Identity Markers: Why Some Axioms Persist

bergerPeter Berger has been an influential and important sociologist of religion for more than 50 years. He is presently Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology and Theology and Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. To review a list of his major publications is to note some of the most influential books in the sociology of religion over the last 50 years: The Noise of Solemn Assemblies (1961), The Sacred Canopy (1967), A Rumor of Angels (1969). I am not a sociologist but it is difficult to read much about the modern state of religion generally and Christianity specifically without encountering Berger or one of his students or his theories and analyses. It’s worth noting that, like many Americans (Berger emigrated to the USA and was naturalized as a young man), he is one of many expressing concern about the state of religious liberty.

In his most recent essay in The American Interest, “500 Years of Protestantism” Berger makes some observations about some of the unintended social consequences of the Reformation. As we approach the 500th Anniversary of the 95 Theses (October 31, 1517) there will be a barrage of these sorts of articles. I coined the term Calvinpalooza to describe the celebration of Calvin’s 500th birthday in 2009. We should expect the Lutherpalooza to be much larger. Herman Selderhuis founded Refo500 years ago already in preparation for the observance. In this essay, Berger offers something of a response to those who see the Reformation primarily as something for which we ought to be apologetic or repentant. He wants to note four of the secular consequences of the Reformation. He says takes these points as axiomatic and for them he relies upon the great Luther Renaissance figure Karl Holl (1866–1926), the great German polymath Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923), the mainline German Lutheran theologian Werner Elert (1885–1954), the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920),  and the Lutheran Reformation scholar and philosopher George Forell (1919–2011). The significance of these sources will appear shortly. The second of Berger’s four axioms says:

2. Different from both Catholicism and Calvinism, Lutheranism insisted on a sharp distinction of Law and Gospel. The original reason for the distinction was to make sure that Christianity was not understood as a new code of law. This, however, opened a space for the secular, both in the mind of individuals and in the social order. Implication: Natural science is emancipated from theological tutelage. Implication: There are no Christian institutions other the Church that preaches the Gospel; strictly speaking, there are no Christian states (Luther: “I would rather be ruled by a just Turk than by an unjust Christian”).

To be sure Berger does not use the word axiom but, judging by the way he characterizes them, axiom is a fair way to characterize how he views them. He says that they are “empirical,” sociological, objective, non-theological assessments (emphasis original). The four consequences he highlights, he says, enjoy “rather broad scholarly support.”

As Berger knows far better than I all human knowledge is situated. Berger’s is situated in the context of broad church, mainline, or liberal Lutheranism. We may fairly characterize it as anti-confessional. Of Lutheran confessionalism he writes,

“It so happens that I am a Lutheran myself (though not like those whose Lutheranism is expressed in a narrowly dogmatic form—I have described them as Southern Baptists with better music).

To be sure, the LCMS has its share of broadly evangelical types and, in that light, his description is amusing and, one guesses, calculated to irritate his confessional Lutheran brethren within the LCMS whose services today are more likely to seem Anglo-Catholic than Southern Baptist. One wonders when Berger last visited a confessional Lutheran seminary or worship service.

Nevertheless, and ironically, his essay reveals the very sort of Lutheran parochialism for which has patent disdain and axiom number 2 also says something about the culture and curation of knowledge. An axiom is something that is so basic that it is virtually beyond dispute. An axiom is something that is regarded as established or self-evident and upon which other arguments are built. It is beyond dispute that the Lutherans distinguished between law and gospel and until quite recently it was well-accepted among Reformed folk that the Reformed Churches also distinguish between law and gospel. Many Lutherans, however, are loath to acknowledge any point of genuine commonality between the Lutheran and the Reformed traditions. This reluctance has less to do with history than it does with sociology and identity formation. As I argued in “Calvin as Negative Boundary Marker in American Lutheran Self-Identity 1871–1934″ in Johan de Niet, Herman Paul, and Bart Wallet, ed., Sober, Strict, and Scriptural: Collective Memories of John Calvin, 1800–2000 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), an article that should have titled, “Calvin in the Hands of Angry Lutherans,” the evidence is very strong that the modern view of Calvin among confessional Lutherans has much to do with the need among the founders of the LCMS and others to distinguish themselves from Calvin.

The roots of Lutheran suspicion of Calvin and the Reformed run very deep. As I noted in this 2012 post, confessional Lutherans are committed to the doctrine that “the Reformed are, to put it delicately, dissemblers. In article 7 of the Solid Declaration, they confess:

Although some Sacramentarians strive to employ words that come as close as possible to the Augsburg Confession and the form and mode of speech in its [our] churches, and confess that in the Holy Supper the body of Christ is truly received by believers, still, when we insist that they state their meaning properly, sincerely, and clearly, they all declare themselves unanimously thus: that the true essential body and blood of Christ is absent from the consecrated bread and wine in the Holy Supper as far as the highest heaven is from the earth.

