Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Theology is Women's Work

The close intellectual partnership between Reinhold Niebuhr and his wife has been a subject of interest in recent years (For more on this, see this article by Rebekah Miles). By any measure, Ursula Keppel-Compton Niebuhr, who founded and headed the religion department at Barnard College, a stone's throw away from where Reinhold taught at Union Theological Seminary, was a remarkable scholar, teacher and leader in her own right.

As I've recently begun to read or re-read as much Reinhold Niebuhr stuff as I can get my hands upon, I ran across this remarkable "confession" in the intro to one of his later books. Note especially the part I put in bold typeface.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Man's Nature and His Communities (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965), pp. 28-29.

Writing these lines in my old age and being conscious of the spiritual and intellectual debt I owe my wife, not to speak of more precious debts incurred in decades of a happy marriage, I must close this autobiographical introduction with a confession. I do not know how much Ursula is responsible for modifying my various forms of provincialism and homiletical polemics. But I know she is responsible for much of my present viewpoint and that it would be difficult for either of us to mark any opinion expressed in these pages as the unique outlook of one or the other. This volume is the fruit of a lifetime of study in the field of social ethics and political philosophy, dealing with problems we have discussed together and in which we have had parallel interests. I know my wife is the more diligent student of biblical literature and of the relation of psychology to literature and social dynamics. I cannot, therefore, promise that this summary of my lifework is strictly my own. I will not elaborate an already too intimate, autobiographical detail of a happy marriage except to say that this volume is published under my name, and the joint authorship is not acknowledged except in this confession. I will leave the reader to judge whether male arrogance or complete mutuality is the cause of this solution.

So which is it, gentle readers, "complete mutuality" or "male arrogance"? At any rate, as with other texts I have published by Scribners, it's his name and mugshot on the front cover, not hers.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

…or, Something to keep you busy over the weekend…

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

It has been over a month, actually, since the last link post. There’s been lots happening these past weeks, some of which is reflected in the selection of links below. I should note, however, that I save lists of links and am usually running a bit behind the calendar by the time they get up here. So some of the most current events may be under-represented. I will try, however, to dig up some more recent “breaking news” sort of links.

As something of a random note, some of you may be interested in a bit of blogosphere press garnered recently by my book, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth.

In any case, here’s what’s been happening at DET:

And here are the rest of the links:


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Toward a Metaphysics of Solidarity: Rauschenbusch and the "Kingdom of Evil" (6)

The notion of solidarity is pivotal for Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. He strives diligently to articulate a "solidaristic" reinterpretation of the classic loci of Christian theology as a corrective (or replacement? It's debatable, I think) of a mainstream theological tradition he deemed too solipsistic and otherworldly for a modern age -- too focused, that is, on the salvation of individual human souls in some putative afterlife to the detriment of a concrete soci-political praxis of transformation in the here-and-now.

Nowadays when we hear about solidarity, we probably tend to think about specific struggles for economic, social and political justice, and such commitments certainly are a defining feature of his project to renew and transform theology and ethics. Certainly, for example, in his classic manifesto Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), Rauschenbusch draws upon early socialist critiques of industrial capitalism, arguing that socialism goes hand in hand with the emerging labor movement (406-407); he also cites with approval the claim by Karl Kautsky, the Marxist thinker and architect of German social democracy, that early Christianity before the time of Constantine was a laboratory for a form of communism that was pretty much the best form of social welfare on offer (133). Still, as Gary Dorrien has pointed out, Rauschenbusch is no thoroughgoing Marxist but remains a faithful heir to the liberal heritage in politics and religion who insists that real justice ensues only through egalitarian, democratic and non-violent means. (See my second post in this series.)

Rauschenbusch's 1907 text deals explicitly with the socio-economic upheaval and carnage wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and he seeks to retool historic, prophetic Christianity to meet the practical demands of this crisis. His late work, A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917), attempts to trace the implications of the emergent social Christianity for the reconstruction of Christian theology.

