What Constitutes Lutheran Pastoral Theology? (according to Steven Paulson’s Lutheran Theology)

(Nota Bene: title, photo, caption, and boldface emphases are mine, not the work or suggestion of Rev. Dr. Phillips. — Sven st-Claire)
Caveat Emptor: Dr. Steven Paulson -- not a Lutheran in the traditional sense of the term.

Caveat Emptor:
Dr. Steven Paulson — not a Lutheran in the…traditional sense of the term.


by Rev. Dr. Eric Phillips, Ph.D

What Constitutes Lutheran Pastoral Theology?
(according to Steven Paulson’s Lutheran Theology)

I’m not sure Paulson uses the word “pastor” once in the whole book. It is always “preacher,” because that is the only heading under which he considers the office. It is all about proclamation. Most of this preaching is verbal, but in one passage he opens the definition wide in some unexpected ways: “all acts of preaching: sermons that distinguish law and gospel, baptism, Lord’s Supper, Absolution, the calling of a public minister from among the Royal priesthood, and suffering for the gospel…” (239). According to this list, preaching is something laymen can do, too, though most of the examples do involve pastoral activities. The book does not consider the office at all, really—just the function of preaching.

What is preached? The quotation I have just given mentions law and gospel, and Paulson gives that answer in other passages too. “What does God call a preacher to do? … The call is to preach law and gospel” (243). However, most of the time he is focused on the gospel, to the extent that when he uses the shorthand, “preach the word,” or simply alludes to the preacher’s words, he always means the word of promise. One of his recurring themes is that in the preaching of the Gospel, God seeks to be “justified in His words” by sinners who believe the unbelievable promises offered therein, so often he leaves the law out. “Churches are simply the creature of the preached word, which is the forgiveness of sin…” (241). This is not just a matter of focus, though. He considers the law to be self-evident to sinners:

What is life like before a preacher arrives? Life is filled with voices that are “passing judgment”…. The judge could be outside one’s self like a father telling you to live up to your potential, or a written law that says, “thou shalt not steal.” The judge can also be inside, called a conscience, holding itself to a standard of judgment. (69).

People are quick to justify themselves even before they have heard a sermon. The only reason the pastor needs to talk about the law at all is that people do not realize how dire their situation is. “Christ… died for sin because we could not be rid of it, and did not even know that sin was all that bad” (145). Until they are confronted with the death of Christ, people tend to believe that they can figure out an acceptable fix on their own.

Not only are people’s sins worse than they realize, Paulson says, there is an even deeper problem. As bad as individual sins may be, even they cannot explain the extent of God’s wrath. “God’s wrath was supra-legal, bigger than it should have been according to the law. It operated outside of reason, outside of the free will” (42). Our whole way of thinking, right down to our best traits, of which we are proudest, offends God, because we are so legally-minded that we are always trying to figure out principles and rules by which to manipulate Him. We want to buy Him off with sacrifices—”the universal relation of sinners to God… in which God is imagined to have been given His due” (231)—or magnify Him with lofty philosophy: “The world wants a transcendent God rather than a deeply present one—if they could only get a distant God without the wrath” (72). Paulson calls all of this “the legal scheme.” We can be right with God only by giving it all up, and the only way we can give it all up is to find peace in His promise of unconditional forgiveness and life. That is the message that comes only from God, and only through the foolishness of preaching, because it could not appeal to our cleverness without conforming to the legal scheme, at which point it would cease to be a liberating word from outside our closed system. As such, that is the real concern of the preacher.

In this understanding of things, Paulson ends up as an antinomian—not the prevailing ELCA kind, which treats the gospel as if it cancels the law, but a variation on the classic sixteenth-century variety: “Agricola determined that when preachers follow baptism they should leave law to nature or the civil authorities and do the one thing the world cannot do—preach the gospel of Christ’s cross alone. So far Antinomianism has a Lutheran ring to it…” (185). The problem with Agricola, he goes on to say, was that he made it into a question of motivation, determining that the gospel would be more effective at producing good works in Christians than the law could be, because people respond better to love than fear. This emphasis on love and the fulfilling of the law over faith and the rescue from wrath turned Agricola back into a Romanist, Paulson says. “Antinomianism is a ‘nomian’ (legal scheme) in the end” (186).

