Book review: A More Radical Gospel, by Gerhard O. Forde


I’ve just finished reading A More Radical Gospel, a collection of essays and lectures by Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde (1927–2005).

The essays set out elements of Forde’s vision of “radical Lutheranism”: that is, a Lutheranism that centres its ministry and identity on the proclamation of the gospel as unconditional promise, while sitting relatively lightly to historic Lutheran doctrinal formulations such as the Formula of Concord. Appropriately, the book ends with a set of sermons, allowing Forde to conclude with the direct proclamation of the gospel that is such a critical concept in his theology.

Forde is a stimulating thinker and writer, and I found these essays thought-provoking, often exciting, and (mostly) spiritually energising. What I find most helpful in Forde: his emphasis on the gospel as a first-to-second-person proclamation (“I absolve you”, “I baptise you”); what Forde calls “primary discourse” (“speaking for God”), as contrasted with the “secondary discourse” (“speaking about God”) of systematic theology, exegesis, and so on. This comes through particularly strongly in his sections on eschatology, authority and ecumenism.

Criticisms? The biggest is that I really can’t get my head round his theology of the atonement. As I understand it, Forde argues that it’s not that Jesus died to satisfy God’s justice, demonstrate God’s love or win a victory over evil. Rather, God wanted to forgive humanity unconditionally, we didn’t want it, and so we killed Jesus to keep intact our conditional, law-based approach; only for God then to vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead.

I like Forde’s emphasis on the “brute facts” of the crucifixion, of reaching an understanding of what the cross means “from below” before we go on to ask what it means “from above”. However, I don’t think he even does justice to the event considered “from below” – do the Gospels really present Jesus’ death simply as a refusal by his hearers to accept unconditional forgiveness? – which makes Forde’s argument about its meaning “from above” feel unconvincing. In the end, one is left wondering how necessary or central the cross is to the gospel, if understood in Forde’s terms. It also seems to leave a lot of biblical data unaccounted for.

To end on a more positive (though still controversial note), I liked Forde’s approach to ecumenism: above all his emphasis on the church’s identity (and hence its true, albeit hidden unity) being found in the activity of the proclamation of the gospel and administration of the sacraments as gospel; an activity which is not confined to any one denomination or tradition. This involves setting aside a confessional Lutheran insistence on full doctrinal agreement as a precondition for altar fellowship (which I know some reading this will disagree with strongly); but it also allows for a distinctly Lutheran approach to ecumenical dialogue, rather than seeking bland compromise formulas in which “every cat is grey”.

After the fold, I’ve posted the brief summary notes I wrote on each essay to aid my own recollection. They may not make much sense without the full text, but hopefully they will whet your appetite to check out more of what Forde is saying in these essays. You can also get a flavour from the quotations I’ve posted on my Tumblr.

Eschatology: The Last Word First 

  • Radical Lutheranism: Lutheranism should find its identity in the religious landscape by doubling down in proclaiming the gospel in all its radical unconditionality, a proclamation that takes seriously both justification by faith and the bondage of the will. Not that these will always be the content of our preaching, but that they inform and undergird the unconditional proclamation of forgiveness in Christ.
  • The Apocalyptic No and the Eschatological Yes: grace as an eschatological breaking-in of the new, not an ontological infusing of power into an old being.
  • Lex semper accusat? The Reformation perspective – that the law always accuses, and that the gospel is the end of the law – paradoxically frees us up to have a positive view of the law in the civil/political/ethical sphere, not as an end in itself, but as a tool to assist us in taking care of this world.