Rauschenbusch's Theology begins with an homage to the old-school theology of his friend and Rochester Seminary colleague Augustus Strong. The Social Gospel thinker even claims to have garnered significant lessons from Protestant orthodoxy. (Keep in mind that Rauschenbusch grew up in a pietist German-Lutheran household.) It's a curious dance: I wonder if he doesn't really personally believe too much of it but is, rather, trying to be charitable and politic. As I read through the later chapters of the book -- whether the topic is the doctrine of God, Christology, ecclesiology or eschatology -- it becomes clear that no major theological stone is to remain unturned. Like other followers of Albrecht Ritschl, Rauschenbusch eschews metaphysical "speculation" as a distraction from the proper work of theology: forging a discourse that empowers believer to begin building the Kingdom of God on earth, a progressive yet always asymptotic process.

The principal, recurrent objection to orthodox theology, apart from its ostensibly individualist account of sin and salvation, is that speculating, say, on the inner life of the Trinity or the topography of heaven or looking for Jesus to return on the clouds of heaven distracts believers from putting Jesus' prophetic Kingdom ethic into action, liberating real living humans and breaking the bonds of social oppression. (For my part, I take this critique seriously, but would suggest it is possible for a chastened orthodoxy to answer such charges. But that's a task for another day.)

My first read-through of Rauschebusch's chapters on sin and evil yield up some expected sources of his solidaristic doctrine: Kant's interpretation of the Kingdom of God as ethical commonwealth and Schleiermacher's notion of original sin as a defect in piety mediated through socio-cultural processes, both of which are filtered through Ritschl's synthesis. In Rauschenbusch's telling, the essence of sin is selfishness, mediated from individuals -- through a sinfulness that is hereditary in some unspecified way -- into the corrupt social institutions they construct. This liberal modernist trajectory takes a more radical turn in his embrace of a sociological perspective and an activist's commitment to a more just and equitable socio-economic order.

I'm finding, however, the matter does not end there; rather, there is another strand in his thought I've been trying to tease out. Might it be possible that in Rauschenbusch a certain form of speculative thought might sneak in the back door, after all, through a sort of empirically rooted ontology of communal personhood? As he explores the "super-personal forces of evil", he inserts this fascinating quote from a contemporary:

There are in the human world two profoundly different grades, or levels, of mental beings, -- namely, the beings that we usually call human individuals, and the beings that we call communities. -- Any highly organized community is as truly a human being as you and I are individually human. Only a community is not what we usually call and individual human being because its mind, if you attribute to it any one mind, is therefore not manifested through the expressive movements of such a single separate human organism. Yet there are reasons for attributing to a community a mind of its own. -- The communities are vastly more complex, and, in many ways, are also immeasurably more potent and enduring than are the individuals. Their mental life possesses, as [German philosopher Wilhelm] Wundt has pointed out, a psychology of its own, which can be systematically studied. Their mental existence is no mere creation of abstract thinking or of metaphor; and is no more a topic for mystical insight, or for phantastic speculation, than is the mental existence of an individual man (71).

With a little editing, one could almost imagine that the quote could have been written by the late Walter Wink, who has powerfully retrieved the biblical doctrine of the principalities and powers for our late-modern age. The quote, in fact, comes from The Problem of Christianity (1913), a late work by Josiah Royce, the preeminent philosopher of absolute idealism in the United States who sparred intellectually with his good friend William James. (DET is perhaps one blog where it's fairly safe to admit I've never read Royce for myself, but I hope to begin redressing this lack soon, as my encounter through secondary sources is stimulating some interesting ideas.)

