Monday, April 15, 2013

Forde's Essay "Whatever Happened to God? God Not Preached"

I have been accused, through my previous posts on sanctification, of not properly representing Gerhard Forde. Well, this seems somewhat odd to me since none of my posts even mentioned Forde. However, this has caused me to go back and reread many of his works; I have decided to give an analyses of certain prominent ideas in Forde's Theology.



Gerhard Forde was a highly influential ELCA theologian, who battled both against the encroaching liberalism of the ELCA and the inerrantist convictions of the LCMS. He coined the phrase "Radical Lutheran" and spent his career primarily writing on the doctrine of justification.

The essay I am taking a look at is titled "Whatever Happened to God: God Not Preached" The reason I am discussing this particular essay is that it expounds upon one of Forde's central themes, which he discusses in greater detail in his work Theology is for Proclamation. This essay can be found in the book The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament.

Forde's primary contention, in both this essay and the above-mentioned book, is that there is a distinction between systematic theology and proclamation. He asks, "whatever happened to God? God has fallen victim to explanations, to theology itself--theology about God-not-preached." (38)He critiques various theologies which attempt to explain God away, answer the problem of suffering by altering the doctrine of God. Forde is spot on in his critique of the theologies of Moltmann, Pannenberg, and others who attempt to argue that divinity suffers as a philosophical explanation to the problem of suffering. Weakening and emasculating God do not solve such issues, and ultimately are not in accord with the Biblical witness or the catholic tradition. Not all theological and philosophical questions need to be answered; what is needed is proclamation of the cross of Christ.

What concerns me in this essay, however, is that Forde never explains exactly what constitutes systematic theology, or what constitutes a theology that speaks "about God" rather than preaching God. Forde does acknowledge that systematic theology can be a good thing and helpful, as he equates his own writing here with systematic theology. He writes that "the purpose of systematic theology is not to subvert proclamation but to drive to effective proclamation." (42) My question is: Is systematic theology purely that which speaks about proclamation? Or is the Lutheran scholastic approach to theology also considered a valid method of theologizing? Because of the way that he speaks negatively about atonement formulations in other work, I worry that he is rejecting the entire Lutheran dogmatic tradition. I want to know how far this goes.

Forde is right that there is a distinction between God proclaimed, and God explained. There certainly is a difference between me giving a sermon on the communicatio idiomatum and telling my congregation "Your sins are forgiven!" Preaching should not be abstract theologizing; it should always be connected to the people and focused on the cross. However, Forde divorces these two methods of speech beyond what I think is viable. In Forde's words, "Proclamation means finally to stop talking about it, and actually to give it. It means not talking about God, but speaking for God." (43) The question I have is: Can we really proclaim something directly without simultaneously speaking about something? When I proclaim to my congregation "Your sins are forgiven" there is implied objective content behind what I am saying. Behind the proclamation is the teaching that Christ is God and man, died on the cross for sins, and rose from the dead.

I fear that Forde, taking a cue from Barth, privileges act over being. He constantly speaks of of Christology in these terms: "What happened to God is Jesus." (48) Talk of action, of doing, takes precedence over talk of being, or of something that is a metaphysical reality. Forde writes, "Since theology has tried to penetrate the mask of the hidden God by peddling some general metaphysical 'truths', faith becomes not trust in the proclamation but strives toward sight, to become a kind of gnosis." (53) I wonder if this includes typical discussions of the attributes of God. If this is the case, how are the ancient metaphysical explanations of the Trinity valid? Or are they? Forde's contention is not in accord with the catholic tradition, which has typically adopted the Greek conception that being has priority over act.

There are a couple curious statements that temper what Forde is suggesting. He states for example that "there can be didactic preaching, there can be preaching as ethical discourse" (45) which he calls "legitimate forms of discourse in the church." (45) This demonstrates that there can be some type of theologizing, and even ethical instruction from the pulpit. He even says that, "Not every sermon, certainly not even the entire sermon, will or must be proclamation. But it is what the theologian, the preacher, must eventually be aiming at." (45) It is curious and surprising that Forde would approve of preaching a sermon without proclamation.

In this essay, Forde makes some valid points as to the necessity of proclaiming the forgiveness of sins; however, he oversimplifies the distinction between giving an explanation and proclaiming. One cannot happen without the other. He also is unclear about what he views as "systematic theology" and exactly what type of theologizing he is rejecting. I fear that he is rejecting much of the catholic and Lutheran tradition through his privileging act over being, declaratory speaking over objective metaphysical content.

