendom he himself missionized with ‘demonstrations of the Spirit and of power,’ but mission to the non-Christian world was far from his mind and from that of his coworkers.”
Why this defect? “The missing impulse for mission comes largely from an error in Lutheran theology, namely, (1) a biased notion of eschatology, [and] (2) a defect in the doctrine of the Kingdom of God. These flaws are understandable (and excusable) partly from Luther’s
personality, partly from the conflicts going on at the time, partly from the justifiable polemics about justification which nevertheless led to a much too exclusive focus on that doctrine.” (13f.) (Emphasis added)
After noting that ML thought the mission mandate already fulfilled, Warneck says: “This startling
view becomes in some degree intelligible when we further learn that the Reformer does not
understand the progress of the Gospel through the whole world in the sense that Christianity would
become everywhere the ruling religion [emphasis added], or that all men would be won to believe
the Gospel.” (1906 English translation, p.13)
Those are hefty criticisms.
Luther himself could well have missed the mission message in the scriptures. But if he was indeed the trustworthy witness to the Gospel, as the later Lutheran confessions call him, is it likely that he could be right about the evangel, and yet miss the element of evangelization intrinsic to it? Given Luther’s intense wrestling with the theology of St. Paul, the “apostle to the Gentiles,” how cold he have missed the missiology in Paul’s theology? If he did talk about the Great Commission, and he did, what did he say?
I. Luther’s Preaching on the Great Commission Text of Mark’s Gospel
One place to look for “Luther on Mission” is the sermons Luther preached year after year on the Feast of the Ascension. Why those sermons? The text for that festival — year after year in the medieval church’s lectionary — was Mark 16:14-20, the Great Commission pericope in Mark’s
Gospel. It reads:
Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.
Luther’s sermons on this text — I found twelve (from 1522 to 1538) in the Weimar edition of Luther’s Works — contain mission theology aplenty. Warneck knew these sermons too. He cites them often. But they didn’t satisfy him for the reasons mentioned above. We shall look at three of them here. This Markan Ascension Day text provides a context for Christ’s “GO” word that Matthew 28 does not have. Luther makes heavy use of that context, viz.,
- the disciples’ initial lack of faith, “not believing those who saw him after he had risen,”
- Christ’s faith-codicil to the commission “who believes and is baptized will be saved,”
- the ascended Lord as the mission commissioner, and finally
- the baptism addendum and the addendum about signs and wonders.
A. The Ascension Day Sermon of 1522
In the 1522 sermon he says: “What should they proclaim? Nothing less, says Christ, than that I am raised from the dead, have conquered and wiped away sin and all misery. Whoever believes this is saved (selig). That faith alone suffices for salvation . . . . Faith does not coerce or pressure anyone to the gospel, rather it invites and encourages everyone freely. Whoever believes, believes. Whoever comes to it, comes. Whoever stays away, stays away.”
How shall we understand the words: Go into all the world? What concerns Luther is the fact that the “apostles did not get to the whole world. For no apostle ever got to us in Germany.” In view of what he knows about the recently-discovered New World [Note: Luther was nine years old in 1492], he says: “many islands have been discovered in our own time, where unbelievers live and no one has ever preached to them.” Doesn’t that contradict the scriptural word that Luther knows from Romans 10:18, where Paul (citing Psalm 19:5) testifies “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the end of the world”? How to reconcile this with the plain fact that there are vast places where neither the holy apostles nor anyone up to Luther’s time has ever proclaimed the gospel? Luther answers: “The message has gone out into all the world, although it has not yet arrived in all the world. The transmission has begun, but is not yet finished. It will be preached
wider and further until the Last Day. When this message is proclaimed and heard throughout all the world, then the last day will arrive.”
Luther sees three facts: 1) The Holy Apostles began the proclamation in response to Christ’s mandate to bring this message to all peoples. 2) The movement of the Gospel throughout the world is not at all concluded, but persists and moves forward. 3) The Gospel’s continuing movement is linked to the day of Christ’s return. Luther illustrates this “mission theology” with the image of a stone tossed into a pond.
“The message of the Gospel is like a stone cast into water. It makes waves and the waves push outward relentlessly, one pushing the other, until they come to the shoreline. Even when the middle calms down, the waves do not stop, but go on and on. That illustrates Gospel proclamation. The apostles started it and it continues in ever widening circles through other proclaimers. Hounded and persecuted though it may be, it moves on to those who have not heard it before, even when in the process it is crushed and condemned as heresy.”
