Thursday Theology: “Crossings, Quo Vadis?”

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“Quo vadis”: where are you going?

Dr. George Heider, a retired member of Valparaiso University’s theology department, made a first contribution to Thursday Theology two and a half years ago. He has kept an observing eye on Crossings ever since. Today George does as Ron Roschke did last week, offering some thoughts on issues that Crossings faces and directions it might take as it steps into the future. Anyone who cares about that future will want to read this closely.

Thank you, George!

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community



“Crossings, Quo Vadis?”
by George C. Heider


George Heider (far right) with colleagues at the 2024 Crossings Seminar

Just before Crossings Seminar 2024 was to begin in late January, friend Bruce Modahl asked me to prepare a 500-word summary of the event for the Crossings newsletter that he edits. On the day after the seminar ended, I sent him a 925-word piece—only after considerable cutting, slashing, and (as my seminary homiletics prof put it to us) “slaying of darlings.” Still, Bruce pronounced himself satisfied.

But no good deed goes unpunished (I jest). Soon thereafter, Bruce contacted me again, asking that I submit an expansion of the final paragraph of my summary, in which I had waxed briefly on the prospects for Crossings in a time of generational transition:

The entire seminar played out against the background of a perceptible “passing of the torch” from a generation whose ministries have in one way or another been shaped powerfully by the experience of Seminex, which originated fifty years ago, to a new generation who knew not Preus nor Tietjen. The challenge to Crossings going forward, as I see it, is to place the fruits of the lives of those like Bertram and Schroeder and above all their “Law-Gospel Hermeneutic” in dialog with critical questions such as what to make of the Law as gift (cf. Pss 19 and 119) and how the Gospel may faithfully be applied to the horizontal dimension of inter-human relationships. Crossings will need to thread the needle between repristination of its heritage (thereby becoming a “Johnny-one-note” on the six-step method) and assimilation into a Zeitgeist that less and less “necessitates Christ” and him crucified.

This paragraph didn’t make the final cut of the seminar summary in the newsletter article, but no matter. What follows is my attempt to fulfil Bruce’s second assignment to me.

Let me begin with an appreciative assessment of where things stand with Crossings. The “Community” (which appears to be its preferred self-moniker) grew out of a specific set of events in the history of North American Lutheranism in the late 20th century, viz., the “civil war” in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and, specifically, the formation of Concordia Seminary in Exile, later rechristened Christ Seminary—Seminex, in 1974. The seminary closed its doors just short of ten years later, or, as some would have it, seeded itself among existing seminaries of church bodies that would soon form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

I intersected with these events most directly in 1975, barely a year after the explosion at the St. Louis seminary, when I had to select the venue at which to continue my own theological education. I wished with all my heart even then that the Faculty Majority who formed Seminex had stayed and fought. In the end the graduating class of ’75 from my beloved Senior College split roughly 50/50 between Seminex and the LCMS’s official Concordia Seminary at 801 DeMun Avenue. As one who perceived his calling to lie within a very imperfect LCMS, I decided at last to matriculate at Concordia, 801. I can’t say that I regret my choice. But later events complicated it immensely, to the point that in 20/20 hindsight I would have run away screaming from anything in St. Louis (and likely from pastoral ministry) had I known what the future held. As it was, I was grateful to find a home in 2004 in the Theology Department of Valparaiso University. But I digress. This article is not about me, but about Crossings. I share the foregoing only to be transparent about my own “situatedness”: I, too, count myself as part of the “generation whose ministries have in one way or another been shaped powerfully by the experience of Seminex” of whom I wrote earlier, albeit in a different way and to a lesser extent than many of the “old guard” at Crossings.