14 comments:

Jerry said...

The problem with Forde is that he said so much of what needed to be said. However, we've learned to pick through his work, find the one-liners we need, and ignore that which otherwise doesn't fit. We basically can't or don't want to understand him as a whole. Does undermine the premise of authority which we use to quote him?

Anonymous said...

I think you're incorrect about Forde following Barth in prioritizing act over being. In fact, Forde criticizes Barth precisely for engaging in dogmatic discourse (at the length of 14 volumes) without ever actually getting around to proclamation. For Forde, the true end of theology is not intellectual pontification, but rather the proclamation of the law to kill sinners and the gospel to raise them to life.

That said, there is legitimacy to what you say about Barth prioritizing act over being; this seems obvious especially in the early works like The Word of God and the Word of Man and The Epistle to the Romans. On the other hand, Barth scrapped the G├Âttingen Dogmatics because he felt it too beholden to existentialism, and therefore too much an analysis of human experience rather than an account of Christian dogma per se. By the end of his Church Dogmatics, however, Barth does choose to unite dogmatics and ethics in IV.4, going so far as to make baptism central to the ethical character of the Christian life.

Obviously, Bonhoeffer's own work, Act and Being, attempts to cast revelation not only in terms of the act of God in the moment, but also the being of Christ in the form of Christian community. So in this sense, Bonhoeffer might be critiquing Barth parallel to your own critique (perhaps this is what you have in mind).

It would seem to me that Forde's own emphasis on proclamation has more to do with Haikola and Ebeling.

Jordan Cooper said...

Jerry- How about actually interacting with the content of the article?

Jordan Cooper said...

The reason I think that Forde prioritizes act over being is because it's the only way I can make sense of the whole of his theology. He doesn't like preaching about, but proclaiming. He doesn't like inerrancy but speaks of the word of God as it effects us. He doesn't see it as a text with truth that can be examined, but as something which acts on the reader. He doesn't accept atonement theories, but only speaks of the effect of the atonement. He tends not to talk about Christ in terms of metaphysics, but as act.

All of this demonstrates to me a priority of act over being.

Anonymous said...

Right, I was agreeing with you that Forde does prioritize act over being. I would just argue that the Barth of the Church Dogmatics does not do so, and is therefore not responsible for Forde's dogmatic choices in this regard.

Jordan Cooper said...

Ahh, sorry I misread what you were saying. Thanks.

J. Dean said...

This article concerning Forde leads me to an observation and a question. Perhaps it is only due to my limited exposure to Lutheranism in comparison to more time spent in evangelicalism, but it does seem as if Lutherans are very strong in proclamation but not as strong about didactics in preaching. For example, in a Reformed church you will hear the pastors usually break down passages using hermeneutically-strong influence (the historical context, what Greek words are used and how they were used in comparative literature, this passage illustrates the sovereignty of God, etc.). With Lutheranism in general, what I've seen is a more broad-base of preaching concering the proclamation of law and gospel, but not necessarily specific exposition into doctrinal teaching (For the record, this isn't a crticism or accusation but rather an observation, and again this is based on limited exposure to Lutheran preaching).

Question: is this something that is typical of Lutheran preaching, or do Lutheran preachers also incorporate more theological teaching into the law/gospel format?

Steve Martin said...

It is odd that Forde's detractors would fault him for a line he wrote about (maybe) not proclaiming the gospel in a sermon, when that all he did was proclaim the gospel in the face of those who sent people back into themselves by trying to use the law.

Very odd.

You'll find no greater advocate of proclaiming the gospel than the late Gerhard Forde. None. If you read the totality of his work you'd see that.

My pastor was a student of Forde';s and preaches the law (hard) and the gospel (freely) each and every Sunday.

Jordan Cooper said...

Steve- I just pointed that line out because it surprised me. I didn't even explicitly criticize it.

Jordan Cooper said...

J. Dean- It is true that there is a difference in preaching here. We don't see preaching as a Bible study, as many Reformed preachers do, but as an act of proclamation. I never bring up Greek words for example in my sermons.

However, Lutheran pastors do tend to give historical context when necessary (I do at least. I can only speak for myself) and give some theological insight. However, the focus is proclamation, declaring Law and Gospel.

To put it more simply, for the Reformed preaching is often primarily impartation of knowledge and secondarily proclamation. For Lutherans, preaching is primarily the proclamation of Law and Gospel, and secondarily gives information about the text and theological insights.