Unfortunately, Paulson has “fixed” this by making it really, truly antinomian. We see it clearly in the summary above. People do not realize how bad their sins are until they hear the Gospel and realize the implications of Christ’s terrible suffering, so the law is no help there. People do not realize that God’s wrath is disproportionate to their own law-breaking, so the law is no help there, either—but actually a hindrance, because it creates the impression that our problem is proportionate to our deviation from it. For Paulson the most fundamental problem alienating the human race from God is “the legal scheme. This is a nexus which connects all the book’s theological problems, which are serious.

Paulson denies the Fall, because to him that’s just the legal scheme’s attempt to get the wrath of God back within legally-defined boundaries. “The legal scheme assumes that it knows what death is because it imagines that the free will once stood as a master of sin, ‘able to sin and able not to sin’ (posse peccare et posse non peccare) at its own discretion” (158). If mankind once had this power and abused it, then we have a legal explanation for the extent of God’s wrath, and to Paulson that’s a bad thing.

He also denies Atonement by Penal Substitution, because in that model the law gets its due in the vicarious suffering of Christ. “The legal scheme… forced a series of unsuccessful theories of atonement that brought Christ’s ‘work’ [notice the quotation marks] on the cross under the confines of the law” (88-89). “Even Christ’s own sacrifice is revealed as non-cultic, since from the beginning the precise receiver of the sacrifice of the cross has been unclear: did the Father need to receive Christ’s sacrifice in order to cease his wrath? Did the law—or perhaps Satan—require payment? (233). Paulson suggests Forde’s metaphor of a man who is killed by a truck “while throwing an endangered child to safety,” and concludes that if we understand the cross in that way, “Christ could rightly be said to have died for our sakes, without attempting to explain the cross as something the law required…” (233).

In his attempts to explain the Atonement some other way, Paulson stumbles into Christological heresy. He interprets the communicatio idiomatum not as God the Son sharing in human nature, but sharing in human sin (92). He interprets the Patristic dictum, “What was not assumed cannot be healed,” in the same willfully twisted way: “what Christ assumes from sinners is their sin” (103). As if I wanted my sin to be healed! No, I want to be healed of my sin — this is what the dictum actually means.

He denies the definition of Chalcedon:

“Nature” was being used as something bigger than God which could then divide up all of the cosmos into a divine type nature and a human…. Worse yet, these two natures were presumed to be “in opposition to another.” This effort was doomed to failure; incarnation does not mean that “human nature” was added to divine nature—or that Christ assumed “humanity” as a category. (96)

And what is the end result of all this? A model of the Atonement in which Christ saves sinners by sinning:

Then finally in the words on the cross, “My God, my God…” he made the public confession of a sinner…. Confessing made it so, and thus Christ committed his own, personal sin—not only an actual sin, but the original sin. He felt God’s wrath and took that experience as something truer than God’s own word of promise to him (105).

And how is this supposed to save us, that the spotless lamb should join us in the mud? “If the sins of the world really were on him, and he became a curse, then when he died they died, and when he was raised there was nothing less than a new creation…” (140). But why was He raised at all, if He died for His own sins? This is not heresy only, but blasphemy.

What is so terrible about “the legal scheme” that Paulson is willing to reject so many core Lutheran doctrines in his primer on Lutheran Theology? Is it really worse than ascribing personal sin to the incarnate Son of God? Apparently he thinks so, and he gives us the reason in his first chapter:

The question of all theology is whether or not you have free will. If you have it, then God is not omnipotent and therefore you have something to offer to God for which you must be recompensed. God would then be under legal obligation to justify you…. (23)

If Adam had a free will in the Garden, in other words, God is not omnipotent. So there cannot have been a Fall from perfection into bondage to sin. God just made us flawed in the first place. Sin is not unnatural, but a simple outworking of created human potential. Thus for God to take human nature is basically the same thing to Paulson as for God to take human sin. The Atonement is not a recovery from grave error and world-inverting rebellion, but simply the occasion of a second act of creation completely discontinuous with the first. He calls it “resurrection,” but “Paul’s is a fractured narrative, broken into unbridgeable, contrary Aeons at the point of Christ’s death on the cross. There is no continually existing subject (as the legal scheme requires) to carry the story through — on earth or in heaven” (209). In short, Paulson takes double predestination to lengths most hyper-Calvinists are too orthodox to dare.

