Visiting Scholars Series: A Lutheran Contribution?

lossy-page1-558px-Martin_Luther_by_Cranach-restorationAs Jeremy Begbie reminds his readers, “All good theology is done on the cliff-edge—one step too far and you tumble into idolatry, one step back and the view is never so good.”[1] In no place is this more true than in the realm of theological aesthetics—and Lutherans have not often found a place at this discussion table. But I wonder with a theology so richly rooted in God’s presence-in-the-world, why the seeming silence?[2]

As a Lutheran in the Evangelical/Reformed world of Fuller Seminary in Southern California, the profound absence of the Lutheran voice in the theology/arts conversation has not gone unnoticed.  Perhaps this is rightly so—or at least understandable—but certainly still to be lamented. Lutherans have traditionally been caught between two much larger juggernauts (forgive the broad strokes of traditions): Catholicism, following Rahner and others, opens up creation and the revelatory power of the world, tradition, and nature more widely than confessional Protestantism. The Reformed tradition, on the other hand, has either located the divine as only (I use that word lightly) spiritually present in the tangible things of the world or as completely absent.

Lutherans, who take sola scriptura as seriously as the other Reformed traditions, are wary of ‘general’ or ‘natural’ revelation, but for Luther the sacramental and ‘real’ presence of Christ in the Eucharist—and in the world—is paramount.  According to Luther’s realization of the Chalcedonian formula concerning the two natures of Christ, Jesus Christ exists as eternally fully human and fully divine. Christ’s eternal presence in the world is, therefore, fully human and fully divine. As Luther reminds, “If you can say, ‘Here is God,’ then you must also say, ‘Christ the man is present too.’[3] This bold statement is pressed further still in the Formula of Concord: “Therefore, we believe, teach, and confess that God is a human being and a human being is God.”[4]

Christ’s presence is always a bodily and embodied ‘human’ presence, and this may well be a justification for God’s presence in the aesthetic experiences (and the entirety) of life. Unfortunately, very little has been written about the role that this theory of ubiquity (i.e., Christ’s eternal and eternally expansive presence, both human and divine, in the created world and in heaven) could play for theological aesthetics and the capability for things other than the historical Sacraments to be presence-filled.

Rather than a displaced and disembodied sacramentality of the arts, the Lutheran understanding of the communicatio idiomatum and the ubiquitous nature of Christ’s humanity provides another avenue for discussion that is yet to be seen or discussed in the world of theology and art. What might this confessional Lutheran theology bring to the table? Perhaps it would bring an evangelical and confessional theology which recognizes an incredibly physical (and spiritual!), sense-filled, and aesthetic presence of the risen Christ who is fully human and fully divine in, with, and under all things.

It’s time we step to the cliff-edge and see.

Jon Gathje is a second-year PhD student at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA (USA). He is a professional singer and music teacher, and also works closely with the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts. The majority of his time is spent wondering what exactly a Lutheran aesthetic might look like. 


[1] Jeremy S. Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 279.
[2] I have only recently been made aware of the work of Dan Siedell who seems to be asking similar questions.
[3] Luther’s Works, 37:218.
[4] FC, Ep VIII:10, in BC, 510.
[5] Luther’s Works, 17:225.
[6] Luther’s Works, 36:342.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

12 Comments

  • Marion Lars Hendrickson says:

    At the risk of violating our Lutheran reputation for reserve, I offer my own contribution to this void: Hendrickson, Musica Christi: A Lutheran Aesthetic, published by Peter Lang in 2005. It’s a published version of my PhD dissertation at Durham University; a Christological discussion (as so much of Lutheran theology is) of music in the Church. In it I write in one place about Johannes Kepler and his hesitation over the doctrine of ubiquity, showing by his language of geometry that perhaps the doctrine was not as disagreeable as that learned man had concluded.

    • Jon Gathje says:

      Thanks for the note! I’ve put in the request for the book at the library, and I look forward to reading it soon.

    • Jon Gathje says:

      Dr. Hendrickson-
      I have just finished reading your book. Is there any way I might be in contact with you for further conversations? Where do you currently teach or pastor? Blessings!

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Jon, thanks for raising the question of a Lutheran contribution to the theology/arts conversation. I have wondered about it for some time.

    I have a question for you. Do you think that Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone would need to be questioned and critiqued if one were to fruitfully bring his theology to bear upon the arts and the aesthetic dimension of life?

    • Jon Gathje says:

      Jim-
      That’s a tremendous question, and one I’ve been wrestling with as well. I have found the stumbling block to be ‘sola scriptura’ in my own wrestling, rather than ‘sola fide.’ Could you say more about the concern with ‘sola fide?’

      • Jim Watkins says:

        It also makes a lot of sense to me that sola scriptura would be, as you say, a stumbling block. I don’t have very organized thoughts one this (which is why I asked the question), but I wondered about the way that justification by faith might be shaping Luther’s understanding of the self as inward and contemplative.

        First, it seems that the “faith” that Luther has in mind when he talks about justification by faith is usually an inward disposition as opposed to an external reality. Although Luther had positive things to say about the arts, it seems to me that sola fide played some role in the iconoclasm of the reformation, and certainly in the rejection of a corrupt sacramental system.

        Second, when Luther talks about faith, he sometimes does so in a way that opposes contemplation and action. For example, in “A Meditation on Christ’s Passion,” he suggests that cleansing one’s self of sin is not a matter of doing something but of keeping our gaze on Christ: “But if we behold it [sin] resting on Chrst and [see it] overcome by his resurrection, and then boldly believe this, even it is dead and nullified.”

        I must confess that I am no Lutheran scholar, and so I would appreciate it if you could expand my understanding of this. But my question arose because I wondered where there was room for understanding the self as truly embodied.

        • Jon Gathje says:

          One of the great dangers that I have found in Luther comes from his relative lack of systematics… we can get Luther to say almost anything we like! : )

          I think you are absolutely correct that sola fide had a profound effect on iconoclasm, etc. With that said, though, Luther is always wary of anything that would turn us inward–this is his very definition of sin. Instead, Luther constantly pushes us out towards Christ, and almost always towards a physical, tangible ‘something.’ We do place our gaze upon Christ, but this is more than merely spiritual. We grasp on to Christ in the bread, in the wine, in the spoken Word, and in the water. Christ’s promised presence (he is, after all, in all things, but he has told us specifically where we may grasp him!) is an embodied presence.

  • Cole Matson says:

    Hoping to get your outline of a possible Lutheran aesthetic in a future post!

  • Gwendolyn Starks says:

    I regret that my own knowledge of Lutheran Theology in rather thin. I did, however, find his Fourth Sermon: Wednesday after Invocavit, very important for understanding some of his views on the mindless destruction of statuary and architecture.

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