Paulson: Other Than Fordian

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From the Augustana District (LCMC) announcement of their February 2014 guest speakers, Steven Paulson and Mark Mattes: “And both espouse a Lutheran theology in the tradition of Gerhard Forde.”

Have times changed since Forde died (2005) in such a way that he must decrease while a new pan-Lutheran (LCMC, the NALC, LC-MS) consensus on election and inerrancy must increase?

To be sure, Paulson, heir to Forde’s chair at Luther Seminary, is strong on election. But Forde’s heritage and the wider twentieth century Luther renaissance is being transposed into a view of the Bible and its use that Forde strongly rejected.

1. Would Paulson praise inerrancy if Forde were in the audience? Forde wrote explicitly and repeatedly against inerrancy. A few of many such statements in Forde:

In the final analysis the verbal inspiration method is based on a theory—a human theory about the nature of the Word of God. Now the test for the validity of any theory is how well it explains the facts, and one can only say that this theory does not explain the facts very well. It is based on human logic and once its logic is broken the entire position collapses all a once.[1]

So in its practice it [Lutheranism] has resorted mostly to a dogmatic absolutism largely dependent on a view of scriptural inerrancy, which usually brought with it disguised moral absolutisms of various sorts as well.[2]

Disenchanted Lutherans today are attracted by both possibilities….When free-choice pietism has lost its moorings in the external Word, the only way to get it back in line is by turning to authority structures with the clout to do it. One can find that either in Roman-type hierarchicalism or in Biblicism. In either case, satis est non satis est. The gospel and the sacraments are not enough.[3]

Paulson, in contrast, has high praise for “Scripture’s inerrancy.” In a 2011 lecture response to (Wisconsin Synod) Dr. John F. Brug’s strong defense of inerrancy, Paulson said:

Thanks to Dr. Brug for standing for Scripture’s inerrancy against the silly experiments in the ELCA that have attempted to read Scripture as a book of the history of religions, then to demythologize the history and leave a kernel of truth that confronts hearers with an existential moment of decision.…No doubt he is right, that the ELCA lost track of the original source of Scripture, which is the inerrancy in the letters that come through an inerrant Holy Spirit.[4]

Really? Fordians share with Missouri and the Wisconsin Synod a belief in “the inerrancy in the letters”?

Not at all.  What happens when an inerrant text is made the prior miracle to revelation in the cross? The centrality of the Word of the cross is lost. As Forde writes:

I am in effect saying to God that unless he provides me with the kind of guarantee which I expect and want, I cannot believe. Then I am in a very dangerous position because I am dictating to God the conditions under which I will believe. It is dangerous because it might just be that God has not in fact provided us with that kind of guarantee.[5]

If Forde had been in the audience when Paulson praised inerrancy, would Forde have applauded?

2. Paulson deviates from Forde on the “clarity” of scripture. Forde points out how the uniqueness of Luther’s thought was rediscovered in the modern era over against Lutheran Orthodoxy:

Beginning in about the 1840s, when J.C.K. von Hofmann appealed to Luther in the argument over atonement, Luther was for the first time set against Lutheran orthodoxy on a substantive doctrinal issue (Hirsch, 1954, vol. 5, p. 427) and the uniqueness of Luther’s own thought began to emerge as a viable alternative.[6]

As a direct consequence of this rediscovery, in the ninth round of the Lutheran/Catholic dialogue, of which Forde was a leading member, the Lutheran team calls attention to the difference between Luther and seventeenth century Lutheran Orthodoxy on the clarity of scripture:

Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, and Savior is the essential Word from God, the content and center of the entire Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments (die Mitte der Schrift).28

Fn 28: Everything in the universe of Luther’s Reformation stands or falls with the thesis of the clarity of Holy Scripture….The function of the thesis of the clarity of Scripture, however, is only properly recognized when the essential content has been somewhat correctly determined. For Luther it is not a question, as is later the case with Orthodox dogmatists, of the quality of transparency (perspicuitas), which statements of Scripture should in a specific way have.[7]

Paulson, however, in commenting on the theme of the clarity of scripture, quotes approvingly of the Lutheran Orthodox view of the perspicuity of scripture:

That reversal of direction assumes that Scripture is clear and is in no need of specially empowered interpreters, thus removing subjectivism in either its individual or collective forms.19

Fn 19: At this point a person could fruitfully consider Luther’s two kinds of clarity (external and internal) as he discusses them in the Bondage of the Will. And one could also take up the Orthodox Lutherans who distinguished “obscurity in the object contemplated and that which lies in the subject contemplating it.” As Quenstedt put it, “The words of the Testament are in themselves very perspicuous, but are variously interpreted; because many, neglecting the literal and proper sense, studiously seek a foreign one…because of the perverseness or imbecility of men. The obscurity which lies in the subject must not be transferred to the object [!]” Quoted in Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 73.[8]

