No friend of Confessional Lutherans: Steven Paulson’s heresies

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This article originally ran in the American Lutheran Theological Journal, Fall 2014, Volume 1, Number 2, as “Lutheran Theology by Steven D. Paulson: A Review Essay” by the Rev’d Dr. Eric Phillips. It is reprinted here with permission from the editor. Click here to listen to Pr. Jordan Cooper’s interview of Dr. Phillips and access a free PDF copy of ALTJ 2.1.


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[Paulson’s] errors with respect to Original Sin and the Law lead him also into Christological heresy, to a rejection of substitutionary Atonement, and the erection in its place of a new theory of Atonement that not only contradicts [Formula of Concord] Article III, but has outright blasphemy at its center.

It is unlikely that you have ever heard a theology book referred to as “rollicking.” That’s a reserved for action movies and wild parties— usually. In the case of Steven Paulson’s 2011 monograph Lutheran Theology, however, the word fits. This book rollicks. Here’s the first sentence: “Lutheran theology begins perversely by advocating the destruction of all that is good, right, and beautiful in human life” (Paulson, Steven D. Lutheran Theology; New York: T&T Clark, 2011; 1). And it keeps going like that for 272 more pages. Whatever else can be said about him, Steven Paulson is not boring. He pulls very few punches, and says everything in the freshest, most dynamic, and most provocative way he can. His ability to sustain the tempo is impressive. He’s brilliant and creative, and can really turn a phrase. If he’s trying to write like Martin Luther, I don’t think he quite gets there, but he’s probably closer than anyone else I’ve read.

This is not an unmitigated advantage, though. The book is engaging and vivid, but hard for the reader to put together, to understand as a whole. Paulson is going in so many directions at the same time with his allusions and asides, at such a rate of speed, while inventing so many new ways of saying things, that it becomes bewildering in places. He needs a strong organizational principle to hold it all together, to keep like things with like, but this he does not have. The structure of the book just exacerbates the problem. It is loosely organized as a commentary on the book of Romans— very loosely. He goes chapter-by-chapter, but not verse-by-verse or section-by-section, so it isn’t really a commentary; it’s a work of systematic theology organized like a work of exegetical theology. It’s unsystematic Systematics. Because Paulson is a gifted communicator, you can usually follow him from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph, but when it comes time to summarize and evaluate his big-picture ideas, the reader has to do a lot of synthesis, drawing from all over the book and figuring out how to resolve the contradictions that arise. For instance, he explains in one place that the Law cannot save because “the law is not spiritual, meaning that it cannot create anything, especially not a new heart” (80), and in another place that it cannot save “because the law is spiritual— not incarnate Christ” (181). We will have another example, on a more consequential point, below.

This combination of small-picture eloquence and quotability with big-picture convolution and uncertainty has helped the book make inroads in Confessional Lutheran circles. On every other page there’s a robust turn of phrase to express some interesting new angle on something they already believe, while the difficulty involved in putting the big themes and doctrines together makes it hard to detect— or at least to prove— the serious errors that Paulson is weaving through the whole work. Uncertain what to do with all that, and with a few of the small-picture statements too, Lutherans focus instead on the things they do understand, and appreciate the force and wit with which he says them. If you think about it, Lutherans as an audience have been conditioned to like this sort of thing, because Luther himself was such a master of the quotable remark. So we don’t understand everything he says, and there seem to be some contradictions, but those things remind us of Luther too! We feel at home. We’re ready to quote the stuff we really identify with, and willing to assume that the stuff we didn’t quite get must be good too, whatever it means.

And Paulson knows his audience. He teaches at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, an ELCA school, but he is too conservative to be very popular in that denomination. Confessional Lutherans are the ones who are most likely to be drawn to his work. So throughout the book, whenever he criticizes a liberal theological idea, he names the man who taught it, but whenever he teaches contrary to the Formula of Concord, he stops naming names. The reader has to be on top of things to catch it. Paulson mentions the Formula, or the men who authored it, only when he agrees with them. In this way he creates the impression that he himself is a Confessional Lutheran in the same sense as the bulk of his fans, but this is not the case. In Lutheran Theology he takes a number of positions contrary to the Formula. He teaches and greatly expands the error of Mathias Flacius with regard to Original Sin (condemned in Article I); repeats the error of Nicholas Amsdorf, who called good works “injurious to salvation” (condemned in Article IV; Paulson 234); and condemns the Antinomianism of Agricola, but for a different reason than the Formula does (Article V; Paulson 185-6). Accordingly he denies the Third Use of the Law (Article VI) and ends up with a new kind of Antinomianism in which the Law of God still needs to be preached, but has no positive value. These errors with respect to Original Sin and the Law lead him also into Christological heresy, to a rejection of the substitutionary Atonement, and the erection in its place of a new theory of Atonement that not only contradicts Article III, but has outright blasphemy at its center.