Returning, then, to where things stand with Crossings, it is clear to me that what began largely as a venture in adult education by two former Seminex professors, Robert Bertram and Edward Schroeder, has morphed over time into an institution, most significantly because their message hit a responsive chord among fellow Lutheran clergy and laity. Specifically, it is their “Law-Gospel Hermeneutic” as understood particularly through the lens of Martin Luther’s Frӧhliche Wechsel (rendered by Bertram as “the Sweet Swap”) and as given “legs” by a six-step exegetical matrix of diagnosis (Law) and prognosis (Gospel) that has lain at the heart of over a quarter-century of conferences, text studies, sermons, and essays in theology. At its best, in my judgment, Crossings has represented a good-faith effort to enable homiletical practitioners to appropriate key charisms of the Lutheran Confessions for the benefit of hearers in the pew, above all, that “preaching Christ and him crucified” for us must ever lie at the heart of Lutheran Christian proclamation and ministry. Otherwise put, if my own career has sought to enhance the intersection of the academy and the church via biblical literacy and appreciation, Crossings has undertaken much the same task via the fruits of the lifework of two systematicians.

Yet all the while, the context in which Crossings operates has been in motion. What grew out of a specific moment in LCMS history now finds itself directed increasingly to a new generation of ELCA pastors for whom the particulars of the origins of Crossings are of little to no significance. I say this fully aware that Crossings has never limited its offerings to members of any branch of Lutheranism in America and that the leadership of Crossings is still largely in the hands of a generation whose roots lie in the LCMS (wherever their trees now grow). But it is at the heart of my reading of Crossings today that its core audience now and in the future will need to find meaning and assistance apart from the events of half a century ago and, if the demographics of the last two annual gatherings (the only ones that I have attended) are any guide, specifically in ways that meet the needs of early- to mid-career ELCA pastors and laity.

Attendees at the 2024 Crossings Seminar

In support of this contention, let me lift up two issues that are, I believe, complementary. First, there is a specter haunting Crossings today, and it is not that of a sectarian, quasi-fundamentalist vision of Lutheranism against which the founders saw themselves arrayed. Rather, it is a “progressive” vision of the mission of the church, particularly as articulated by ELCA social statements and as heard in sermons, above all directed at goals of “peace and justice,” that lies at the heart of the concern of those attracted to Crossings nowadays. I have detected notable resistance to a perceived lack of grounding in “Christ and him crucified” (or to the mention of Christ only tangentially) that is the oft-unmentioned subtext in Crossings conversations. From my perspective in the Crossings “balcony,” where friend Bruce locates me, the irony is patent: individuals and, indeed, Crossings itself, once pressured and even excluded from the right, now perceive those same vectors from the left. (To the extent that this analysis is apt, it illustrates how no one so resembles another in theological debates as the extremes.)

What has Crossings to offer those who share this concern? To date, the chief theological countermove that I have heard to the purported placement of a “social ministry agenda” at the heart of the church’s mission has been to suggest that concerns for peace and justice lie in the province of Luther’s Kingdom of the Left Hand, i.e., the Law, such that the church is rightly concerned with such matters, but needs clearly to articulate that the heart of its mission lies elsewhere, in the Gospel of Christ crucified in our stead. Peace and justice are important issues for the church, but the church concerns itself with them strictly as a consequence of Christ’s work of redemption. Maybe that’s the best that we can do. Or maybe not. (We shall return to this question momentarily.)

A second issue finds its focus in a commonplace among students of the Old Testament, that Torah (or Law) in the OT Scriptures is routinely held as a positive gift of life and love from God (cf. Pss 19 and 119 and the near entirety of Deuteronomy for starters). To cut to the chase: what place does this view of Law hold in a Law-Gospel Hermeneutic? To put the matter starkly, is it truly the case that, as Apology IV asserts, “The Law always accuses”? If so, is it also the case that the Law only accuses?

What follows is offered to the leaders and members of Crossings as possible avenues by which not merely to approach these issues, but to do so in a way that enhances the value of the core holdings of Crossings for a new generation. As will be seen, these suggestions may lean more notably into one or the other of the foregoing issues, but in the end there will necessarily be considerable overlap.