Luther then offers another illustration. Even worldly rulers send proclamations throughout their entire territory, but it takes time before the messengers get that proclamation to all parts of the realm. “This is how we should understand apostolic preaching,” he says. Such preaching is a public event, not done “in a corner.” “Universal and public throughout the whole world, not to be kept away from anyone, till the end of the world comes.” “Thus the gospel has now come to us as well, us here at the end of the world, at the edge of that pond.” Here Luther shows that he sees himself and his fellow Germans, now enlivened by the revived Gospel, as part of the expanding waves of that original stone cast into the pond and now rippling through the world and hastening toward the Last Day.
Some additional context items in the 1522 sermon:
The factor of faith
The Ascension text begins with Christ upbraiding the disciples for their un-faith in his resurrection. Not that they needed one more item to believe in and thus be full-believers. But faith in the resurrection is fundamental to being out from under the power / curse of sin. Un-faith is the greatest sin there is. [Der Unglaube ist die größte Sünd, die da mag genennt werden.] (134) Not that the disciples had no faith in God, but without faith in the resurrection they were still in their sin. And if Christ be not raised, then sin is still in charge and any believer is still in sin.
But faith here is not believing THAT it happened — the wicked, Satan too, believe that. (137) “Rather they must believe the content of the resurrection, the fruit, the benefit of the resurrection. Namely, what we have received from it, forgiveness and redemption from all sins, and that Christ has gone into death and thereby sin and death, yes everything that could harm us, is gone. All this he has conquered, trampled under foot, conquering sin, devil, death, hell and whatever could harm us, and therefore he sits at the right hand of the Father. That all of this happened for our benefit, that is what unbelievers don’t believe.” (138)
To the passage: The one who believes is saved, he says: The “head” [Haupt] of righteousness is faith, as the head of wickedness is un-faith. There is no greater sin that might condemn [verdammen] a person than that. For un-faith alone is what condemns every one who is condemned. As corollary, it is only faith that saves all humankind, for faith deals only with God. (141)
Believe and be baptized, yes, but only un-faith condemns. Baptism is the seal on the letter. Faith in the resurrection and thus freedom from sin, etc. is the writing on the letter. Baptism without faith is a seal on a letter that has no writing in / on it. (142)
Preaching the Gospel to the whole creation
“The rocks and trees too? Here’s what those words mean: the Gospel is a universal public announcement that is meant for everyone, is not done in a corner, but should be proclaimed openly in every place. . . It arose and had its start through the apostles, but is not yet complete, has not yet come to all the places it is meant to come. In fact, I wonder whether Germany ever heard God’s word before. We have indeed heard the pope’s word. That is true.” (143f)
Signs and Wonders
Mark’s gospel concludes with Christ’s word about the signs that will accompany the proclamation of the Gospel. Since the Gospel is now widespread, signs are not necessary as they once were in the early days. But the time may come when they are in order again. That will be a signal of the dire state of the Gospel then and ML hopes it won’t come. Some people are driving out demons and Luther says, “I don’t know what to say about that.” [weiß ich nit was ich dartzu sagen sol.] This he knows, however, “that it is dangerous. For the devil may allow exorcisms, but he can be deceptive even then. He may be confirming people in their error that they have power over him. I wouldn’t trust him. We have many examples of this these days. I know about a number of them that happened not long ago.” (146) And then he concludes with an incident where a “church warden” seeking to practice exorcism wound up with the devil breaking his neck.
B. The Ascension Day Sermon of 1523
The message must be spoken out loud!
Luther again preaches on the lectionary text. This time he accentuates the Gospel’s quality as something not written in books, but an oral announcement from public messengers sent by God: “A palpable proclamation to be heard throughout the world to be shouted out before all creatures, so that all who have ears would have to hear it.” He also emphasizes its public character, “preached in such a way that it could not be more public for everyone to hear.” He contrasts it with the ancient law and what the prophets preached, “restricted only to the Jews in their synagogues. The Gospel however is not to be restricted at all, but moves out unfettered throughout the world, so that no corner of the earth shall not have heard it before the Last Day. That is God’s decree, his decision, that those who cannot read, nor have heard Moses and the prophets, are still to hear the Gospel.”