The Flacian error lies at the root of the mischief. This error teaches (in the words of the Formula) that, “There is now, since the Fall, because the nature is corrupt through sin, no difference whatever between the nature and essence of man and original sin” (I.1). The Concordists rejected this teaching for two main reasons:

(1) Therefore corrupt man cannot, without any distinction, be sin itself, otherwise God would be a creator of sin; as also our Small Catechism confesses in the explanation of the First Article, where it is written: I believe that God has made me and all creatures, that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them. (Solid Declaration I.38)

(2) Now, if there were no distinction between the nature or essence of corrupt man and original sin, it must follow that Christ either did not assume our nature, because He did not assume sin, or that, because He assumed our nature, He also assumed sin; both of which ideas are contrary to the Scriptures. But inasmuch as the Son of God assumed our nature, and not original sin, it is clear from this fact that human nature, even since the Fall, and original sin, are not one [and the same] thing, but must be distinguished. (Solid Declaration I.44)

Now, Mathias Flacius was in many ways a hero of Lutheran orthodoxy, a controversialist who opposed Philipp Melanchthon’s compromises with Roman practices and Roman teaching on the role of the free will in salvation. His criticisms of these things are upheld and given confessional status in the Formula of Concord, articles X and II respectively. It was in the process of his debate over the role of the free will in salvation that he went too far in the opposite direction and overstepped the bounds of orthodoxy himself. He is thus a sympathetic figure in many ways, and as Benthe notes in his introduction to the Triglotta, historians have tended to exonerate him of the title heretic. Paulson seems to be benefiting from some of this same reluctance to go after a theologian who is manfully battling for the truth on other fronts. “But whatever may be said in extenuation of his error,” Benthe continues, “it cannot be disputed that the unfortunate phrases of Flacius produced, and were bound to produce, most serious religious offense, as well as theological strife, and hopeless doctrinal confusion” (151). And since this was noted so clearly back in the 16th century, in the capstone of the Lutheran Confessions, Paulson has much less of an excuse than Flacius did. And as we shall see, his error is worse.

According to Flacius, it is only since the Fall that the essence of humanity has been Original Sin. He was trying not to teach that God is the Creator of Evil. He did not succeed, but at least he made the attempt. Paulson just cuts to the chase, and denies the Fall. “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). In other words, there was never a free will for Adam and Eve to lose. Bondage to sin is not a result of the Fall, but simply part of being human, i.e. essential to human nature as it was created by God. Adam and Eve did not have the ability to obey any more than we do, because God withdrew His Spirit from them and left them to their own natural powers, which although no sin had corrupted them yet, were already completely impotent. “Sin is God’s withdrawal of the Holy Spirit that hands us over to free will” (83), Paulson says, both for them and for us. There is no difference between their pre-Fall ability to resist temptation and our post-Fall ability to resist temptation. And so throughout the book he uses the term “Original Sin” to refer not to the first sin in the Garden and the inherited corruption resulting from it, but to a basic definition of sin that all human beings fall into equally: “‘I believe… I cannot believe’ [quoted from the Small Catechism, I.3]. What does that mean? It means free will ends at the Holy Spirit, and there is also the end of original sin (believing in one’s own belief)” (196-97).