Royce's ideas appear again later when Rauschenbusch examines the church as "the social factor of salvation" (chapter 12). Despite his outsider status as a secular philosopher, Royce, according to Rauschenbusch, has contributed decisively to the social gospel in his emphasis upon the church as the locus of salvation. Rather than viewing the community as being comprised of autonomous human subjects, Royce holds that communal life is the primal datum that constitutes individual subject. Such ideas make Royce seem contemporary for those of us who accept the sociology of knowledge and a socio-culturally framed anthropology. In his view the community is more concrete and more real (if I may put it that way) than the individual considered by herself. Again, note that the community has a life of its own which can be depicted in terms of a sort of collective consciousness. Rauschenbusch, paraphrasing Royce, writes:

The individual is saved, if at all, by membership in a community which has salvation. When a man becomes loyal to a community, he identifies himself with its life; he appropriates its past history and memories, its experiences and hopes, and absorbs its spirit and faith. This is the power which can lift him above his own level (126-127).

To be sure, one might imagine the Schleiermacher of The Christian Faith penning such lines; still, Royce as an absolute idealist goes farther than the father of modern theology in construing the community as constitutive not only of religious experience but of knowledge and being itself. Royce, I am learning, tempers his idealist orientation with critiques from the early pragmatists (e.g., C.S. Peirce) and develops a sophisticated account of the "Community of Interpretation" as constitutive of knowledge and reality itself, as the ultimate existing entity is an absolute, super-personal being that encompasses all finite reality. Consequently, he is critical of the "heroic individualism" animating the ethics of Emerson, Nietzsche and James -- particularly in the religious phenomenology of The Varieties of Religious Experience. From his earliest writings onward, Royce engages the philosophy of religion as central to his intellectual vision, and this includes extensive treatments of the foundations and expressions of Christian experience (Parker).

I don't want to make too much of Rauschenbusch's appropriations of Royce. The Baptist theologian also articulated criticisms of the Cambridge philosopher's account of religion, and I'm not proposing Royce's work, necessarily, is an overriding factor for social gospel theology. This is an exploratory blog post, not a journal article. What I do find striking in this material, though, is this confluence of various streams of late 19th and early 20th century thought into a new paradigm that reconstructs and reintegrates Christian thought and experience around critical social awareness and engaged commitment -- a paradigm, I'm finding, is very much alive still today.

Josiah Royce (1855–1916),
philosopher of the Social Gospel?

So there you have it. In Rauschenbusch, decades before liberation theology and the works of Wink and Stringfellow, we find an early gesture toward a theology of the principalities and powers that draws from the wells of bourgeois-liberal Protestant theology -- less muddy and silty a century ago, perhaps, than they seem today -- which has expanded and (at least somewhat) radicalized by a turn to praxis seeped in the emergent modern disciplines of social thought. To cap off these developments, an almost prophetic insight into how community is constitutive of human experience, drawn from the idealist communitarian philosophy of Royce, a thinker steeped in German post-Kantian thought (the very intellectual tradition, ironically, that is often held to offer the quintessential expressions of subjective individualism).

The crucial issue here is this emergent awareness that social realities have an integrity -- and a deformity -- that have a life of their own, a reality that can be simply reduced to the actions and intentions of individuals. The super-personal forces of individual selfishness ramify collectively into corrupt and unjust social structures that coalesce in the "Kingdom of Evil" -- a coalition of forces so powerful that only the power of self-giving love, which the Gospels name as the "Kingdom of God" can withstand, defeat and transform it. These visions of social sin and salvation will reemerge, chastened and baptized by revolutionary fire, in Reinhold Niebuhr's classic Moral Man and Immoral Society and they will echo throughout progressive movements in theological ethics up until our own day. I'm not sure how well Rauschenbusch understood the potentially radical implications of the ideas he unleashed here, but it certainly seems to me that his work is worth a second look.

This post ends my series on Rauschenbusch. Thanks for reading.

Works cited:

Parker, Kelly A., "Josiah Royce", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = . TRAVIS, PLEASE LINK.

Rauschenbusch, Walter, A Theology for the Social Gospel (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1917).

-----, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: Macmillan, 1907).