The earthly activity of the ascended Lord
The Gospel’s ongoing ripple-effect, says Luther, is the work of Christ now exalted to the right hand of the Father. Christ’s ascension does not mean that he has moved away. Rather just the opposite: now he is present and accessible in all places. “For had he remained on earth. . . all people could not have been equally near him and able to hear him. Therefore he initiates a new way whereby he can work with everyone, reign in all, proclaim to all, and all of us can hear him and he be with all of us.”
C. The Sermon from 1536
The Mission Mandate
Here Luther is struck by the overwhelming magnitude of the mission mandate. “These are words of impressive majesty, pure majesty. Jesus commands these poor beggars to go and proclaim this new message — not in one city or nation, but to the whole world, every principality and kingdom. They are to open their mouths with confidence, with no inhibitions, to the whole creation, so that every human hears this message. A command so powerful, so overwhelming, has never been given in the world before.” The Lord gives “his eleven beggars” a command of such dimensions “that they are not to flinch or cower before anyone, no matter how high and mighty he be, but openly move on and on as far as the world extends, and proclaim as though everyone would have to listen and no one would be able to resist them.” Only with the Lord’s own strength is it possible to “move from Jerusalem to the ends of the world telling everyone about this King Christ.” “For he does not want his message stuck in a corner nor anyone to be ashamed of it or have it be secluded or under cover. He himself made it so public that the sun in heaven, yes even trees and stones, would wish to hear it — if only they had ears to do so.”
The Great Commission
Here is what Christ is telling his apostles: “Wherever you go into the world and preach, you shall not say that the people must come to Jerusalem nor hold fast to Moses’ law. But this you shall say; if they desire to be saved, they should believe your preaching about me and be baptized in my name. Begin such preaching among my own people, who seek to be saved by their law and sacrifice, and then move out through the whole Roman Empire and all corners of the world, to those who hold to other gods. Reprove and condemn it in one heap, and tell them: this is the command that I, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, give — that they believe in me. That is my sermon, intended to go throughout the world, unhindered, unprotected, regardless whether the Jews do not believe it . . . or the Gentiles seek to suppress it by force.”
To this exposition of the mission mandate Luther adds some practical counsel for his hearers andfor his time: “For us here this is a comforting sermon. For in these words of Christ we are included. He says: Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. ‘All the world’ includes us, wherever we are and how many or how few we may be. The world is where people are. Thus the Gospel must be on the run, continually on the run. Even though it may not remain [if it bears no fruit] at some places, it must come to every place and be heard everywhere. And just as this is a universal command to have the Gospel reach all humankind, so it also is a universal command and mandate from God, that all should believe this word.”
Warneck noticed that in these sermons Luther never mentions anything like a mission society, never urges organizing to get the job done. No project-proposal, no project-management. One reason for that is his conviction that not just the mandate, but its execution is the activity of the living Lord Christ. Sometimes Luther speaks of the Gospel itself as a personified entity pursuing its own agenda, as with the ripples in the pond. The ripples are the Gospel, itself on the move, initially with no apparent concern that human agents carry it out to the edge of the pond. Consequently the continuation of Luther’s thoughts about the course of the Gospel through the inhabited world and the public proclamation of the saving message to all humankind now funnel into his testimony about the church as Christ’s body in the world, even the church as the Gospel’s body in the world. Yet even here there is no mention of organizing for mission, the main point of Warneck’s complaint — “missions, in the sense in which we understand them today.”
The Church of God Throughout the World — Christ and His Gospel in Charge
Luther says: “No longer need we go to Jerusalem or some other specific place, as God commanded for his ancient people. Rather God has now designated another place and built a church, whose walls encircle the entire world. St. Paul says that the Gospel has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven (Col.1:23). Its blueprint extends to all nations and its message to the ends of the world. That indicates a church as wide as heaven and earth are. When Christ gives the mission command (Mark 16:15) he is saying: ‘By the preaching of the Gospel I want to build a church as wide and as large as the world itself is, where I wish to live and speak.’ For wherever in the world his word or his preaching office goes, there Christ lives, there he makes himself known and speaks with all of us.” Even so Luther sounds a sober note. He knows well that hand in hand with the expansion of the church throughout the world goes opposition, to which the church is constantly exposed. “The church is destined to go to the ends of the world, even though in the world she will suffer persecution.”
