{Dr. Alister McGrath, Kings College, London, recently presented a paper to the 120 attendees of the International Conference on Confessional Leadership. Hosted by the LCMS, this conference focused on whether or not Lutheranism remains relevant in today’s culture and climate. The first half of Dr. McGrath’s presentation can be found here. The ending follows.}


Dr. Alister McGrath

To speak of the grace of God for Luther is to proclaim the astonishing insight that, despite the strangle hold of sin that exists upon us, God is able to break its par and purge its guilt giving birth to a peaceful conscience and peace of mind. So for Luther a central question was, “How can I find a gracious God?” And that question has resounded down the ages until our own period. And it seems to me it remains a central theme that must inform our theological deliberations. But let me raise a question: Many would now ask whether this is indeed the central existential question of humanity. Certainly, many would suggest it’s not in Western Europe, a society which has been deeply influenced by various forms of secularism and which tends to regard belief in God as a favor towards God on the part of a rather credulous few, rather than as an intellectually and existentially satisfying or necessary response to God. I agree to bear in mind here that surveys of Western European opinion regularly indicate that such traditional soteriological questions feature quite low down a list of popular concerns, often having minimal impact on younger people. Now I don’t need to panic about this, but we need to be aware that that background is there for some. We must be careful not to rush to conclusions and make premature judgments here. The whole phenomenon of secularism is complex and involves far more than issues about personal adequacy in the sight of God. We need to take into account, for example, cultural pressure to conform to social norms, which increasingly are framed, not in terms of religion, but in terms of spirituality. That is to say contemporary society is increasingly using the individualist language of spirituality where previous generations might have used a more institutionalized language of religion.

Suspicion of organizations and institutions is easily transferred to churches, especially those that have a tradition of national establishment and hence have historic associations with par and privilege, yet even allowing for that, Luther’s question doesn’t resonate well in Western Europe. Happily, Western Europe is not representative of the global situation as a whole. Indeed, many would argue that its secularist trends represent an exception rather than the general rule. So, I think it’s important to note that many of the more discredited theories of secularization to emerge in recent decades have their origins in Western Europe, especially France, suggesting that sociologists in those regions have simply extrapolated from their own situations to those of the world as a whole, and there are many heretodaywho will be able to talk about this that I know from personal conversations with many in Africa and Asia, thatLuther’s question can be formulated in ways that connect up with genuine existential concerns. But before I begin to engage with the substance of Luther’s doctrine on justification, I think it is very appropriate to emphasize the importance of theological translation. That is to say, the reformulation of Luther’s ideas in terms, images and narratives that can connect up with contemporary culture moods, anxieties and aspirations. While I personally celebrate Luther’s famous ability to translate theology into the idiom of the vernacular, seen particularly in his table talk, I think we need to make use of other dialogue partners to help clarify the issue here.

As I’m an Anglican, I hope you’ll allow me to bring another Anglican into the discussion at this point. Next year, we mark the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, and it just seems interesting to see how this writer, known for his ability to recast Christian theology in terms that resonate with contemporary, cultural moods, might help us as we reflect on how to articulate Luther’s legacy in our own day and age. There is nothing wrong with Luther. The issue is how we communicate, embed, his ideas in our contemporary situation. Lewis’ own remarkable ability to engage a wider audience appears to have been partly something intuitive and partly something he learned. Although his letters of the 1930s often show him to have a deft ability to express himself succinctly and memorably, we find that some of his writings of that period are really quite dense and unapproachable. Think, for example, of The Pilgrim’s Regress of 1933. Lewis realized he needed to become more accessible, and in deliberately choosing to develop his role as a popular apologist, Lewis found himself wrestling with the question of how he could translate the great riches of the theological tradition into language and images that would connect up with ordinary people.

Now Lewis was an academic and therefore had to learn the language of the ordinary people and he did this by visiting royal air force bases during the Second World War, talking to men and women who’d left school at the age of 16, trying to explain to them what the Christian faith was all about. And Lewis, I think, learned that language the hard way and perhaps for that reason learned it rather well. Lewis, in effect, in a 1945 essay on Christian apologetics offers some ideas, which I think are relevant and stimulating as we work out how to ensure that Luther’s theological legacy is translated and proclaimed in our own day and age. The two points that Lewis emphasized the most are the empirical necessity of discovering how ordinary people speak through observation and encountered followed in the second place by reflection on how Christian ideas might be translated into language that lay within their experience and comfort zones. Let me quote from Lewis:  “We must learn the language of our audience and let me say at the onset that’s no use at all lying down a priori in advance what the plain man does and doesn’t understand you have to find out by experience.” And Lewis’ own engagement with air mechanics, with ordinary people, helped him realize how he might translate the riches of the Christian tradition into language that connected up with people who were put off not by the contents, but by the form of the Christian proclamation. Here’s what Lewis says: “You must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome and it means you can say very little in half an hour, but it is essential. It’s also of the greatest service to your own thought. I’ve come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into an educated language, then your thoughts are confused. Par to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning.” Now Lewis is using the word translation here not in the sense of choosing one word rather than another word, but rather in terms of cultural translation. Reaching into one context and finding the best way of expressing that in another context, realizing that this may need verbal adaptation.