Jordan Cooper said...

And to the anonymous poster- Have you read Bruce McCormack's work on Barth? He argues that the later Barth proposes that God's being is constituted by his act. He may be wrong, but that is where I get some of my interpretation of Barth. I have read 5 volumes of the Church Dogmatics, and so I certainly don't claim to be a Barth expert myself.

Steve Martin said...

It surprises me too, Jordan.

But then again, Luther himself said some un-Lutheran things.

Anonymous said...

I think what McCormack is saying about Barth prioritizing act over being is that the being of God himself is not a circumscribable essence or substance, but rather is defined by the action of God in the history of Jesus Christ. We do not come to know God as abstract divinity, but rather as the One who enters the world in the history of the man Jesus Christ as an act of revelation.

However, I think this is still different from what Forde is saying. In that same book, The Preached God, look at his essay on Karl Barth and the consequences of Lutheran Christology. That might be more illuminating than anything I'd write.

Fundamentally, I would say that McCormack is right about Barth (though I've not had the chance to read Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology as of yet - I assume that's the work you're referring to). The difference for Forde I think has to do with the purpose and telos of the dogmatic enterprise. For him, theology always begins and ends with proclamation, it never does anything but enjoin the theologian to engage in preaching. For Barth, it seems that dogmatics is more an end in itself. So even though he reaches the conclusion that God is defined primally by his act in the history of Jesus Christ, he still decides to give a dogmatic account within the framework of systematic theology. For Forde, theology only ever moves us towards proclaiming, to doing God to the hearers.

Maybe that isn't particularly enlightening. But I am enjoying our dialog thus far.

D Jerome Klotz said...

Hello Jordan. I recently discovered your blog through your newly published "The Righteousness of One." Good stuff.

I am currently a student at Luther Seminary in St. Paul (middler in the MDiv program). So I have had the chance to study a bit of Forde in the classes I have taken thus far (especially those taught by Dr. Steven Paulson).

You are correct that Forde rejects the ability of substance categories to do the work of theology, namely, driving toward the proclamation of Jesus Christ and him crucified for sinners.

For Forde, substantialist language is incapable of grappling with the central reality of the cross-event: God died in Christ. As Forde says in his book "Theology is for Proclamation":

"What was it the ancient Christology sought when it attributed divinity to Jesus? It was salvation from the death wrought by sin. In the language of being this tended to mean that Jesus survives death because he is union of the immortal and the mortal in which mortality is ultimately cancelled and overcome. We are then to be saved by participation in this triumphant immortality. The problem is that such salvation tends to dissolve the human, the body and its particularity, its story, both in Jesus and subsequently in us. Ironically it intends life, but deals a death from which there is finally no hope for "resurrection of the body." In a sense, it does anticipate the idea that we can be saved only through death, but it goes awry because the death inflicted is that imposed by abstraction. The body is shucked off. The abstraction, the immortal soul, survives" (101).

What Forde attempts to do is understand the use of such terms as ousia and essentia as "verbs made into nouns. They probably meant something like 'is-er,' or 'is-es,' instead of 'basic stuff' or what we today speak of as 'substance.' One's essence is one's 'is-er,' that which operates or drives one. The language sounds odd to us but probably approaches what they meant. To say that the Word confronting us in Jesus is one of substance with the Father meant they were of the same is-er, the same operation" (91).

Therefore Forde's Christology can be summarized in the following terse sentence: "Jesus is the One in whom God does God to us, the true human in whom God does God to us" (100). Forde recognizes that the move from ontology to event is "treacherous" and that a total move would "leave us with a Christ who is something less than God" (101). This is why Forde is careful to propose a move from ontology to event that is "not of the outright removal of the language of substance, but rather A SETTING OVER AGAINST IT A LANGUAGE THAT DRIVES TO THE ACT, THE PROCLAMATION ITSELF" (101, emphasis added).

According to Forde--and I fully agree with him--God is only God for us in the actual, concrete, doing of God to us in the word of promise: your sins are forgiven. The "I-to-you" proclamation of God's promise in Jesus Christ is not properly conceived within the categories of substance because it is a relational event: -I- forgive -YOU- all of your sins. It is the event of God's own self-giving, whereby the communicatio idiomatum finds its true telos: you the sinner. You truly die with Christ only if Christ truly put you to death on the cross in him--indeed, even AS HIM.

This is fundamentally what Forde is after: death and resurrection--not as an abstract "stuff" but as a concrete event, act, and doing of God.