The correlation of Gospel-preaching and baptism in Christ’s mission mandate is, in Luther’s 1536 sermon, evidence that Christ the Lord intends to expand and preserve his church in this world. For with baptism the faith created by the Gospel becomes confession, a testimony that binds Christians to each other and moves them to be witnesses to others. Christ’s command “Teach the nations and baptize them” (Matt. 28:19) signals that “the faith which the Gospel creates must not remain hidden or kept secret as though it were sufficient for anyone to hear the Gospel and believe it for himself, without wanting to move out and confess that faith before others.” Luther sees baptism as “going public” with one’s faith.
“Rather so that it become publicly evident where the Gospel is not only preached, but also accepted and believed, i.e., where the church and Christ’s kingdom stands in the world, Christ wants to unite us and preserve us through the divine sign of baptism. For if baptism were not present we would be isolated without external assembling and signs, Christianity would never expand nor survive till the world’s end. Yet Christ wants to unite us via such divine gatherings so that the Gospel move on further and further and by our confessing it be brought to others. Thus baptism is a public testimony to the doctrine of the Gospel and to our faith before the whole world. Thereby all can see where and among whom this Lord reigns.”
In this connection Luther also emphasizes that the true unity of Christians throughout the world is evident in the simplicity of these means of grace — the one proclamation of the risen Christ, the one baptism — which are universally the same in contrast to the “wide multiplicity of countries and peoples, nations and languages” where they occur. The venue for Christ’s kingdom is manifold and multiplex, “all the world and to all creatures,” but the baptismal core is “everywhere one and the same.” The same is true of the proclaimed Gospel “one and the same here and in all places.” It renders all of us “equal before God.” “Should someone come from the end of the world and observe how we do these things, he would have to say that what he sees among us is one and the same word and sign that he had learned and received.” The church is a “people gathered from all tongues of the world” into the unity of faith.
II. OK, That’s Luther’s “Mission” Preaching. Now, What Does This Mean?
When presenting this report on Luther’s sermons at the Overseas Ministries Study Center in March of 2002 I got three questions from the audience:
- There’s still no admonition from Luther to the Wittenbergers about their duty to be missionaries, and thus no mention of anything like a mission society to carry out the great commission. Why?
- First a statement: For the Gospel to connect to people’s lives there must be some anticipations of the Gospel present in the culture of those people for the Gospel to connect to. Question: What “anticipations” did Luther expect to find in not-yet evangelized people?
- Luther’s monumental translation of the Bible “incarnated” the Word of God into German language and culture. What substantive role does “incarnation” play when he’s articulating his mission theology?
Some possible answers:
To #1. Duty to be missionaries
The mission society notion was unknown to everyone in the 16th century. In its place Luther, as indicated above, viewed the church itself as “body of Christ” to be the “mission agency” for the ongoing ripple effect of the Gospel. If he makes no concrete proposals about the “how to” for the church’s continuing Gospelling, I suspect it was because his trust in the Gospel convinced him that the ripples and Platzregen would take place by God’s own engineering and timetable. It’s also possible that he was myopic and “just didn’t see it.” Nevertheless there were a number of consciously organized Lutheran ventures in the decades right after Luther’s death. If the impetus for these didn’t come from him — maybe from his “much too exclusive focus on justification” — where did it come from?[Werner Elert’s chapter on “Missions” in his Structure of Lutheranism [Morphologie des Luthertums] grounds these early mission starts right after Luther’s death in his mission theology. Perhaps even more fascinating is Elert’s 2-page footnote on the world mission survey — Commentarii de regno Christi — of Philip Nicolai (yes, the composer/hymnwriter of “Wake, Awake. . .” and “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star”) published in 1597. Nicolai chronicles all the places in the post-Columbus world where he knows (from documentation) that the Gospel has now arrived. And they cover the world. He even includes 13 Jesuit mission stations in Far East Asia. The Jesuits!? Why them? Because “to gain entrance there, the Jesuits proclaim the Christian religion as it is taught at home by the Lutherans. . . . To begin with, they are silent about the papacy, human traditions, the Mass, purgatory, merits and indulgences. Instead they proclaim the doctrine of the fall of mankind, . . . of redemption through Christ, of faith, and of Baptism.” To support this claim about “Lutheran” Jesuits Nicolai cites a Jesuit report sent from Japan in 1564.]