So what have I learned about pastoral theology from this book? That the living proclamation of God’s promises is crucially important — a lifeline to desperate sinners — but that it is equally important to have your theology straight when you start preaching, unless that is all you are planning to say.

All the Bible is the Word of God, not just the wonderful promises that monopolize that title in Paulson’s book, so we actually can engage in constructive theology (116), in theodicy (144), and all the parts of the “legal scheme” that Paulson denigrates in favor of the Existential promise, the moment when God is justified in His Word by our answering faith. “He wants to be justified in his words” (144), Paulson insists. Well, we can do that with the whole Bible. And if we have to use reason in the process, we will just have to trust that the God who chose to communicate in rationally-constructed human languages is capable of doing so.





    • No, his background is not Eastern Orthodox. His rejection of the orthodox Lutheran understanding of propitiation comes from Gerhard Forde.

      • Adam and Eve did not have free will in the Garden of Eden if free will is the ability to choose between sinning and not sinning (posse peccare et posse non peccare). Contrary to what Baptists think, God did not command them not to eat from the tree of knowledge in order to give them free will (in the above sense). He gave the commandment to take away the freedom of eating from the tree.

        They had free will in the sense that they were free from sin, which is true freedom. As Luther shows in the Bondage of the Will (I suppose a Calvinist double-predestinarian book by Dr. Phillips’ definition) the will is always willing. It is never free to choose. In paradise Adam and Eve’s will was free because it was willing God’s will, i.e. it had faith. How this ended in sin is a mystery we do not understand. In the Genesis Lectures Luther says that indeed in a certain sense Adam and Eve “could” sin. How do we know? Because they did. Beyond that we don’t know anything about their potential to sin. In heaven we will be in a better state than Adam and Eve in paradise, id est: non posse peccare.

        Dr. Phillips’ attempt to project the legal scheme back into the original created state relies on a Baptist definition (I suppose I would rather become a double-predestinarian Calvinist [although Luther and Paulson are not] before a Baptist) of free will.

        If Adam and Eve were at one point free agent masters over the law, then scripture lies when it associates the law with the fallen state (see Romans and Galatians, are these books orthodox Lutheran enough?). Then the Law becomes our basic relationship to God, with us as the masters and God owing us salvation for obeying the Law. Then the human instinct to relate to God through Law is not sin itself (Paulson) but the Gospel is merely a repair job for our failures in living the legal scheme (Phillips). All of Dr. Phillips’ other errors follow from this misunderstanding.

        Good luck to Dr. Phillips with his theodicy. Better to theoretically justify the suffering of your neighbors than help them. (If you want the Law, you can have it. Am I being a Paulsonian antinomian now?)

        • Dear Nicholas,

          I have fixed your comment. Every time you referred to Dr. Phillips, you wrote “Phillips Ph.D,” which I found to be a very clear attempt to mock. (I also italicized the Latin and fixed your typos because I’m slightly OCD; however, I left your split infinitives alone, as I imagine this was a stylistic choice on your part.)

          You are free to continue commenting; however, you are bound by the second use of the law of this blog to speak with more courtesy. I will continue to allow your sneering and vitriol, for this condemns you more than any counterargument could or needs to; however, I will not abide mockery of the author. Mock me if you please, but leave the Reverend Doctor out of it. If you find yourself unable to conform yourself to lex blogia, do understand that I will not approve any more of your comments.

          Pax Christi.

        • Goodness! You are indeed bound by no law! I must salute you for having the courage of your convictions. Unfortunately, however, I cannot approve your last comment. You have been blacklisted from this blog. If you would like to request permission to comment, I think you know what you’ll need to do. (Hint: you may have learned when you were very small, perhaps when you were in Kindergarten.)

          I am adding a contact form to the blog, should you care to use it at some point to re-apply to the commentariat.

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