The exclamation mark is added by Paulson. He approves of Quenstedt, who held a dictation theory of inspiration, as Missouri does today.[9]

In contrast, Forde quotes Quenstedt to show the problem of Lutheran Orthodoxy’s claim that the obscurity which lies in the subject must not be transferred to the object:

What is the thinking behind this position? According to Francis Pieper, the celebrated Missouri Synod theology of the turn of the century, it is so because it is a position which is established a priori. What does this mean? It means that it is so because it must be so in order for the scripture to be considered the Word of God. That is, if you believe that the scripture is the Word of God, then you must believe that it cannot contain any errors before you begin to read it, otherwise you would not read it as the Word of God. The position must be established a priori, before the actual examination of the evidence, otherwise it cannot be considered a sure basis for faith. Now lest you think I am exaggerating here, let me quote for you the statement of one of the 17th century orthodox fathers, Quenstedt, which draws out the full implications of this position:[10]

As Forde points out,[11] the modern Lutheran renaissance recovered the uniqueness of Luther’s thought over against Lutheran Orthodoxy.[12] This uniqueness includes the discovery that “the thesis of the clarity of Scripture, however, is only properly recognized when the essential content has been somewhat correctly determined”[13] – over against the seventeenth century dogmaticians’ claim for the perspicuity of scripture.

3. Inerrancy, disguised moral absolutes, and Paulson on homosexuality. Forde writes: “[Lutheranism] has resorted mostly to a dogmatic absolutism largely dependent on a view of scriptural inerrancy, which usually brought with it disguised moral absolutisms of various sorts as well.”[14]

Is there a “disguised moral absolute” in Paulson’s argument against homosexuality below?

In Luther’s day a dispute arose when the clever preacher John Agricola proposed that the way to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ was to leave out the preaching of the law entirely….Wouldn’t that be nice for a preacher? No more need to accuse anyone or bother with the law even when it is plainly in the Scripture to be preached.

They [ELCA pro-gay supporters] believe they are the messengers and purveyors of a new and higher law than had ever existed before in church and world—even laws given by God himself. Furthermore, this new and higher form of law comes in the person of the Holy Spirit who gives them new spirit-led revelations that are not in Scripture but are supposed to be part of God’s hidden plan.

Fanatics think that the Holy Spirit has given them a new word not found in Scripture that approves of homosexual acts….

They know, even though they have no word from God to stand on.[15] 

Paulson would surely deny being an inerrantist. Yet his argument in this citation against homosexuality is based on what “is plainly in the Scripture to be preached.” However negatively phrased, his message is that biblical prohibitions against homosexuality are “Word of God” and decisive for today.

Forde, in contrast, in writing against homosexuality, rejects such proof-texting and instead distinguishes two uses of law and Christian freedom to change law:

It is not enough just to say that a given command is ‘The Word of God’ … in questions of the civil use of laweach case has to be argued individually …. The fundamental concern of the civil use of the law is for the care of the social order . . . What the law enjoins is love of and service to the neighbor. That is its fundamental and ineradicable content.[16]

For faith in the end of the law leads to the view that its purpose is to take care of this world, not to prepare for the next. That means that we do not possess absolute, unchangeable laws. If the law no longer takes care of this world, it can and must be changed. As even Luther put it,[17] we must write our own decalogue to fit the times.[18]

At the same time, a theology seduced by nomism (all too often the case in the church) is ill equipped to do battle with antinomianism. Since it has already compromised the eschatological gospel, it can fight only from the position of law and charge its opponents with the ‘terrible heresy’ of being anti-law. Thus, the term ‘antinomian.’ One gets the impression that whereas other heresies are relatively mild, being antinomian is about the worst thing one could be! At any rate, to defend itself, nomism appeals to already given anti-gospel sentiments, compounding the confusion. So the general victory of nomism over antinomianism in the church is hardly cause for celebration. Nothing is solved. No insight into the nature of the problem is gained. The war of words is only inflated and the issues obscured.[19]

The theology of the cross, properly understood, rejects both antinomianism and biblical nomism. For Forde, Bayer, Lønning, and other scholars of the twentieth century Luther renaissance, revelation is “the cross,” not “the inerrant Book” – as is the case for Lutheran Orthodoxy, Missouri, Wisconsin – and in the argument by Paulson, who ridicules pro-gay supporters because they “have no word from God to stand on.” By inference he has such a word from God.

4. Paulson waffles on the third use of the law. What of the third use of the law? Missouri insists on it; Forde rejects it. Where does the Paulson trajectory lead?