And I think that Lewis really helps us as we begin to engage with this question: “How do we ensure that Luther’s question about how we find a gracious God remains intelligible and remains relevant in our own day and age?” I think in many ways I’m passing the initiative to you here and asking you in what way you would do this to ensure that this rich theological legacy remains alive. Verbal repetition isn’t enough. You need theological translation and interpretation so that it can connect up with where people are. Now I have no intention of abandoning you here, so I want to offer you one small example of how we could apply Luther’s ideas in the cultural context that I know reasonably well, namely that of Western Europe, particularly its emphasis on self-achievement and self-fulfillment. It’s often observed that Western European culture is shaped by notions of achievement and self-value, which parallel an essentially plangent understanding of human nature, and you may well feel this also applies in North America. We are what we achieve. We get what we deserve. We pull ourselves up by our own bootlaces. You work hard and you achieve, and that justifies spending your earnings on vacations and possessions. Yet, this so easily becomes an addictive cycle in which people are trapped in a spiral of progression through achievement. The idea we have to achieve more, our status depends on achievement is built deeply into Western culture and as you will see immediately Luther offers the key to break free from that destructive and addictive pattern of thought. Status is something given graciously, to be received, not earned. But how do we translate that into our cultural vernacular?

I remember preaching a sermon about two years ago in one of the great churches of the city of London, close to the heart of London’s financial district. And this church had been extensively renovated in the early 17th century, which of course was the age of George Herbert, and I chose to use George Herbert to make some points. George Herbert, some of you will know, was noted in the early 17th century for his transposition of leading themes of Luther’s theology into ways of speaking, forms of speech, poetry that were slightly different on the one hand, but nevertheless conveyed the essence of Luther’s thought on the other. And I focused on these four lines from one of his poem: “This is the precious stone that turneth all to gold. For that which God doth touch and own cannot for less be told.” And you can see there a very interesting reworking of some of Luther’s ideas particularly those expressed in the 1535 Galatians commentary.

Christ is the one who transvalues, who gives a new dignity and significance to us, which we neither deserve nor merit and can never hope to grasp by ourselves. And in my sermon I suggested to the congregation that many of them, they were mostly financials from the city of London, were simply seen as generators of wealth. They were instruments of enrichment who are valued only because of their financial skills, and I asked them whether they felt anyone loved them, whether they were valued, and began to use George Herbert to open up the idea of God choosing to value us, to treasure us as an expression of His graciousness, not our merit. Several in the congregation were deeply disturbed by this and spoke to me afterwards by their sense of complete despair because they were valued only by others because of what they did for them, but as individuals, as people, they were not loved. It was a way of opening up those deeper questions.

Now you can see how Luther’s ideas could easily speak into that situation, perhaps through translation or transposition along the lines suggested by Herbert, but this is the point I must emphasize: It’s not enough to reiterate how excellent Luther is. That can be done and that should be done. But there is a task that is laid on us, which is to ensure that excellency is appreciated and understood and applied by people like us, each of whom is an interpreter of Luther in our own situation, knowing that situation being able to see how Luther might address and engage it. And sure you can use Luther’s own words, but you may need to unpack it to interpret, to translate them, but the danger is that that treasure chest remains unopened because the language isn’t understood. Luther was a great advocate for translation into the vernacular. Every individual had the right to read the Word of God, to encounter it, to be transformed by it, and the point I’m trying to make here is that each of us must see ourselves as a theological translator, a theological resource person who is able to take these riches entrusted to us and make sure they are explained, articulated, applied and appropriated in terms that can be understood in our own day and age.