Legal and Evangelical Authority

  • Authority in the Church: The Lutheran Reformation: “The preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the highest exercise of authority in the church”; “scripture interprets itself” means that the Word acts upon us rather than sitting as a passive object of our subjective interpretation.
  • Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres: Reflections on the Question of Scripture and Tradition: Sola scriptura can only be understood properly in the light of the sui ipsius interpres, that the Word acts on the hearer rather than vice versa. Only this can resolve the dilemma between the supposed need for an infallible interpreter on the one hand, and individualistic subjectivism on the other.
  • The Irrelevance of the Modern World for Luther: Never mind what the modern world should make of Luther: what would Luther make of the modern world? He’d decry its lack of distinction between human judgment and divine judgment, reducing everything to the former and ignoring the latter; and its superficiality as regards sin, death and the devil.

Atonement and Justification: Christ Unbound

  • Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ: Why is the death of Jesus necessary? Understanding Jesus’ death “from below”: he was killed for proclaiming an unconditional forgiveness and mercy that we do not want (“…and you would not,” Matthew 23:37). Understanding it “from above”: God cannot have mercy on us “in the abstract”. Christ’s death satisfies God’s desire to have mercy on whom he will have mercy, because it creates believers, and thus “actualizes the will of God to have mercy unconditionally in the concrete.” [I found this Forde’s argument in this essay quite hard to follow, tbh]
  • Loser Takes All: The Victory of Christ: We want to turn the story of Jesus and his cross into the story of a “winner”; but the story of Jesus is the story of someone determining to follow the path of being a loser in a world of winners. The resurrection is not God snatching victory from defeat, but his vindication of Jesus’ following the loser’s path.
  • In Our Place: Forde engages with a feminist critique which accuses all theories of atonement as valorising suffering (“divine child abuse paraded as salvific”); he agrees with some aspects of the critique, but emphasises that any understanding of the cross in terms of its moral purpose is mistaken, and leads to an “us vs them” mentality (“had we been there, it would all have come out differently”). Rather, Christ’s death is a “happy exchange”: he takes our place and gives us his.
  • Forensic Justification and the Christian Life: Triumph or Tragedy?: We don’t progress morally in the Christian life, our lives approximating more and more closely to the righteousness imputed to us in Christ; rather, imputation is an eschatological breaking-in of the new world, and this attack on sin from without is then worked out more and more fully in our lives.
  • Luther’s “Ethics”: stop thinking ad modum Aristotelis (“in the manner of Aristotle,” in which the fundamental human story is one of ethical development aided by grace), start thinking ad modum scripturae (“in the manner of scripture,” in which grace alone determines our relationship with God): “good works do not make a good person, but a good person does good works.”

Unecclesiological Ecumenism 

  • The Meaning of Satis Est: Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession is not a “counsel of despair”, an attempt to patch together a minimal definition of unity in a splintering church. It’s a redefinition of the church in a manner consonant with justification by faith. Hence the church is defined by its activities of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments, not by any human rites, ceremonies, institutions or offices; and hence its unity is an invisible object of faith, not a visible institutional or ceremonial unity.
  • Lutheran Ecumenism: With Whom and How Much? Ecumenism, for Lutherans, should not be a matter of “political correctness” or “ecclesial correctness”, but of confessional integrity: contributing our distinct understanding of the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, rather than either working to concoct bland compromise statements in which “every cat is grey” and for the sake of which legitimate theological questions and concerns get steamrollered in the name of “repressive tolerance”. Let’s recognise one another as Christians and as churches on the basis of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments, and then discuss our theological differences.
  • The Catholic Impasse: Reflections on Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue Today: Lutherans and Catholics need to stop papering over the cracks in ecumenical discussion and acknowledge that fundamental differences remain between them. Postliberal Lutheran theology rejects both ecclesiastical infallibilism and biblical infallibilism in place of the living, present-tense gospel declaration. This is what roots it in catholic tradition, since the paradigmatic expressions of that proclamation are the concrete, catholic practices of preaching, absolution and the sacraments; Lutherans are not (contrary to widespread Catholic belief) “subjectivists” preaching an unmediated gospel.

Communication and the cross of Christ

Christ on the Cross, by Hans Holbein the YoungerHow does the crucifixion of Christ save us?