This leads to the conclusion, as the Formula of Concord rightly says, that God is the Author of Evil. He created human beings as sinners, to be sinners. The reason they didn’t resist sin is that they were constitutionally unable to do so, just as we are, except without justification, because they hadn’t sinned yet. The next domino to fall, then, is the Justice of God. He designed Adam and Eve in such a way that they had to sin, then He punished them for sinning. This means the Law of God has nothing to do with Goodness and Justice, only with unexplained Wrath. And that is exactly how Paulson talks about it all through the book. “As long as God’s anger at sin, his law, is his righteousness, then his righteousness is in the process of destroying the whole cosmos” (41). “God’s wrath was supra-legal, bigger than it should have been according to the law; it operated outside reason, outside the free will…. When this dawned on Luther he was forced to conclude that God’s will, the law, and the good were not synonymous” (42). “Reason revolts at the very idea of God’s wrath, since God’s anger cannot be confined to the law, and thus it is immoral and unjust. Divine wrath undermines morality, destroys faith in God’s law, and (adding fuel to the fire) God intends it that way” (66).

Having dispensed with the Fall, or any concern for Divine Justice, Paulson can only go after the Law instead. “The legal scheme” is the problem. There is no legal relationship that man can have with God, whether good or bad.

This is why Paulson everywhere opposes “the legal scheme,” his catch-all diagnosis of false religion. Man naturally thinks that he can work his way to God by following some law, but he cannot. In Scripture and Confessional Lutheran theology, the reason he cannot is that he is fallen. There is a legal ladder to heaven, but sinners are not capable of climbing it. “The law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). Having dispensed with the Fall, or any concern for Divine Justice, Paulson can only go after the Law instead. “The legal scheme” is the problem. There is no legal relationship that man can have with God, whether good or bad. Pure wrath replaces condemnation (i.e. judicial wrath), and there is no way for anyone to merit salvation— not even Jesus Christ. The ladder simply doesn’t exist.

The idea of sacrifice is central to the legal scheme as Paulson defines it:

When people have no preacher, the universal relation of sinners to God is sacrifice: do et [sic] des. One gives a token/sign to God, destroying one part of creation (plant, animal, or person) that is used as a symbol by burning the sacrificial victim in order to placate God’s wrath; then when peace has been re-established, one eats the remainder of the sacrifice in a cultic meal that establishes communion though this symbol with the God and one’s enemies. This is called “worship,” in which God is imagined to have been given his due (deum justificare). (231)

You will look in vain for the part of the book where Paulson explains what separates a pagan sacrifice from the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, or even from the animal sacrifices that God demanded in the Old Testament. He isn’t talking about pagan sacrifice in this paragraph. He’s talking about sacrifice, period. He denies that Jesus Christ saved us by means of a sacrificial offering to the Father, because that would be “the legal scheme.” That would involve the Law getting its due. “The legal scheme… forced a series of unsuccessful theories of atonement that brought Christ’s ‘work’ 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). Instead of the classical Lutheran doctrine of the atonement he 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).

This brings us back to Christology, and thus to the Formula of Concord’s criticism that Flacianism leads to heresy in that doctrine as well. We see this prediction borne out in Paulson’s book. 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! That is what the dictum actually means. He rejects the Definition of Chalcedon also, regarding the two natures of Christ. He writes, “‘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).

Paulson’s two great errors flow together in his treatment of the Atonement, and the result is nothing short of appalling. How did Jesus save us? By breaking the Law Himself.

So the question arises, according to Steven Paulson how could Christ save us, if neither His active obedience (His perfect life) nor His passive obedience (His sacrificial death)— both being legal realities— were able to overcome the extralegal wrath of God? And how could Christ even live a perfect life or make a fitting sacrifice of Himself in the first place, if taking Human Nature meant taking Original Sin? Paulson’s two great errors flow together in his treatment of the Atonement, and the result is nothing short of appalling. How did Jesus save us? By breaking the Law Himself:

Christ goes deeper yet into flesh to take our sin. Although he did not commit a sin, he not only ate with sinners, but acknowledged sins as his own, that is, he confessed (confessio) them. This is like a man whose son has committed a crime, and out of selfless love the father steps in to take the punishment, but then goes too far— he irrationally comes to confess this crime so vehemently that he believes he has committed it— and as Luther famously said, “as you believe, so it is.” …Unfortunately, Christ suffered on the cross the cost of anthropological projection of the heart’s faith, where he came to believe that his Father was not pleased with him, thus multiplying sin in himself just like any other original sinner who does not trust a promise from God. …Then finally in the words on the cross, “My God, my God…” he made the public confession of a sinner, “why have you forsaken me?” 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 (“This is My Son, with whom I am well pleased”). (104-5)