If Luther were asked why he didn’t urge his parishioners in these sermons to be missionaries, my hunch is that he’d say: “I did, but the mission turf I urged upon them was not foreign fields. Instead it was their own backyards, their manifold callings in secular society, into which God sent them every time they awoke in the morning. Their mission was to be God’s agents for the “care and redemption of all that you [God] had made.”
To #2: Anticipations
I’ve got no Luther quotes at hand, but I can guess what he would (ought to!) say. His law/promise hermeneutic for reading the scriptures, and its corollary left hand/right hand works of God for reading the world, would look for law/left hand work of God among every people before the Gospel gets there. In fact, 24/7 (as folks now say) data. Every day full of such God data. This would be his own anticipation of everyone’s God-experience prior to encountering/hearing the Gospel. You don’t need any proclaimer to bring this experience to people. It’s the godly fabric of daily life in the “old” creation. If the preacher has any role in this, it is not bringing God’s law/left hand into the scene. Rather it is helping people see God already operating that way in their midst. Paul seeks to show the Gentiles in the opening chapters of Romans that God is already on the scene in their daily lives, that they have the law functioning in their psycho-social fabric, and that repentance is the response called forth from these facts of life.
To label it “law” or “left-hand” in no way makes it all bad news. Not by a long shot. This 24/7 lived experience encompasses the gift of our own existence along with the panoply of ongoing goodies we receive to keep that existence going — physical, social, political, etc. Luther laundry-lists these, e.g., in his two catechisms when he talks about “daily bread” in the 4th petition of the Lord’s Prayer. Or again all the gifts he lists when commenting on the first article of the Apostles Creed in his catechisms. All these elements of creaturely daily life and experience he calls “larvae dei,” masks of God. Really God-encounters, but God wearing a mask, so that it’s not obvious to everybody — maybe even not obvious to anybody — where the goodies come from — and even more important, what the appropriate response is for such beneficence. At the end of the First Article treatment in the catechisms he then comes in, you guessed it, with a “but.” “But for all of these
gifts I am already in arrears in my obligations to thank and to praise, to serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.”
You may call these “anticipations” of the Gospel, if you wish, but they are anticipations with a twist. The main “twist” is that all these gifts from God in 24/7 daily life experiences are gifts that obligate. Au contraire the Gospel. It is a gift that liberates from the accumulated unfulfilled obligations accruing in our God-encounters of the first-creation kind. The Gospel, by definition, does not impose new obligations. Even as you move from Gospel indicatives to Gospel imperatives, there is no obligation, not even subtle coercion anywhere along the line. For freedom Christ has set us free. Another ML text where I do know this surfaces is in his preface to Romans that accompanies his translation of the NT (1522). There he makes a big point — actually says St. Paul makes a big point — in distinguishing between God’s gifts and God’s grace. The distinction is focused as I’ve done above. E.g., in Romans Paul claims that the Gentiles have had such Godgift encounters “ever since the creation of the world.” Then comes his “but.” “But they did not honor the giver as God or give thanks to him.” Even worse, they did not repent. “So they are without excuse.”
Now that could be a sort of anticipation of the Gospel — in the sense of a palpable need for a “grace-encounter” that would rectify the deficits arising from these “gift-encounters.” If I remember correctly your own story [I was responding to Lamin Sanneh] in the OMSC journal some years ago, as you narrated your journey to the Christian gospel from Islam, you said something like this. Maybe not “rectifying deficits” — I don’t remember it exactly — but something like this I recall: your growing awareness, perhaps even longing, for a grace-encounter (a “more” grace-full encounter?) with God that The Prophet had not supplied, but that the Suffering Servant palpably offered.
To #3: Incarnations
Luther’s sermons on the Johannine prologue, his Christmas homilies, etc. are replete with the theology of incarnation. But I don’t know if he would have called his image of the Gospel’s ripple-effect “new incarnations” of the Gospel in previously unreached cultures. I’d also wonder if he saw his German Bible translation as an incarnation. My hunch is that he would hang his translation of the Bible on a lower peg. If two ancient languages, Hebrew and Greek, could be vehicles for the Word of God, any language could be. Incarnation, I’d expect him to say, is always soteriological. “For us and for our salvation” the Logos became incarnate, says Nicaea. And no one gets saved just because the Bible is now in German. True, the Word of God is taking on human linguistic form, but that’s not yet the heart of incarnation. The “big jump” in Christ’s incarnation was not that divinity assumed creaturely form. God in creaturely formats is constantly happening already in the “old” creation via the “masks of God.” What’s new in the incarnate Logos is not that God takes off the mask and we see God face-to-face, but that in Jesus God is turning a face of mercy to sinners that they could never have divined from their earlier masked encounters.