Paulson would surely disavow a third use. Yet such a disavowal is not consistent with the way he uses the New Testament, that is, the way he distinguishes between ceremonial and moral law:

Because of the absolute certainty of their cause. Leviticus tells you to sacrifice a goat. So there. Why don’t you sacrifice a goat? A fanatic cannot make the proper distinction between the law and the gospel and to identify where the law applies and where it comes to an end. A fanatic cannot make the distinction. Now Lutherans and Lutheran theology should know better. It should know there is a distinction between the law and the gospel and as Paul says very clearly it is not the law but faith which makes one righteous. We can go right to Romans 3:28. Right at the end of the chapter. I think it’s verse 33 where he says what then shall we say? Does this remove the law altogether? No, it establishes the law. It puts the law in its proper place. But the proper place for the law is not the means by which you are made righteous. This is a fanatic opinion. A fanatic opinion thinks that its judgment on homosexuality is going to be a righteous one that will make them righteous. And it will actually impart righteousness to another human being apart from the forgiveness of sins entirely. This is the way fanaticism operates, and it can’t make a distinction between the law and the gospel any longer. Anybody who spends any time discussing the distinction between law and gospel knows there is a distinction now between the law of the Decalogue, the law of the ten commandments that we’re talking about here, and the so-called ceremonial law that identifies how it is that you do a sacrifice of a goat. This is why we teach the Ten Commandments at the beginning of the Small Catechism. We don’t teach the sacrifice of a goat.  But you’ll find both of these in the Old Testament. You have to make the proper distinction. Of course the issue of sexuality is an issue now of the Decalogue and the proper establishment of the law and the way we teach and preach that law.[20]

Forde, in contrast, attacks the traditional distinction – between ceremonial and moral law – which Paulson supports:

Theologically, both before and after the Reformation, the most common move toward domesticating freedom has been the attempt to qualify the Pauline claim that Christ is the end of the law to those of faith. ‘Reason,’ as Luther would put it, simply cannot entertain such an idea, the conviction that in Christ the law comes to an end, that law is over and freedom begins. As we have seen, freedom as usually conceived needs law as the mediator of possibility. What shall we do if there is no law to tell us what to do? But is Paul then wrong in his claim? Theologians as usual, however, have found a way to have their cake and eat it, too. They made a distinction in the content of the law – something Paul never did – between ceremonial or ritual laws on the one hand and moral law on the other. Then they proceeded to say that Christ was the end of ceremonial law but not the moral law. Christ ended the necessity, that is, for sacrifice, circumcision, food and ritual regulations, etc., but not the demands of moral law (e.g., the Decalogue). “Christ died, it seems, to save us from the liturgiologists! One might grant, of course, that this is no small accomplishment, but the price does seem a bit high![21]

5. Paulson: Other than Fordian. Paulson is a popular speaker and leader among conservative Lutherans, not only in the Augustana District of LCMC but elsewhere.

His stance is congenial to the Institute for Lutheran Theology (ILT), which formally endorses the view of the clarity of scripture held by seventeenth century Lutheran Orthodoxy and the present day Missouri Synod.[22]

The ILT has a significant Missourian presence: One of three consultants is Missourian (Manske), as are several adjunct faculty members, including Jack Kilcrease, who notes approvingly that in contrast to Forde “Paulson accepts lex aeterna or eternal law.”[23] Kilcrease’s lengthy analysis of Forde is based on the (Missourian) presupposition that “the objectivity of the content of the law [is] revealed in nature and Scripture.”[24]

In addition to LCMC, Paulson has ties to CORE and the NALC through his doctor father, Carl Braaten.

The NALC’s Pittsburgh seminary center has hired long-time Forde critic, David Yeago. One Missourian notes approvingly: “Yeago has cleared the ground for a positive, or third, use of the Law, without using the term.”[25] Though methodologically different, Paulson, too, because of the way he uses the Bible, has cleared the ground for a third use of the law without using the term.

In short, Paulson is in sync with conservative leaders in both LCMC and the NALC. But it is not Forde’s legacy that is being carried forward.

6. “The price does seem a bit high!”

Some say that Fordians should not be fractured but join in building a big Lutheran conservative tent, regardless of conflicts over inerrancy and the third use of the law.

It would be nice. Numbers do matter. At the same time one must count the cost. As Forde said: “The price does seem a bit high!”[26]

The price is high because it means retreating into the long shadow of Biblicism out of which Forde and others have led the way – the way which has led to the recovery of the uniqueness of Luther’s theology over against Lutheran Orthodoxy.

As Forde himself wrote in the 1960’s battle among Lutherans over inerrancy:

Finally, what is at stake in this conflict over method? Must we make a choice between them today? If so, why? I think we must….We are fighting for the restoration of the gospel.[27]

Rightly understood, Luther’s theology of the cross includes a rejection of inerrancy and the third use of the law.

[1] Forde, “Law and Gospel as the Methodological Principle of Theology,” A Discussion of Contemporary Issues in Theology by Members of the Religion Department at Luther College. (Decorah, Iowa; Luther College Press, 1964) 57.