Luther’s gift of translation into the vernacular is also a challenge, and it’s a challenge to each of us to do that translation of Luther’s leading theological themes using analogies or stories or images or concepts that connect up with today’s culture and thus enable this richness to be understood. And clearly there is more to Luther’s doctrine of justification than graciousness. There is this wonderful theme vital for any right understanding of self-esteem, thatour dignity and value is not dependent on our inadequate and sinful efforts, but rather it is given to us by a gracious and loving God through Christ, thatis very important to make. There is also a very important point about human nature, Luther’s classic insight based on his doctrine of Justification that we are one in the same time righteous and sinful. Luther writes, “The saints are always sinners in their own sight and therefore always justified extrinsically. The hypocrites however are always righteous in their own sight and are therefore always sinners extrinsically.” The point he is making is that human nature is complex, not purely good, not purely bad, but complex, and inviting us to develop a realistic vision of human nature, which is able to identify what God has done in us while at the same time identifying where there is work in progress. Luther’s anthropology is a vigorous protest against utopianism based on a completely false understanding of human nature.

Now there is much more I could say about Luther’s doctrine of Justification, but I want to move on and focus now on Luther on the Church, because this seems to me to be a very central theme for your deliberations in this conference. Luther was faced with a dilemma. He was excommunicated and therefore outside the institutional Church. What, therefore, was the status of the evangelical group that gathered around him and his preaching in Wittenberg? Was it a Christian church? And Luther began to develop an ecclesiology, which basically focuses on the idea of the people of God as those who gather around and respond to and are transformed by, the proclamation of the Word of God through preaching and the confirmation of this Word through the Sacraments. And Luther’s theology in effect allowed him to reassert that his was indeed the Christian church even though it did not have institutional continuity with the medieval Catholic Church. You could be a Christian church through maintaining continuity with the apostles through the preaching of the Word of God and that, I think, is an extremely important theme.

For start, it reminds us of the centrality of preaching and proclamation, that this is what gathers this people, thatthis is what sustains this people. It reminds us that the proclamation of the Word of God lies at the heart of any true church. It gives us a challenge, it’s true, but it also reassures us that the church is constituted and maintained by something that lies beyond us. In other words, to put it in plain English, God doesn’t depend on us. He uses us graciously, but in the end the future of the Church rests not on our wisdom, but on the wisdom and the strength of the God who raised Christ from the dead and has entrusted each of us here today with that responsibility. Sometimes I read Christian biographies and you get the impression that history is full of people who thought that the Church was depending on them, but isn’t it right that the Church ultimately depends on the one who the grave couldn’t hold? Now, Luther I think has much to say here and I want, if I may, to read to you from a passage that Luther wrote, which was eventually published in 1548, after his death. It’s the preface to the second volume of the Wittenberg edition of his German writings, and in this he talks about the Church. And I think I’m going to read this to you because it is a gem of a passage, rich in wisdom, but also which is assuring, encouraging and challenging. “It is not we who can sustain the church nor was it those who came before us nor will it be those who come after us. It was and is and will be the one who says I am with you always even to the end of time. As it says in Hebrews 13, Jesus Christ the same yesterday,todayand forever, and in Revelation 1, who was and is and is to come, truly he is that one and no other else is or ever can be. For you and I were not alive thousands of years ago, yet the church was sustained without us and it was done by the one of whom it says who was and yesterday. The church would perish before our very eyes and we along with it were it not for that other man who so obviously upholds the church and us.”

Now, thatI think is important. It reminds us that while it is right to ask what we can do to grow our churches, what we can do to provide better pastoral care, what we can do to provide better institutional support for all that we do, in the end the Church is not constituted managerially or institutionally, but by this treasure that has been entrusted to each of us. And Luther, I think, would want us to reaffirm and realize just how precious this treasure is. Yes, we have to take each of the gems and jewels onto the box and maybe describe them in new language to our new situation, but they are there. They are precious. They are entrusted to us, and we need to figure out how best to make use of them. Now clearly there’s much more I need to say about Luther’s ideas on the church, and in my second lecture this morning, I will pick up on one of those themes, which is actually, this is a very empowering idea, because it emphasizes that individuals with a deep sense of their trustworthiness of the Gospel and their own situation can make connections, which are very significant implications for the future. But that I’ll talk about more in my next lecture. The point I want to emphasize is that Luther’s emphasis on the Church being initiated and sustained by God constitutes a powerful corrective to the managerial techniques being commended by some as essential to the future of the Church. They may be helpful, but let’s not get things muddled up here. What is essential is what is being entrusted to us. Luther has passed something down to us, and I think we have much that we can do with it. In my next lecture, I want to move on to look at several areas in which I think Luther has much to say to us today about how we conceive the Christian life, about how we cope with ambiguities, about how we engage with suffering, but already I hope it’s clear that Luther really does speak to us. He is not someone we need to artificially manipulate to make relevant when really he has nothing to say to us. He speaks to us, and I think there is much to be learned from him, either in terms of what we know we can do or the challenge we feel as we listen to him and think maybe I could do things differently. Thank you very much for listening.