Thursday, August 14, 2014

What does it mean to say “Jesus is Lord”? Paul M. van Buren on Christianity and Nationalism

I’ve been on a kick about reading theology from about 50 or 60 years ago. (Gollwitzer is likely to blame for this . . . ) One nice consequence of this is that I can get my reading materials used for a couple dollars + shipping. But I digress . . .

I’ve posted about Paul M. van Buren at DET before, so regular readers should be at least passingly familiar with him. The short version is that he was the teacher of my teacher, Ellen Charry, and his teacher was Karl Barth (whose name regular readers may perhaps also recognize).

In any case, I was reading van Buren this morning and the following jumped out at me.

Paul M. van Buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (MacMillan, 1963), 141–42.
The man who says, “Jesus is Lord,” is saying that the history of Jesus and of what happened on Easter has exercised a liberating effect upon him, and that he has been so grasped by it that it has become the historical norm of his perspective upon life. His confession is a notification of this perspective and a recommendation to his listener to see Jesus, the world, and himself in this same way and to act accordingly. It is an important perspective and it can be distinguished from other points of view. We may illustrate the difference by comparing the perspective of Christian faith and the point of view of the man whose perspective upon life is founded on the life of his nation. The nationalist understands himself first of all as a patriot and he defines his freedom in the context of loyalty to his country. He can understand the Gospel only as making a relative claim at most. He may allow that there is some freedom to be found in Jesus and in loyalty to him, but it is secondary to his freedom as a citizen. For the Christian, however, the situation will be reversed. His assertion, “Jesus is Lord,” expresses the fact that Jesus has become his point of orientation, with the consequence that he is freed from acknowledging final loyalty to his nation, family, church, or any other person and is liberated for service to these other centers of relative loyalty. Because he sees not only his own history but the history of all men in the light of the one history of Jesus of Nazareth and Easter, he will not rest content when his nation, family, or church seek to live only for themselves; he will try to set them in the service of others.
Van Buren has a knack for putting his finger on the deep, festering cancers at the heart of Christianity in North America – the things that should be painfully obvious to us today (even if they are not painfully obvious to many of “us”), but which van Buren demonstrates incredible prescience in identifying 60 or so years ago . . .


Wednesday, August 06, 2014

To my deconverted friend – A guest post by Collin Pae Cornell

[Ed. note: Collin Pae Cornell writes the always interesting blog Kaleidobible, as well as semi-regular guest posts here at DET.]

The story of your faith – and non-faith – is, of course, uniquely your own.

Yet some parts of your experience are widely shared. You were raised in the American South. Christianity, in all of its predictable Southern dimensions – hokey roadside signage, Sunday finery, hollering preachers, a buttery layer of civil religion – was, to you as to many, as familiar as family. You along with thousands of other evangelical children across the country – like me – opted to attend a Christian undergraduate. And as with many of us, much of your life after graduation has consisted, in one way or another, of making sense out of that decision and its legacy.

Other chapters of your life are less common. That you along with numerous high-school friends and acquaintances would simultaneously have renounced various addictions and “made a personal decision of faith” is surprising, unlikely. Some of your story is just thoroughly you. You were always fascinated by the workings of things. By the human body and mind. You thrilled at the anatomy classes you took in college, dreamt of the medical profession. You devoured neuroscience and majored in psychology. By the movement of stars, such that you became an avid amateur astronomer. You are an explorer and a scientist.

I’m not sure to what extent others would recognize themselves in your story of deconversion. There are many roads to that very gradual and very personal choice. I have friends who have left Christianity because they found it inhospitable to persons of their (minority) sexual orientation. I have friends who have left Christianity because real humans punctured the caricatures they had inherited – a sincerely believing, normal Muslim friend could not remain for them an unsaved and dangerous Other – and upset their coordinates for the world. I have friends who have left Christianity because it simply no longer compelled them; God and salvation and all the rest melted away into abstraction.