So what Luther regularly does when exegeting the “Word becoming flesh” is to remind his hearers that the human flesh Christ assumed is mortal flesh. Not that the Logos literally became sinner, but in “assuming” sinners’ sort of flesh, the Logos also assumed an eventual death sentence. No surprise, the “full of grace and truth” that accompanies this incarnation gets contrasted three verses later in St. John’s prologue with what came in Moses. And you can count on Luther to ring the changes on this distinction, as he thinks John himself does in the frequent Moses-mentionings that Jesus makes throughout the Johannine gospel. Not that Moses was a bad guy. Au contraire. “But” (e.g., in John 6) even though the manna Moses brought (a.k.a. Sinaitic bread) was indeed from God (gift!), it was not good enough to meet the “grace” need Israel had. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” (48) Ergo, needed is better bread, the One that is baked from God’s grace and truth.
Equally dear to him is the Christ hymn in Phil. 2 with its classic linking of Bethlehem to Calvary. Christ’s incarnation is not just assuming a “human likeness,” but taking on our human “schemata,” i.e., the form of a slave, destined for death, in his case “death on a cross.”
III. Warneck Revisited in View of These Sermons
Some thoughts about Warneck’s verdict on the Lutheran reformers: “We miss not only missionary action, but even the idea of missions, in the sense in which we understand them today. And this . . . because fundamental theological views hindered them from giving their activity, and even their thoughts, a missionary direction.”
The Markan text for Luther’s Ascension Day sermons put a theological context on the “Go ye”imperative that Warneck doesn’t notice, I think. Even though he cites those Ascension Day sermons frequently, in none of them does he find the “duty” for mission to the non-Christian world, “mission thinking in the sense in which we understand it today.” That is, organized agencies generated by a mission mentality in people already Christian and factually bringing the Gospel to “unreached peoples.”
Thesis 1: “Mission” for Luther is probably different from “the sense in which we [Warneck] understand it today.”
A. The Gospel itself is the active agent, the subject of the sentence, for the Gospel’s ongoing rippling. Granted, people are the Gospel’s agents, but the Gospel itself is the main actor, the stone sending out the ripples. The ascended Christ can also be designated the subject of the Gospel’s ongoing rippling. His ascension does not remove him from the scene, but transposes his presence as the disciples knew him into new formats. Thus he can be equally close to everyone.
B. With this notion that Christ — and/or the Gospel itself — are in charge of mission history, comes Luther’s image of the “Platzregen,” the moving thundershower. When people no longer respond in genuine faith to the shower of the Gospel upon their dry land, Christ and his Gospel move on to other venues. It does not require a mission society decision for the Platzregen to move elsewhere. The Platzregen creates its own agents. The Gospel majors in ad-hocery for mission strategy. The book of Acts abounds in such Platzregen episodes of unplanned mission work.
C. When the Gospel ripples, when the Platzregen shifts to a new turf where it hasn’t been before, it does not encounter an “empty land.” Though the land is “dry” as far as THE Gospel is concerned, other “gospels” are already there. Even more, thinks Luther, what you can expect to be at the center of these other gospels is “salvation by works of the law.”
Thesis 2: Even “Reached peoples” continue to be mission fields.
D. Nearly every one of the N.T. epistles (maybe the gospels too) — all within the first few generations of the church’s history — speak of “other” gospels that were present inside the Christian communities (not just outside in the world — on Mars Hill). Luther saw 16th century Europe, where everyone was baptized, to be just like that. One of his comments above was his wondering if the Gospel had ever gotten to Germany through the vehicle of the mission of the Latin church.
E. What made16th-century Europe a mission field? Other gospels were reigning. “Salvation by works” was their common denominator, he thought. If we didn’t know it before, we know it now: 21st-century USA is a vast mission field — also and especially within the Christian churches. The “gospel of America” has millions of worshippers in both church and state. And the core of that gospel is salvation by works of the law. Self-righteousness is claimed as real righteousness.