[2] Forde, “Radical Lutheranism,” Lutheran Quarterly 1,1 (Spring, 1987) 13. Emphasis added.

[3] Forde, “Satis Est? What do we do when other churches don’t agree?” (Unpublished lecture given to the ELCA Teaching Theologians’ Conference, August 1990) 11-12. Emphasis added.

[4] Paulson’s response to the paper by John F. Brug, “Luther’s Doctrine of the Word,” at the Lutheran Free Conference, November 2011, was revised for LOGIA, Epiphany XXII,1 (2013) 53-54. Emphasis added.

[5] Forde, “Law and Gospel as the Methodological Principle of Theology,” 56. Emphasis in the text. See further: “The DNA of the Missouri Synod” at

[6] Forde, “Lutheranism,” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought. Ed. Alister McGrath (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993) 357. Emphasis added.

[7] Scripture and Tradition, Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue IX. Eds. Harold C. Skillrud, J. Francis Stafford, Daniel F. Martensen (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1995) 29 and 55.

[8] Steven D. Paulson, “Lutheran Assertions Regarding Scripture,” Lutheran Quarterly 17,4 (2003) 380, 385.

[9] It is notable that two of three back cover endorsements for Paulson’s one major book, Lutheran Theology (New York: T&T Clark, 2011) are Missourians: John Pless and Robert Kolb. Moreover, Pless and Matthew Harrison (now President of the Missouri Synod) are co-editors of Women Pastors? The Ordination of Women in Biblical Lutheran Perspective. A Collection of Essays (St. Louis: Concordia, 2009). This collection of essays attacking women’s ordination did not keep Paulson from using Pless’ endorsement for his own book, published in 2011.

[10] Forde, “Law and Gospel as the Methodological Principle of Theology,” 52-53.

[11] Forde, “Lutheranism,” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, 357.

[12] Paulson briefly mentions (p.198) but does not discuss the twentieth century Luther renaissance in his book, Lutheran Theology. This omission is significant for three reasons: 1) The book is part of a series focusing on “the origins of a particular theological tradition, its foundations, key concepts, eminent thinkers and historical development” (inside cover); 2) Omitting discussion of the twentieth century Luther renaissance minimizes its achievements and importance for discerning Lutheran identity; and 3) Paulson has six inconsequential footnotes to Forde and no references to Forde in the index, thus overlooking Forde’s role as a major thinker in the twentieth century Luther renaissance.

[13] Scripture and Tradition, Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue IX, 55.

[14] Forde, “Radical Lutheranism,” Lutheran Quarterly, 13.

[15] Paulson, Against the holy blasphemers,” Network News 10,8 (December 2009) 5-6. Emphasis added.

[16] Forde, “Law and Sexual Behavior,” Lutheran Quarterly 9,1 (Spring, 1995) 8-9, 18. Emphasis added.

[17] Martin Luther on the law as human and changing: “Indeed, we would make new decalogues, as Paul does in all the epistles, and Peter, but above all Christ in the gospel” (LW 34:112). “This text makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments do not pertain to us” (LW 35:165). “The Gentiles are not obligated to obey Moses. Moses is the Sachsenspiegel for the Jews” (LW 35:167).

[18] Forde, “Lex Semper Accusat? Nineteenth-Century Roots of Our Current Dilemma,” dialog 9 (1970) 274. Emphasis added.

[19] Forde, “Fake Theology: Reflections on Antinomians Past and Present,” dialog 22 (1983) 246-51, here 247. Emphasis added.

[20] Paulson at a Lutheran CORE meeting, Roseville Lutheran (11/18/2010). Transcript of the DVD at 25:52. Emphasis added.

[21] Forde, “Called to Freedom.” Opening Address to the Eighth International Congress for Luther Research, 1993 and reprinted in The Preached God. Eds. Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007) 259. Emphasis added. See also Forde, “Justification and This World,” Christian Dogmatics. Eds. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 2:447.

[22] “We hold to the internal clarity of Scripture, believing that Scripture is not merely a text from the ancient world whose meaning is obscure and only discernible through application of new scholarly approaches to the text, but that Scripture is in itself clear, and that any obscurity on Scripture’s part is due to the fallenness of human nature.” Foundational principles of ILT supported by the unanimous vote of the ILT Board. ILT Newletter, Feb 2009.

[23] Jack Kilcrease,, April 6, 2011.

[24] Jack Kilcrease, “Gerhard Forde’s Doctrine of the Law: A Confessional Lutheran Critique,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 75,1-2 (January/April 2011) 151-79, here 157.

[25] Scott R. Murray, Law, Life, and the Living God. The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism (St. Louis: Concordia, 2002) 182.

[26] See footnote 18 above.

[27] Forde, “Law and Gospel as the Methodological Principle of Theology,” 67. Emphasis added.