Your decision to leave arose out of a prolonged sense of suffocation. The Christianity you knew set taut boundaries for what was thinkable to a faithful person. Our undergraduate did not teach us how to open-endedly entertain questions, but how to answer them orthodoxly; how to face the world as a foe to be feared and outsmarted rather than as a resource to be listened to and learned from. This meant that your own person became a site of conflict. The fascinated explorer and the beleaguered orthodox believer competed for mastery, seesawed through several unsustainable truces. Wonder and curiosity motivated the explorer. Duty and fear – familiarity and friendship – motivated the believer.

The existence of God stands close to the core of the orthodox universe you strove to uphold. But as you explored, God became progressively less and less necessary. You were awed at the Big Bang, you were impressed by the elegance of evolutionary science, you saw the sensibility in psychoanalytic explanations of religion. Neither cosmology nor human origins nor even the phenomena of religion itself needed God anymore. God was superfluous for comprehending the workings of things.[1] So your belief in God hung only by the thread of obligation. You had to believe in God to stay Christian. But belief in God only retarded – cloyed – the joy of discovery. Eventually, understandably, the aliveness you felt in learning must outweigh and displace dutiful theism.

Deconverting was making peace for you. It left you clean, clear, free to engage the world with a wonderful sense of unbounded possibility. I told you honestly that I am happy for you in that. I, too, am an explorer. I, too, hate the kind of faith that makes people turn away from what is beautiful and compelling, for fear that it will taint them. I want you to get that out of your system.

But I am a Christian; and what does sadden me is that Jesus had to get pulled down too, sucked into the ruin of your theism.

Maybe that sounds odd. The idea that devotion to Jesus could survive the decomposition of God. As a matter of fact, I have found in my wanderings many a place where poignancy for Jesus subsists apart from subscription to his all-powerful sponsor. And sometimes the appreciation expressed in such quarters is the more perceptive, because unencumbered by a thousand years’ intellection reconciling an executed criminal with the creator and guarantor of cosmic order. I feel a kinship with those who recognize the disturbing allure of this crucified innocent – even if they should fail to connect him to almighty God. Because for me, Jesus is more ultimate. I take it that this is what it means to say “Jesus is Lord”: not that the contents of “Lord” (regnant, strong) fill up what “Jesus” means, but that the contents of “Jesus” (servile, weak) reshape what “Lord” entails.

If this is a true insight, then the path of your exploring that led away from God could just as well have taken you towards Golgotha. You realized, with sadness, that God is dispensable, and eventually dismissed him wholesale. But what if God had determined to be just that? Dispensable. Dismissible. Indeed laughable, to all passers-by outside the gates of Jerusalem.

In that case, your acknowledgement of God’s superfluity need not have been a concession to the scientific worldview, but a “genuinely theological discovery.”[2] The God whom you once called on to explain cosmology, human origins, or religion was a God of power: a God who acts effectually to accomplish his design. In other words, a Lord. To be sure, a more successful executor than the lords we know from human government or business, but nonetheless, cut from the same cloth. This God may be loving, but that quality is additional to his sheer potency.

By contrast, the Lord of the cross is not effectual, but weak, even to death. Loving is no addendum to his mission; it is its heart. He does not compensate for gaps in weak human knowledge with divine strength, but poses God’s helplessness to all human wisdom. Far from being necessary for understanding the workings of the world, he hangs – gratuitous.

I wish that this, the gratuity of God, might have been a start for you, even as it must be an end.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion…for the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible, eliminated” (Letters and Papers from Prison [S.C.M. Press edition, Great Britain: Fontana Books, 1953], 164). See also Richard Bube, “Man Come of Age: Bonhoeffer’s Response to the God-of-the-Gaps,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 14.4 (1971), 203-220.

[2] Eberhard Jüngel. God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute Between Theism and Atheism. Trans. Darrell Guder (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983 [German orig. Gott als Geheimnis der Welt, pub. 1977]), 22, 23.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 1.11–14

Malachi 1.11–14

[11] “My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty. [12] “But you profane it by saying, ‘The Lord’s table is defiled,’ and, ‘Its food is contemptible.’ [13] And you say, ‘What a burden!’ and you sniff at it contemptuously,” says the Lord Almighty. “When you bring injured, lame or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” says the Lord. [14] “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the Lord Almighty, “and my name is to be feared among the nations.”