F. Is the continuing focus — despite disclaimers to the contrary — of American Christian mission energy and efforts to “unreached peoples” elsewhere a tacit admission that we cannot reach the unreached people within our borders, often the very people who we ourselves are with our confused faith, our garbled gospels about God Bless America and the crucified/risen Messiah? Do Jesus’ words: “Physician, heal thyself,” apply here?
Thesis 3: Luther’s Theology of the Kingdom of God and Mission Theology
G. To Warneck’s words: “the Reformer does not understand the progress of the Gospel through the whole world in the sense that Christianity would become everywhere the ruling religion, or that all men would be won to believe the Gospel.” And again Warneck’s words about Luther’s “prejudicial bias in eschatology, [and his] defect in the doctrine of the Kingdom of God.”
H. Putting these two citations together signals Warneck’s theology of the Kingdom of God, namely, “that Christianity would become everywhere the ruling religion.” Nowadays we’d call that a repeat of Constantinian Christendom, wouldn’t we? I think Warneck is correct in saying that this contradicts Luther’s notion of the Kingdom of God. Luther did not see God’s kingdom becoming a “ruling religion” at all. That sounds more like Calvin’s Geneva than Luther’s Wittenberg. Luther’s conviction about “God’s two kingdoms” ruled out any notion of Faith-in-the-Gospel becoming a “ruling religion.” For him that was an oxymoron. Much of his critique of the medieval church and state was directed against that very notion. But that raises the question: is Warneck or Luther closer to the original NT witness about the Kingdom of God itself?
I. Luther’s own theology of the Kingdom of God is simply expressed when he treats the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer in his two catechisms. The Kingdom of God is not a territory at all, and surely not one with a “ruling religion,” but God’s act of reclaiming sinners. How does God’s kingdom come? he asks in the Small Catechism. Answer: “Whenever our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that through his grace we believe his Holy Word and live godly lives, both here in time and hereafter in eternity.” In the Large Catechism he speaks the mission motive in this petition: We pray Thy kingdom come “both in order that we who have accepted it may remain
faithful and grow daily in it and also in order that it may find approval and gain followers among other people and advance with power throughout the world. In this way many, led by the Holy Spirit, may come into the kingdom of grace and become partakers of redemption, so that we may all remain together eternally in this kingdom that has now begun.” (Kolb-Wengert: The Book of Concord. 357 & 447)
1. Luther’s value for mission today lies less in what he may have said about the Great Commission
than in the groundbreaking two-stage hermeneutics he proposed and practiced. Stage One is the
law/promise hermeneutics for reading the Bible, and then Stage Two is a left-hand/right-hand
hermeneutics for reading the world.
2. The Bible is constantly being read and preached legalistically both at home and abroad. If it was
official papist legalism then, it is in so many places populist legalism now. What makes that bad is
not just that it is a mistake, but that the merits and benefits of Christ go to waste and consciences do
not receive God’s promising comfort from such teaching and preaching. Even if the receivers like
what they hear, that is no sufficient test of its gospel-ness. So Christian missioners today wherever
in the world they are, and from whatever sending community, constantly need to be running the
“double dipstick” test on preaching and teaching, the same one Melanchthon commends in
Apology IV. How might that be implemented? Not easily, for sure. Initially because there are tens
of thousands of Christian denominations/groups around the world these days, and secondly,
proposals for “reformation-reexamination” do not automatically get welcomed. But something
analogous to the Saxon Visitation of parish preaching in the late 1520s might be a model.
3. The hermeneutics of the ambidextrous God for reading the world is sorely needed all over the place.
(A) The universalism gaining ground in Christian circles reads the world with a one-handed God on the scene. All encounters with God are grace-encounters. [“Sloppy Agape”] Even Barth (wayback in the days when I was doing my dissertation) said: “That God reveals himself to us at all is already grace.” God’s law, his left-hand work in the world, none of which redeems sinners, is unknown territory.
(B) Antinomianism in a variety of formats is prominent. Here I’m not thinking about the realm of ethics, but about the fundamental theology of God’s own word and work in the world. That God could be both Gift-Giver Creator AND CRITIC is an oxymoron for many — despite this double action of God so patent in Genesis 1-3.
(C) From this notion that God is by definition gracious, the merits and benefits of Christ lose their uniqueness. They are just one more instance of God’s “standard operating procedures” known as sola gratia. Even if Christ had never happened, God’s grace-operations would continue and that alone would suffice for the world’s salvation. Paul’s verdict on such theology: “Then Christ died for nothing.”