Here is a contradiction much more confounding than the one mentioned above. “He did not commit a sin,” Paulson writes, and then less than a page later, “Christ committed his own, personal sin.” The first statement is what we expect to hear any Christian confess, but the second statement, the blasphemous one, is carefully justified and explained much differently than the confusing stuff in the middle about “irrationally coming to confess” the crime of a loved one. “He felt God’s wrath and took that experience as something truer than God’s own word of promise to him.” That’s exactly how Paulson defines Original Sin in another part of the book: “It is to receive a word from God in the form of a promise, and then to accuse God of withholding something of himself—calling God a liar” (152). Paulson attempts to resolve the contradiction by distinguishing between obedience to the Law and obedience to God: “This does not change the fact that the Son was obedient to the Father; it only confirms the fact that obedience to his Father is not the same thing as obedience to the law…” (107). But even that doesn’t work, because he has accused Jesus not only of violating a commandment, but of “calling God a liar.” That is, the sin Paulson accuses Him of was committed directly against the Father, so what does he hope to gain by suggesting that Jesus could disobey the law while obeying the Father? It seems he must mean that the Father told Him to sin, and so by sinning He was really obeying the Father, even if the Law had to condemn Him, not being in on that little secret.

And how is this supposed to work salvation for sinners, that the spotless Lamb should join them in the mud? Paulson says that by identifying so deeply with human beings as to take their sin and actually experience the act of sin, He confessed not just that He was a sinner, but that He was every sinner, the only sinner. The result of this confession, for some reason, was that “once the Law accused Christ, it looked around and found no other sin anywhere in the world and suddenly, unexpectedly, when Christ was crucified, its proper work came to a halt” (110). It is not clear at all by what principle this works. It seems a bizarre and inadequate theory to prefer to the Substitutionary Atonement taught in the Lutheran Confessions, but this is what Paulson means when he says that Christ “fulfilled the law” (e.g. 183).

His use of this terminology is misleading at best, because the way you fulfill a law is by obeying it, and that is the opposite of what he means. He means only that the law is spent, used up, passed away. “The law is eternally in the past for those who have been put to death in baptism; it is a memory. Their future is without any law, since a good heart does the works of the law—without any law at all— perfectly freely” (225). This means there can be no Third Use of the Law. “Melanchthon… lost the forest for the trees…, introducing a novelty called ‘the third use’ of the law as a guide to Christians that utterly confused Paul’s use of the Simul and freedom from the law” (186-7). “There is no potential for doing the law in the new creature” (179). He also denies the distinction between the moral and ceremonial Law (81), and the concept of the Law as an eternal expression of God’s will and character: “The law remains eternally, but it is not an eternal law in the sense of ruling or making any demands of Christians—nor is it the very mind of God itself” (224). He is not quite an antinomian, because he recognizes that Christians still need to hear the Law in order that their flesh might be mortified, but this is the only good thing he has to say about it. “[Christ] rids us of the old creature— the law was established for this purpose, it is not discarded, but it surprisingly brings death instead of justification” (225). The Law is entirely negative.

Is there any good theology in Lutheran Theology? Yes, there is. He’s good on Baptism, and the way it puts the Christian into a new Aeon— making him a member of Christ’s Kingdom, the World that is to Come, even while he’s still stuck in this world and battling with stubborn sins— and he’s very good on the importance of preaching. The Word is needed in order to sustain that hidden baptismal life. The New Man lives by his ear (177) and must take refuge in the Promise he hears when all the evidence of his eyes tells him that Baptism changed nothing. “On the face of it, Luther’s proposal was not of ‘reform’ nor was it modest, though it was excruciatingly simple: it was to replace the papacy with a sermon. … There was no greater authority in the church than the preacher in the act of preaching” (8). His exploration of life with a preacher as compared to life without a preacher is useful too: “Fate is having an almighty God who never speaks” (22). And there are plenty of other nice insights and formulations scattered throughout the book, although I found them hard to appreciate in context, especially on my first read-through. If you proceed to read the book, hopefully the warnings in this review will help you do so profitably. There are many bones to spit out, and they are jagged. Let the reader beware.

(A PDF version of the foregoing article is available here.)



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