COMMENTARY: This has been a hard passage to work through with Calvin, and I feel somewhat at a loss for words. Yes, yes, gentle readers, it can happen even to us theo-bloggers. The precipitating factor here is the big “S” – supercessionism. It has always been a peculiar strength of the Reformed tradition that they read, preach, and theologize in, with, and from the Old Testament. But it has also always been a particular danger of the Reformed tradition to adopt crude ways of speaking about the relationship between the Jewish and Gentile forms of God’s covenant community. In particular, they can too easily and reflexively adopt the admittedly widespread view that the Gentile form simply replaces the Jewish form given the latter’s alleged unfaithfulness. This logic has been part of the Christian story for a long time, and is at least partially responsible for the history of Christian persecution of Jews which (hopefully) reached its high water mark in the Holocaust / Shoah.

So all that really puts me off my feed here. You’ll see it come out a bit in the prayer below. So, acknowledging that it is there and that it is a problem, I now intend to ignore it and discuss a couple of other points that Calvin brings out.


I am increasingly convinced that much of Calvin’s genius lies in his sensitivity to rhetoric. This is a fruit of his humanistic training, of course. We see this at work in the present passage dealing with verse 11. What does it mean that incense and offerings will be made to God in every place? Rather than reading this flatfootedly as indicating that a form of worship of God involving incense and sacrifices will spread over the whole world, which Calvin is predisposed to view unfavorably due to his historical context, he takes a more sophisticated line and recognizes that Malachi here “adopts a mode of speaking common in Scripture” that involves “metaphorical” speech (502). In other words, the important thing being communicated is not what form this true worship will or will not take, but that it will in fact be true worship: “This passage contains nothing else than that the time would come when the pure and spiritual worship of God would prevail in all places.” In paying attention to the rhetorical force of the passage, focusing on the point being communicated rather than getting hung up on precisely how it is communicated, Calvin stands within the broadest stream of the Christian tradition’s practice of scriptural interpretation.

Sign & Reality

One of the recurring concerns in this first chapter of Malachi is how the stipulated worship of God has deteriorated, but in performance and intention. One question that Calvin addresses is why proper performance is so important if true worship of God is a matter of spirit. “Hypocrisy” was a major charge that the Reformation hurled at the Roman church of the time, charging them with being more concerned with performance than intention. The danger Calvin faced was going too far in the other direction, such that regulated performance fell by the wayside in favor of a spontaneous expression of intention. In other words, why should folk still care about keeping their worship orderly and following the lead of the pastors in this regard when externals don’t matter? Calvin’s answer:

The first piece is that one ought to worship the right way – i.e., the way God tells you to – or not at all. So “the basis of true religion is to know how he is to be worshiped by us” (500). Now, Calvin admits that the external forms are not the essence of worship. As he says, “religion, I allow, does not consist in these things” (506). But it does not exclude them either. The second piece of his argument is that the externals are necessary insofar as they are commanded by God. You have to worship God in the way God wants to be worshiped, and not doing so betrays such a one’s deep impiety. “The contempt then of the signs openly showed not only the negligence of the people, but also their contempt of all religion.”


(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that since thou dost not keep us at this day under the shadows of the law, by which thou didst train up the race of Abraham, but invitest us to a service far more excellent, even to consecrate ourselves, body and soul, as victims to thee, and to offer not only ourselves, but also sacrifices of praise and of prayer, as thou hast consecrated all the duties of religion which thou requires from us, through Christ thy sion,—O grant, that we may seek true purity, and labour to render, by a real sincerity of heart, our services approved by thee, and so reverently profess and call upon thy name, that really fulfilled in us may that be which thou has declared by thy Prophet—that thy name shall be magnified and celebrated through the whole world, as it was truly made known to us in the person of thine only-begotten Son.—Amen.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Story of the Wittenberg Concord – Kittelson on Luther

I mentioned previously that I had read this book and found some of its material interesting enough to share with you, gentle readers.