Such a confession is not a promising place from which to try to understand or to report fairly the facts about another tradition. This does not mean that Lutheran scholars are incapable of telling the truth about the Reformed tradition but it does present significant obstacles. I recall one case, in an essay written by an excellent, fair-minded Lutheran historian from whom I have learned much, in which he remarked in passing that an early Reformed writer did not believe in the power of the Word. What he meant to say, I think, is that, as Reformed theologian, that writer disagreed with the Lutherans about how the Spirit operates through the Word but that is not how that thought appeared in print. Confessional Reformed have done the same thing. We too have our own set of useful myths and identity markers. It is deeply held by many Reformed folk that Lutherans are antinomian, i.e., that they deny the third use of the law (tertius usus legis). That this is held to be true is remarkable in light of the fact that it was a Lutheran theologian (Philipp Melanchthon, 1497–1560), who gave us the expression “third use of the law” and that there is a section in the Solid Declaration , a Lutheran confession, teaching the third use explicitly.

In other words, it is difficult for us, when writing from one confessional tradition, where part of our identity is that we are “not they,” to get the other tradition right. Within those walls certain notions are passed along orally and in writing as axiomatic, even though, when subject to scrutiny, they are not sustainable. At least part of Berger’s claim #2 is one of those. Were Berger to read the sources and confessions of the Reformed tradition for himself he would quickly see the falsity of his premise (that the law/gospel distinction is a boundary-marker separating the Lutheran and Reformed traditions). Yet he, with many other Lutherans of various stripes, and many confessional Reformed people are convinced this is so. The empirical, historical evidence is overwhelmingly against Berger’s assumption. I will not rehearse it here again for the umpteenth time. Please follow the links provided.

Then there is the culture within which we learn. A good deal of what we think we know we learn orally. That learning becomes foundational to future learning and thinking but is not always revisited. I recall a conversation with a leading evangelical scholar between the office and lunch one day many years ago. He asked about my research. I told him that I was studying Reformed orthodoxy. He proceeded to tell me that he had learned “all about those guys” decades before and to repeat a series of bromides that I was in the process of debunking. I tried gently to gently that scholarship had moved on since he had been to seminary and he seemed surprised. How often in the intervening years had he repeated to his students those points about the “rationalism” of Reformed orthodoxy etc? For how many of them did his characterization become basic to their conception of what it must be to be Reformed? You might be surprised how often scholars, e.g., in casual conversation at a conference, say things about fields outside their own, that are false but nonetheless deeply held and formative.  People maintain such axioms perhaps because one’s career takes one in a different direction or because that axiomatic learning is useful for building and maintaining an identity or, more likely, or for a complex of reasons. Those uses, however, do not make such axioms true. It may be that the Reformed distinguished law and gospel differently in some respects from the way the Lutherans did it but the orthodox, confessional Reformed theologians and churches of the classical period through the 19th century would have been shocked by Berger’s claim.

Berger’s citation of authorities is telling. All are Lutheran and well-known. Most of them are quite controversial. Holl and Forell were Reformation scholars but as valuable as Holl’s work was it also made serious mistakes. See a survey of some of the issues here. I cannot comment on Forell’s work but point is that a reading of primary sources would show the falsity of Berger’s claim. None of the authorities to which he appeals apparently directed him to primary sources, at least not on this point, but his experience with them gave him confidence to regard and express these claims as axioms.

Finally, we might understand how a Lutheran scholar with little personal experience of the Reformed might hold and repeat unfounded claims as axiomatic but it is even more puzzling when those who populate a tradition repeat such axioms about themselves and about their tradition, as if they were true. At least part of the answer must be similar to the problems Berger faces: Ignorance of the sources and the need for a distinct identity (even though he is critical of Lutheran confessionalism). Too many Reformed folk accept Berger’s claim as axiomatic because they do not know their own tradition and they know a priori that we are not Lutherans and that this is one of the points on which we differ. They learned it in college or in seminary. It demonstrably false but axioms are evidently difficult to dislodge even from some of the greatest minds of our age.

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One comment

  1. Thank you for a very perceptive article on a generally perceptive social scientist. I have always thought that Confessional Lutherans and Confessional Reformed could have a very fruitful discussion starting from justification as a forensic act. I am also aware that there’s an exposition of the Decalogue to be found in Luther’s Small Catechism, which of course gives the lie to the idea that original Lutheranism is antinomian.

    Certainly the Marburg colloquy exposed different understandings of how Christ is present in the Supper; as well as issues about the communication of attributes. But I strongly suspect that if we could go back and talk to the founders of denominations like the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods, we would find that a certain amount of bitterness about the Church Union imposed by our Reformierte brother Friedrich Wilhelm III, Hohenzollern monarch of Prussia in 1817. While the Missouri and Wisconsin founders may have been Saxons, their denominations also picked up quite a few Lutheran immigrants from the Prussian lands, for whom the Kirchenverein must have been an extremely bitter memory.

    I think as well we need to recognize that theological liberalism in both traditions has done much to obscure what the two confessions actually teach–misleading scholars and lay people alike. Nor does it help that Max Weber’s pulling his “Protestant ethic” theory out of his hat in order to be the “anti-Marx” of social science has also left a very distorted view of Reformed belief behind him (yes, I’m a Calvinist, and I give at least two cheers for capitalism, but I comb Calvin, the Westminster Standards, and the Three Forms of Unity in Vain for the slightest suggestion that economic success is a sign of election).

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