First, I think it essential that Crossings examine its own assumptions and assertions regarding perceived tendencies in the ELCA. To the extent that my “read” of a deeply-felt concern over the place of social ministry in the church’s proclamation is accurate, I would begin with the principle that it is a test of any theological critique that those criticized be able to recognize themselves as fairly represented, even if they contest the overall argument. It would be worthwhile to find out in this instance whether this is so. Crossings cannot survey all sermons preached from ELCA pulpits or even interrogate all ELCA homiletics professors, but surely a conversation could be arranged with a representative of ELCA Faith and Society or, alternatively, with the author(s) of a selected social statement to hear their own perception of how the goals of the statement relate to the Gospel and then to dialog openly about Crossings’s expressed concerns. To be useful, such a conversation would have to eschew either setting up the guest(s) as “clay pigeons” or exchanging banal truisms. Are the differences real and, if so, do they truly center on how best to “necessitate Christ”? The goal must be to ask exactly how our “urging Christ” and our pursuit of justice, mercy, and humility (cf. Mic 6:8) should interact in our own very imperfect church body. (I say “our,” as I have been on the ELCA pastoral roster since 2007.)

A second avenue of investigation into the place of Law and Gospel in social ministry may be suggested by the statement of the Orthodox Church in North America that recently came to my attention thanks to Crossings President Jerry Burce: “For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church.” It may offer us a richer, if steeper, road—or at least a trailhead. The statement suggests that social concern rightly emanates from our recognition that every human is created in the image of God. Where might it lead us, if we extended that thought to include the Orthodox emphasis on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as intended above all for the restoration and even enhancement (via theosis) of the image of God in each and all (see Sect. ##5 & 12)? Perhaps at the end of the proverbial day, we’re still dealing with the Law when it comes to social ministry, but maybe it is at least under the umbrella of the “law of love,” which St. Paul suggests is the “fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:10). Then again, so is the Gospel (which, of course, does not make the Gospel simply the law of love, but surely there is a link).

As for the issue of the Law as gift, one line worth pursuing to my mind has been suggested by my college classmate Paul Hinlicky, who recalls arguing with Prof. Schroeder that one must maintain not merely the “uses” (or “functions”) of the Law, but also “its substantive reality as divine instruction in the twofold law of love: of God above all and of all God’s creatures in and under God our creator, as explicated (by Luther! in his Catechisms!) in the two tables of the Decalogue” (emphases original; see, under Remembering Seminex [and Reflecting on Its Aftermath]).

One way of slipping this knot would be to say that we’re talking about different senses of “Law” here. Maybe so, but it is most important not to end up in a circular argument, such as “The Law always accuses, because by ‘Law’ we mean that which shows our sins.” As an exegete, I would insist that our lexicon be controlled by OT and NT usage, however we may abstract systematic principles therefrom. Somehow, we must account for both tōrâ and nomos as blessing of God, as a Pharisee named Saul/Paul knew very well. (For an overlapping but not identical “take” on this question, see the stimulating four-part debate between Paul Jaster and Michael Hoy in Thursday Theology columns for April 13 & 20 and May 4 & 11, 2023.)

Perhaps a conversation either with Prof. Hinlicky or with some combination of ELCA exegetes and systematicians might help us think through the biblical and confessional underpinnings of the Bertram/Schroeder Law-Gospel Hermeneutic. I hasten to add, however, that at the end of the day we must pay attention to how this debate “cashes out” in faithful preaching.

From Canva

Thirdly, and not directly as an outgrowth of either of the issues that I have raised, I wonder if Crossings might not be well served by some kind of return to Prof. Schroeder’s efforts to “take the show on the road” via workshops in local congregations. While there are a few laypeople who attend Crossings conferences, the programming for the last two years has been clearly aimed at pastors. Yet with many of the Crossings faithful now entering their retirement years, there seems a natural pool of those who might take the benefits of Crossings to a wider, lay audience. At the same time, such outreach would enable what seems to me the most important thing that Crossings can do for its own direction looking forward: gather some solid qualitative data on what early- to mid-career ELCA pastors “out there” (not necessarily already in the Crossings orbit) want by way of help in fuller and more faithful proclamation. (I think this imperative, whether or not Crossings engages in renewed outreach to laity.)

None of the foregoing is to suggest that the Law-Gospel Hermeneutic or the six-step matrix should be set aside. They remain core charisms of Crossings. I merely pose these questions and offer these suggestions as a way to encourage reflection on the essence of the enterprise, as Crossings considers how best to serve its constituents going forward. In my own thinking, I continually return to the wisdom of Goethe in his Faust: “Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast, Erwirb es, um es zu besitzen” (loosely, What you have received as gift, you must take as task). So it must be, it seems to me, with Crossings and a new generation.

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