This piece is Kittelson’s description of how the Wittenberg Concord, as they say, went down. I found it to be a rather interesting story, and one that I had not heard before in anything like this much detail. So bear with me as this is going to be long. But you just might learn something like I did. The setting is Spring 1536.

James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career (Fortress, 2003), 267–68.
Unpredictably, Luther also showed himself willing to overlook, at least for the moment, one misstep on the part of the Strasbourg pastors. In February Bucer and Capito participated in writing a confession for the Baslers in which they minimized the physical presence of Christ in the bread and the wine. Perhaps unaware of what had transpired, Luther still invited them and other south German theologians to a meeting at Eisenach on May 14. There they could discuss whatever differences remained.

In the interim, Luther’s suspicions had returned. When the southerners arrived at Eisenach, there was no Luther. Days passed, and he had still not arrived. They traveled further east and there received a message from Luther in which the reformer pleaded yet another outbreak of illness and asked them to meet him not far beyond Leipzig. Bucer preempted these delays. He replied that the entire party would come to Wittenberg.

When they arrived, they learned that for unexplained reasons Luther would not meet with them. But then early the next morning they were suddenly called into his presence. Equally suddenly, the meeting was adjourned until mid-afternoon. Finally Bucer had a chance to explain at length all he had done in the last years for the sake of concord. Luther still appeared to be filled with suspicion. He replied by declaring that Bucer and Capito had to condemn Zwingli’s teachings explicitly and declare their belief in the real presence without regard to the communicants’ faith or lack of faith. After listening to a few words in response, Luther said that he felt faint and had to leave so that he could rest.

Skilled debater that he was, Luther had exposed the sorest point between them. With great care, Bucer and Capito had covered over the issue of what a person without faith received in the Lord’s Supper. Did the real presence of Christ’s body and blood depend on the communicant’s disposition? To an unbeliever, were the elements merely bread and wine? How was Paul’s declaration that whoever ate and drank in an “unworthy manner” brought “judgment on himself” to be understood? True to his reading of the gospel, Luther held that one who believed the words of Christ’s institution was a Christian. In this passage, therefore, the unfaithful and the unworthy were identical, and they received Christ’s body and blood, although they did so to their judgment. By the same token, for Bucer and Capito it remained unthinkable that bread and wine could—in and of themselves, with only the Words of Institution and without faith—be the body and blood of Christ.

Luther’s last demand crushed the delegation from south Germany. They could freedly deny that they had ever taught as Zwingli had done, or at least like the Zwingli of the Ratio Fidei that had been circulated at the Diet of Augsburg. But granting that infidels could eat the body of Christ with their teeth and drink his blood with their tongues was another matter. What the south Germans did not know was that Luther himself was unable to sleep that night.

The next afternoon, Bucer replied. He and his colleagues had never taught that the bread and the wine were mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood. To the extent that Zwingli had done so, he was in error. As to the second demand, Bucer declared that all who came to the Lord’s Supper were among the unworthy, and that all (even those without a living faith) were offered the body and blood of Christ in the Supper.

Luther asked if each of the south Germans was in agreement with Bucer’s confession. When they said they were, he turned to his colleagues from Wittenberg and asked if they were satisfied. They talked a little, but nodded their agreement. Luther asked Bucer, Capito, and the others once again if they truly believed what Bucer had said. They said they did. Abruptly, Luther radiated joy and kindness. He declared that they were all in concord and brothers in Christ.

Bucer and Capito wept. Luther had gone an uncharacteristic extra step. He had passed over the question of what the unworthy received in the Lord’s Supper and the problem of the precise relationship between “faith” and “worthiness.” For the sake of unity, he had contented himself with what Bucer offered.