(D) Now to link this to missions today and just stay within our own ballpark.
(a) The print materials coming from the ELCA’s Division of Global Mission not only eschew this Lutheran hermeneutic, they are clearly critical of it. Global Mission 21 is a case in point.
(b) Then there are those dear guys like “our” Jim Mayer: “We do not do mission work to bring God to the poor and the oppressed, rather, through our mission efforts we find God among the poor and the oppressed and seek to walk alongside them in their journey toward liberation.” Not clear in Jim’s bon mot when he “finds God among the poor and oppressed” is which hand of God
he found working among the poor. That’s not an academic question. For its answer determines the mission agenda. If both hands were already operative (and not just the one that a Lutheran would anticipate), then the “walk alongside” is good mission strategy. If, however, God is there only with the left hand, then God’s right-hand Reconciler is not yet there. Then Gospel needs to be inserted because it is not present. To use another phrase from Paul, “God is still counting their trespasses.” To be clear on God already at work in any mission field (USA included) is a prerequisite to the Great Commission.
(c) The LCMS Mission Affirmations, groundbreaking as they were in the 1960s and hailed by many of us then, do not use either of the two stages of Luther’s hermeneutics. See the item on “missio dei” below. That term was the new word put into LCMS mission conversation at that time. It has widespread acceptance today across the ecumenical spectrum — from Rome to the Mennonites — but it reads the Bible and the world with different lenses from the ones Luther proposed.
(d) Luther’s hermeneutics addresses additional agendas in missiology today: I’ll mention two.
Gospel and Culture: Luther would ask: What are you missiologists up to with your Gospel and Culture agenda? Granted, culture was not in Luther’s dictionary; it’s a modern discovery. But he does have a place to talk about culture, I suggest, with his theological category of God’s “left hand.” The corollary, of course, is God’s “right hand,” where the Kingdom of God resides.
Luther would relegate culture, I’m sure, to God’s left hand — even so-called “Christian cultures.” Any “ruling religion” (Warneck’s cherished phrase) — in any culture, I think, he would also locate in God’s left hand. Whatever ruling the Gospel does, its venue for such ruling is human hearts, not human cultures. God’s left hand “rules” in human cultaures. Thus theological analysis of culture follows rubrics written by God’s left hand.
Missio Dei: He’d ask us to get more clarity on the big code word today: Missio Dei. The ambidextrous God proclaimed in the scriptures, he learned, has two missions going in the world — law and promise. Both of them have divine authorization, but they are not blendable into one Missio Dei — except at one place where God did indeed work simultaneously with both hands. That is the day Christians commemorate and call Good Friday. Grisly though it was, it was eminently good for us. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us, but making him, the Christ, to be sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
Moving Toward Closure
I haven’t read enough yet in mission history to know if or where Luther’s two-stage hermeneutic ever got serious attention among the people doing mission. So far I’ve found none, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of the literature — especially in Yale’s vast resources. Two of my colleagues, Bob Schultz and Bob Bertram, have worked this turf in the past. Back in 1971 Bob Bertram did two essays for Bill Danker’s mission workshops, and — no surprise — Bob used Lutheran hermeneutics for those essays. “Doing Theology in Relation to Mission” centers
on the Biblical hermeneutical point. “A Theologian’s Perspective on Economic Activities in the Christian World Mission” works from Luther’s hermeneutics of the world. They are now availabale on the Crossings web site <www.crossings.org> under “Works of Bob Bertram.” Bob Schultz has called attention to the differing formats in which God’s left hand works in different societies. Even though it is all “law,” the paradigms, the perceptions, can vary, especially when it comes to God’s criticism. Careful attention to God’s format for critique is necessary for finding fitting language for the Good News. If the bad-news experience is shame, then the Good News of Christ is acceptance. If guilt, then forgiveness. If possession, then redemption [literally “regaining ownership”]. If alienation, then atonement. If bondage (e.g., to karma), then freedom. If orphaned (even bastards), then adoption as God’s kids, and so on. Here’s one Schultz quote: “When I think about Japan, I think of the novels of Endo f. I read Silence as a description of the successful Japanese resistance to the conversion to a guilt culture by using guilt to destroy the [Jesuit] missionary. What might have happened if that mission had primarily addressed issues of shame?”
Summa. As you can see, this is a work in progress.
Edward H. Schroeder