Lutheranism after Google

In the Fall 2010 edition of The Princeton Theological Review (Issue 43) Philip Clayton wrote an article entitled, “Theology and the Church after Google.” (It can also be found in a little less scholarly fashion on TheOoze.com.) In it, he begins by noting:

“In these few pages I’ll be arguing that theology needs to change radically if it’s going to communicate effectively with Gen-Xers, Millennials, and the increasingly large group of non-religious Americans (“non’s”) over the coming 10-20 years. The changes are like the shifting of tectonic plates, which means earthquakes and tsunamis.”

His basic premise is that, “Theology after Google is far more than merely a new church-growth movement, a new way to package and disseminate the old-style theology. It is instead a radically new way of doing theology, one which (we believe) opens up the power of Jesus’ message to today’s world in new and exciting ways.

What becomes curious is his assessment of what “theology” of the past actually was and/or is. His blanket assertion seems to be that every denomination and every theologian up until now has always done “old-style theology,” wherein, he claims, this kind of theology has only ever been a repository for knowledge about God.

However, Lutheran theology is not of the same ilk. Sure, confessional Lutherans can dust off plenty of writings from our theological repositories. But ironically in doing so Lutherans will find, as Robert Preus states so eloquently in one of those repositories, that “Doctrine is Life!… Doctrine without life (i.e., practice and worship) is theory, nothing more.” (“Confessional Lutheranism in Today’s World,” in the April-July, 1990 Concordia Theological Quarterly).

In other words, Lutherans do more than just think about theology. Lutheran theology points to the life that believers live and have in and from Christ. And what is more, Lutheran theology wholly subscribes to the “power of Jesus message” being completely sufficient in and of itself. (See the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed and explanation—“I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel…”)

Nonetheless, Clayton goes on, “So what does it mean for the up-and-coming theologians and church leaders of the next generation to do “theology after Google”? At the start, it involves conversations with cultural creatives and experts in the new modes of communication… Mastering the new communication technologies is not enough, though it’s essential; it’s also crucial to understand what it means to be religious, and Christian, in a technology-dominated age…Some will find the results uncomfortable. It means, first of all, that we can no longer define theology only as an academic discipline.

Again, Lutheran theology was never meant to be “only” an academic discipline. Though, to be sure, if we are being honest, it can at times be reduced to this. Consider the numerous challenges encountered in the catechesis process that Lutherans call “confirmation.” At times, the understanding and living of the Christian life has often been reduced to a “passing grade” earned by a student through their test taking ability on their knowledge of, yes, that’s right, theology.

But even so, at its core, Lutheran theology was and is meant for proclamation that gives Jesus, not merely talks about him or thinks about him. In other words, it is meant for life. This can be most notably seen in the theology and practice of the historic Divine Service (the Lutheran worship service that frames the reception of the Word and Sacraments). Here the word of God is literally enacted in the life of the worshipper. This is in contrast to the theology critiqued by Clayton, wherein such a theology of worship sees the worship service primarily as a venue to impart knowledge about God.

Thus, historic Lutheran theology is distinctly different from the conclusion that Clayton comes to: “Theology is tightly bound to whatever and wherever the church is at a given time. Theology is about what the church is and is becoming now. So ‘theology after Google’ asks: What must the church become in a Google-shaped world?”

In other words, for Clayton, the culture and times become formative, and even normative, for what the Church is and what it does. True, Clayton is clear that Jesus will be somewhere in that church after Google, but he is fine with the ambiguity of exactly where Jesus will be.

In short, though what he offers is certainly thought provoking, and worth reading, it is limited in a couple of significant ways. His assertion that everyone has always had, and always done, a theology that fits his “old-style” description is, I think, inadequate. Undoubtedly, he is addressing mainline Protestantism, most likely those with an affinity for Biblicism.

Nonetheless, when Lutherans subscribe to the fullness of what Clayton asserts, they unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly(?), reduce Lutheran theology to the evangelical “old-style theology” being critiqued by Clayton. Subsequently, Lutherans then become prone to embrace his proposed solutions, which in turn generate propensities to abandon the truths and practices of our historic Lutheran theology and the very rich, very real, very relational, and very relevant life that flows from our Lutheran theology.

As always, this blog aims to move past partisanship and demonizing of those who disagree, and endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, foster the goal of talking about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

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3 responses to “Lutheranism after Google

  1. Rev. Kevin Jennings

    Hi, Pastor Woodford! Just finished reading the article. It’s interesting, but not really anything new, to say the least. Your critique is right on the money.

    I’d simply go this much further. In his model, Christ winds up being only one aspect in his model of the “new” church. In rebuttal, I’ve heard it ascribed to Dr. Robert Preus, and I hope I get this right, that all theology is Christology. As I understand the statement, all proper theology is related to Christ, be it a view on sin, man, justification, or who God is. This is the way Christianity necessarily is. It simply gives Jesus Christ crucified and raised for our salvation.

    As I get older, I think this American Protestant style of doing things mucks everything up by making it too complicated (hence, this article). Why do that? I can still remember Dr. Nagel looking across the table at me after I’d suggested that this whole thing of justification is really simple when it’s related to Christ. In his unmistakable way, he simply grinned and said, “It’s all delightfully simple.”

    • Pastor Jennings,

      Thanks for your thoughts! You are correct that Dr. Robert Preus was a defender of the phrase “All theology is Christology,” though at the onset of his use of the phrase, it did cause him to become embroiled in a contoversy over it. As an aside, Dr. David Scaer has an article that more fully explains the use of the phrase and elaborates on the issue of the contoversy. It is entitled, “All Theology is Christology” How Does Every Passage of Scripture Reveal Christ?

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      Yours,

      Rev. Woodford

  2. Kevin, attribute it to Dr. David Scaer, who no doubt arrived at the axiom while arguing with Dr. Preus over dinner or a beer.

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