Steven Paulson addresses this question in a densely-argued chapter of his book Lutheran Theology (see previous post). He begins by distinguishing the argument he is about to make from “theories of atonement,” which (he argues) try to fit the cross of Christ into the “legal scheme” of desert and punishment:

According to the legal scheme, sin is either a lack (debt) that must be compensated before the law can be satisfied (fulfilled), or sin is crime that must be punished. When Christ himself is pushed into the legal scheme its practitioners demand Christ make a payment for debt, absorb punishment, or provide compensation to those deprived of their goods (like the devil, the law, or even God himself) if he is going to serve as a true mediator between God and sinners. (p.91)

It is true, Paulson continues, that “Christ pays debt, suffers punishment, and pays ransom to the old lords of this world,” but he does so to destroy the legal scheme, not to vindicate it, and to create “an entirely new kingdom where the law has no service to render, no claim to make, and no more accusations against sinners.”

How does this happen? First we need to look at the two things that happen to redeem and reconcile sinners:

First, Christ became flesh and died once and for the cross, never to be repeated. Second, the preacher delivers the benefit of the cross by declaring the promise of forgiveness to sinners on account of that cross – repeatedly. […] There is a communication that occurred first in Christ’s own person between Creator and creature, divine and human, that reverberates through the preacher to communicate God-in-flesh to his forgiven sinners, including them in the new, free, life of God’s favour. (p.94)

This concept of “communication” between God and sinners is fundamental to Paulson’s argument, and takes him into the very depths of the incarnation itself: in particular, the communicatio idiomatum, the “communication of attributes,” that lies at the heart of Lutheran Christology (and which is drawn, as Martin Chemnitz sought to demonstrate, in the teachings of church fathers such as “Athanasius, Nazianzus, and especially Cyril”).

What is the communicatio idiomatum? Paulson summarises it as follows:

The communicatio idiomatum holds that there are characteristics or identifying features of the essence of a human creature on one hand (like being born, sleeping, crying, sinning, and dying), and of God’s essence on the other (like having no beginning, not sleeping, not crying, not sinning, not dying). Accordingly, Creatures are segregated from their Creator by these opposite “attributes” […] But in Christ incarnate, there is a new communication that effects exchange between creatures and Creator – expressed verbally in the scandalous language in which Luther luxuriated, such as: “God was born of Mary and lay in a manger,” and “the human Jesus created the world, and rules as Lord of the new kingdom.” (p.97)

More specifically, the communicatio idiomatum allowed Luther to insist that “the Son of God truly is crucified for us, that is, this person who is God” – in contrast to other Reformation figures such as Zwingli, for whom such language was anathema, and who insisted that only the “human nature” of Christ could actually suffer and die.

So the communication of attributes between the divine and human natures of Christ allows us to make such shocking statements as that found in a 17th century hymn quoted by Paulson: “O great dread / God himself is dead! / He died upon the cross…” But it also provides a basis for the “communication” between Christ and sinners that secures our redemption. On the cross, Christ assumes the sins of the whole world, taking them into his own body “actually, historically, physically” (see 1 Peter 2:24). As Paulson says:

[Jesus] is not assuming abstract, bookkeeping, non-historical, or impersonal sins. When Scripture says he takes the sin of the world, it means that eventually he gets round to taking your own personal sins. (p.106)

Paulson concludes his argument (of which I’ve barely scratched the surface in this post) with the following:

The sins of the world were laid on Christ; we communicated them to Christ by means of rejection of his words; what he communicates in return to sinners is unlike anything we have known: it is grace that is free and that creates a new world out of nothing – the law and sin are left behind forever because they have created nothing. […] The communication of attributes in the cross ceases the old segregation of the wrathful God and sinners. (pp.111f.)

Thus what are, under the law, impossibly separate are brought together in the gospel thanks to this “communication of attributes”: God and human nature in Christ; Christ and sinners on the cross; and (to bring this down, concretely, to earth) bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar.