Werner Elert

Book Review: Die Erlanger Theologie

Editor's Note: As an extra for the Eastertide 2013 issue of LOGIA, we are posting this book review from the Eastertide 1997 edition of LOGIA. If you'd like to purchase a copy of all the back issues of LOGIA, please click here. Die Erlanger Theologie (no. 67 in Einzelarbeiten aus der Kirchengeschichte Bayerns). By Karlmann Beyschlag. Erlangen: Martin-Luther-Verlag with the Verein für bayerische Kirchengeschichte, 1993. 295 pages.

Since the nineteenth century, the theological faculty at the University of Erlangen has been the citadel of confessional Lutheranism. In the 1940s and 1950s, students from America and other foreign countries streamed to Erlangen, attracted by the world theological leadership of its university.

But after the deaths of Elert and Althaus, a reaction set in the theological faculty as well as in the Lutheran churches of Germany. The teachings of Karl Barth, the Barmen Declaration, and the “Confessing Church” began to suppress confessional Lutheranism. Principles of the Union Church, including intercommunion and open communion (Leuenberg Concord), were accepted by the Lutheran churches. A much less talented group of theologians replaced the great ones at Erlangen. Several of these sought notoriety by denouncing Elert and Althaus. In 1971, they succeeded in having the traditional subscription of the Lutheran Book of Concord abolished at Erlangen. Since then, Erlangen has been the launching pad for attacks upon the Lutheran Church and its symbolic books. The special target of their assaults has been the Lutheran distinction of law and gospel and the doctrine of the two realms.

The significance of this new book is that Karlmann Beyschlag, a pupil of Elert and Althaus, has written both a brilliant historical work and a strong defense against many falsehoods that have been leveled against these stalwart Lutherans.

The author begins by delineating the background of Erlangen theology, stemming from the Awakening Movement of the nineteenth century. Important impulses came from Christian Krafft, Carl von Raumer, and the earlier thinker Johann Georg Hamann. He then gives sketches of the most important theologians at Erlangen.

First is Adolf von Harleß (1806–79), who was both an important scholar and a powerful church leader. As theologian he was the founder of Erlangen theology and one of its most important writers; as churchman and friend of Löhe he was able to separate the Lutheran and Reformed parts of the Protestant state church and to create a confessional Lutheran church in Bavaria (33–57). Next, Beyschlag discusses the greatest Erlangen theologian of the nineteenth century, Johann Christian Konrad von Hofmann (1810–77), giving a brilliant presentation of his complicated thought. Hofmann made a deep impression upon several Americans, including the Dubuque theologian Johann Michael Reu.

Within the scope of this theology came the “Erlangen School,” a movement that built upon the theologian’s personal experience of salvation and emphasized the Lutheran Confessions. Beginning with Harleß and explicated through Höfling, Hofmann, Thomasius, Delitzsch, Theodosius Harnack, von Zezschwitz, Schmid, and Frank, the movement spread from Erlangen to the universities of Leipzig, Rostock, Greifswald, and Dorpat. The “Erlangen School” as a specific theological movement ended with the death of Frank in 1894, but another important theological program was to appear at Erlangen in the twentieth century, building upon the earlier movement.

In a separate chapter, Beyschlag characterizes a group of church historians at the university who did not really belong to the “Erlangen School” movement, especially Theodor Zahn, Albert Hauck, and Reinhold Seeberg. He then discusses three other important historians: Gustav Plitt, Theodore Kolde, and Karl Schornbaum.

In chapter 7 he presents “the second blossoming of Erlangen theology” (143–203). This movement began with the criticism of the old “Erlangen School” by a pupil of Frank, Ludwig Ihmels. Without rejecting the importance of the religious certainty of the theologian, Ihmels warned that not human experience but divine revelation must be the true basis of a sound theology (143–145). Beyschlag names three great men in the rebirth of Erlangen theology: Otto Procksch, Werner Elert, and Paul Althaus.

The Old Testament scholar Procksch, who was a very strong teacher as well as writer, renewed Hofmann’s conception of Heilsgeschichte. Unfortunately, Procksch’s important theology of the Old Testament was not published until after his death (1950), so that it was already superseded by the fine work of his pupil Walter Eichrodt (148). Procksch is remembered equally for his firm confessional Lutheranism and for his determined stand against the Nazi movement.

Beyschlag ranks Elert and Hofmann as the two most important Erlangen scholars in the past two centuries. He describes Elert as “the totally unclerical man who, in his outward appearance, looked more like a general in civilian clothing than a theologian” (151). Elert, “like all intellectual giants,” was “an uncommonly complicated character, who was just as easily offended as he was polemically feared” (151–152). He cites the remark of Trillhaas: “Elert had not a single friend with whom he had not at least once had a sturdy fight” (151).

Elert’s early writings were historical and systematic, and were largely devoted to Luther, Melanchthon, the Lutheran Confessions, and subsequent developments in the history of theology. In some way or other, the distinction of law and gospel took an important place in all these writings. ((A balanced evaluation of Elert appears in the new monograph by the Icelander Sigurjon Arni Eyjolfsson, Rechtfertigung und Schöpfung in der Theologie Werner Elerts, no. 10 in new series of Arbeiten zur Geschichte und Theologie des Luthertums (Hannover: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1994).)) After 1945 he turned increasingly toward his long-projected history of dogma; however, except for the volume on church fellowship and several important essays, this work lay uncompleted at his death, after which Wilhelm Maurer and Elisabeth Bergsträßer edited an additional volume from the materials that he had left. ((Since Werner Elert is of special interest to American readers, we present here his principal writings. The first major work of Werner Elert, written while he was still head of the Old Lutheran seminary in Breslau, appeared in 1921 under the title Der Kampf um das Christentum; this was an investigation and evaluation of recent philosophy and apologetics, mainly of the nineteenth century. In 1924 appeared the first edition of his Die Lehre des Luthertums im Abriß, which was translated and published by Charles M. Jacobs under the title An Outline of Christian Doctrine, 1927; the second German edition, 1926, was greatly revised and enlarged. Elert’s chief work was his two-volume Morphologie des Luthertums, 1931, of which volume 1 was translated by Walter A. Hansen and published by Concordia Publishing House as The Structure of Lutheranism, 1962. The first edition of his dogmatics, Der christliche Glaube, appeared in 1940; parts of this have been published in English by Concordia Publishing House. His Das christliche Ethos followed in 1949 and was translated and published as The Christian Ethos by Carl Schindler, 1957. The last work that he prepared for publication was Abendmahl und Kirchengemeinschaft in der alten Kirche, hauptsächlich des Ostens, 1954, translated by Norman E. Nagel and published by Concordia Publishing House under the title Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries. This book interprets communio sanctorum in the Apostles’ Creed as a neuter, i.e., as the participation in the sacraments, and it presents a spirited case for closed communion. An important essay by Elert, Gesetz und Evangelium, 1948, was translated and published by Edward H. Schroeder as Law and Gospel, 1967. Posthumously appeared Der Ausgang der altkirchlichen Christologie, 1957, edited by Maurer and Bergsträßer.)) Elert had a revolutionary concept: whereas previous historians had traced the “beginnings” of a dogma, proceeding chronologically from an early date and working downward, Elert proposed starting with the outgoings or conclusion of a churchly dogma, tracing it back toward its beginnings. Thereby Harnack’s speculations that the development of dogma was the hellenization of Christianity could be refuted by showing instead that the completed dogma represented the dehellenisation of Christian doctrine (176–177).

Before taking up Althaus, Beyschlag briefly characterizes some other important men on the faculty: the Old Testament scholar and widely-respected Rechor magnificus Friedrich Baumgärtel, the church historian and Luther scholar Hans Preuß, the “high Lutheran” church historian Hermann Sasse, the Reformation scholar Wilhelm Maurer, the multi-faceted historian and Luther scholar Walter von Loewenich, the art historian Fritz Fichtner, and the practical theologian Eduard Steinwand, who was also important for his work in the eastern churches (178–181).

Beyschlag gives a thorough presentation on the theology and personality of Paul Althaus (182–203). Althaus taught systematic theology, New Testament, and the theology of Luther. ((The most important works of Althaus are as follows: Die Prinzipien der deutschen reformierten Dogmatik im Zeitalter der aristotelischen Scholastik, 1914. Die letzten Dinge. Lehrbuch der Eschatologie, 1922. Grundriß der Ethik, 1931; 2nd ed., 1953. Die christliche Wahrheit. Lehrbuch der Dogmatik 1947; 3rd ed. 1952. Die Theologie Martin Luthers, 1962. Translation by Robert C. Schultz, The Theology of Martin Luther, 1966. Die Ethik Martin Luthers, 1965. Translation by Robert C. Schultz, The Ethics of Martin Luther, 1972. Althaus also edited a commentary, Das Neue Testament Deutsch, 12 vols., for which he wrote Der Brief an die Römer, 1936; 7th ed. 1953. An important part of his work is also reflected in the volumes of collected sermons which he delivered as University Preacher at Erlangen.)) His systematic theology was characterized by his emphasis upon the First Article (Althaus held “a theology of Creation,” 190–194), a theology marked by the contrast between the original revelation (Ur-Offenbarung) and the revelation of salvation (Heilsoffenbarung), “in which the creator will of God included almightily the revelation of salvation” (191). In the discipline of ethics, this theological concept was expressed in a “theology of orders” (Theologie der Ordnungen). These orders were a part of God’s creation: marriage, family, community, government, and cultural development (199). Althaus did not spare criticism of the Nazis. Referring to Althaus’s Theologie der Ordnungen, 1935, Beyschlag cites Althaus: “Also in the Third Reich, our critical ethics of orders cannot resign and rest at ease,” and then Beyschlag adds: “There now follows a public catalog of vices which is so close to reality that one at least wonders that the book was not immediately forbidden. For under this ‘critical ethics’ falls not only the ‘autonomous legality’ of the state and the economy, but also the idolatry of folk, race, destruction of law, and also eugenics, euthanasia, ‘the destruction of unworthy life,’ etc.” (201). In his “creation theology,” Althaus came into fundamental conflict with Karl Barth. Since the death of Althaus, the followers of Barth, of the old Bekennende Kirche, and of the Union Church have leashed a merciless attack upon both Althaus and Elert for rejecting the Barmen Declaration. ((An example is the attack by Arthur C. Cochrane, a Presbyterian professor of theology at a Lutheran seminary, The Church’s Confession under Hitler (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), in which he attacks confessional Lutheranism en masse and takes the intolerant position that only Reformed theology is allowable. He feels that everyone must accept the theology of Barth and the Barmen Declaration. More moderate are the criticisms of Robert P. Ericksen, Theologians under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus and Emanuel Hirsch (New Haven: Yale, 1985). Totally irresponsible and intellectually weak are the attacks on Elert and Althaus by the Erlangen professor Berndt Hamm, “Schuld und Verstrickung der Kirche. Voruberlequngen zu einer Darstellung der Erlanger Theologie in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus,” in Kirche und Nationalsozialismus, ed. Wolfgang Stegemann (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1990), 11–55. Both Ericksen and Hamm lack what American historians call “a historical frame of reference”; instead, they judge and condemn past scholars on the basis of notions contemporary with our time. Ericksen, however, does not write with the malicious invective found in Hamm.))

In view of the attacks upon Elert and Althaus and the allegations that they supported Hitler and National Socialism, Beyschlag presents an excursus, “The Erlangen faculty and the Kirchenkampf ” (160–170). He specifically deals with their statement on the “Aryan Paragraph” and the “Ansbach Resolution” and shows that the former actually protected Jews and that the latter was leveled against the German Christians as well as the Barmen Declaration. He points out that during the long period in which he was dean of the theological faculty (1935–1943), Elert managed to stave off attempts of a Nazi takeover, that he protected professors and students alike from the state, and that Erlangen remained almost the only “intact” theological faculty under National Socialism. In Appendix 8, Beyschlag reprints Elert’s “Report regarding the deanship of the theological faculty of Erlangen 1935–43” (266–286). He wonders why this Report, which obviously clears Elert’s reputation, was officially suppressed for many years. He points out that, in spite of severe pressure over many years that as theological dean he must join the Nazi party or at least the German Christian Movement, Elert stubbornly refused throughout; that not a single Nazi was able to become a regular professor of theology at Erlangen; that Elert as dean and at considerable personal risk protected 40 or 50 students (including Jews) who had been denounced before the Gestapo (161–162; see also 279).

Beyschlag’s book is important for American readers for two reasons. (1) This book is an excellent resource for learning about the confessional Lutheran theology of Erlangen that dominated scholarship in Germany the past 150 years, a subject about which many younger theologians in America are not well informed. (2) Confessional Lutheranism, which has seriously declined since the death of Elert (a decline brought on partly by the dominance of Karl Barth, the Barmen Declaration, and the Union churches, with their attacks upon the Lutheran distinction of law and gospel), receives an important defense in Beyschlag. This book needs to be widely read in America. It is to be hoped that it will be made available in an English translation.


Lowell C. Green

State University of New York at Buffalo

Buffalo, New York


Faithful before God and Man

The recent storm of controversy over Rev. Robert Morris’ apology for participation in the Newtown, CT worship service reveals several common misunderstandings. If reporters had looked more closely into the events, the letter from Rev. Robert Morris and the letter from Pres. Matthew Harrison both make it very clear that no “censure” or “reprimand” was given, but the apology was freely offered and accepted. Other misunderstandings come from a difficult tension that arises during times of tragedy, such as the shootings in Newtown, CT. Church leaders must struggle to 1) be faithful before God and 2) faithful to those with whom they share a confession. Here's an essay from Werner Elert that reflects on some of these truths below. By way of introduction to this essay from Werner Elert, Prof John T. Pless comments:

"Robert Preus once described Werner Elert (1895–1954) as one of the 'the three most significant confessional Lutheran theologians of our century.' (( see Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Volume I by Hermann Sasse, p xiii)) Like Sasse, Elert was no sectarian but widely engaged in ecumenical conversation. His ecumenical engagement was fueled by his recognition that truth must be confessed and error rejected. In 1927, Elert gave this short essay at a meeting of the World Conference in Lausanne. It was published in Faith and Order: Proceedings of the World Conference, August 3–21, 1927, 1927, edited by H.N. Bate (New York: George H. Doran, 1927), 13–18. There is much in this essay that is still timely nearly 90 years later. Especially note the Erlangen theologian’s accent on the confession of the truth necessitating a rejection of error. Timely, indeed, in light of defenses being offered for the Newtown prayer vigil."


University of Erlangen (Lutheran)


“He that is of the truth heareth my voice," saith the Lord. If we are of the truth we follow where He calls; and He calls us to unity. So following, we are at one in Christ, and—which is the same thing—we are one in the Truth, for Christ called Himself the truth. Conversely, if we are not one in the truth, we are not at one in Christ. Therefore, all who seek for union in Christ must examine themselves whether they are in the truth. Truth indeed is not a thing which we can possess like a book which may be opened or closed at will. We can possess truth only in an act of recognition, which no wilfulness of our own can affect. To recognise truth is to feel its compulsion; and this yielding to the compulsion of truth is faith. Faith is, indeed, more than this: in faith we receive our individual deliverance, the forgiveness of sins. Only in virtue of this faith are we members of the one Holy Catholic Church. But what binds Christians into a oneness that transcends individuality is the objective force of that truth in which we, through faith, come to have a share.

Since faith and truth are so closely linked, whenever truth is obscured faith is imperilled, and with it our membership of the Church of Christ is imperilled also. We must, therefore, allow ourselves no communion with error: truth and error can enter into no concordat. When truth is involved there must be no compromise. The early Councils were right in appending a rejection of error to the positive clauses in which they expressed and acknowledged the truth. Not infrequently, perhaps, they failed to distinguish rightly between the true and the false: still, they did believe in truth, even though they discerned it only in part. They knew that truth is no child of this world: that truth betokens its presence, as Kierkegaard said, by a challenge. There can be no recognition, no confession of truth without a recognition and rejection of error. To say this is not to demand a heresy hunt. We love those who err, as our Lord and Master loved them. But unless we would deny the truth, we must combat their errors.

The task laid upon the Church to discern between the true and the false becomes more complicated as the centuries pass on. History evolves ever new forms of error which seek to disguise themselves in the luminous garb of truth. This is a process which we are unable to reverse, nor can we silently evade the problems which it creates. As soon as they are asked, the questions raised by the subjects of this Conference demand to be answered. It is, therefore, our desire that this Conference, seeking the unity of Christendom, may find it in the truth, and that it may express the truth in plain terms, making no compromise with error.


The true cannot be discerned from the false until both are expressed. Wherever the need has been felt to make a common acknowledgment of truth as a basis of unity, it has always been found possible in the Church of Christ to discover terms which gave undisguised expression to that truth. This is the meaning and origin of the Creeds, Confessions and dogmas which are held to be valid, universally or locally, in Christendom. Our convictions, indeed, do not permit us to admit the existence of laws of belief. Councils cannot determine what must be believed: they can only establish what is believed.

I ask leave now to speak from the standpoint of the Church to which I myself belong: believing that the sense in which I declare my adhesion to the idea of this Conference is of cardinal importance.

It is true that the special Confessions of the particular Churches are in one sense divisive. But they did not create the divisions which they express: these already existed. Nor have they been merely divisive. They divide because error always dogs the steps of truth. Yet their primary purpose was not divisive but unitive. The Confessions have always expressed the common convictions of a multitude of individuals. And, further, they have served to hand on the convictions of one generation to its successors, and thus to form not only a link between contemporaries, but also a bond of unity between successive epochs and generations.

We Lutherans have, therefore, followed the activities of the World Conference on Faith and Order with close attention. The members of our Church present here to-day are in sympathy with the general aim and the work of this gathering. We thank God it has been possible to assemble a Council of the Christian Churches in which the problems of belief, doctrine, dogma, are to be taken quite seriously into consideration. We fear, indeed, that the discussions now about to begin will disclose differences of grave import. But we rejoice that the evil of disunion is here to be grasped by the roots. Our chief Confession teaches thus: Ad veram unitatem ecclesia satis est consentire de doctrina evangelii et administratione sacramentorum. Nec necesse est ubique esse similes traditiones humanas seu ritus ab hominibus institutos. We are glad, therefore, to note that the unity of Christians will be sought for in a consensus de doctrina evangelii. For history has shown us that there are spurious modes of unity which offer an illusory oneness in which true Christian unity, unity in the truth, is not found. We come, therefore, not as individuals, but as a great and world-wide community with centuries of history behind it. Indeed, we own our oneness with all those who in any age have confessed the Christian faith as we profess it. And thus our second desire for this Conference is, that the great unity towards which it strives may not destroy existing unities, but may rather, like a mother, gather within one home the mature and independent children of the house.


We believe that such a respect for existing unities does not imply the enduring perpetuation of confessional division. As far as our Church is concerned, this would only be a real danger if our Reformers in the sixteenth century had purposed to found a new Church and to cut themselves off from the Church Catholic. It was not so. Our chief Confession lays stress upon our agreement with the Church of antiquity, and it was thus that our theologians in the seventeenth century persisted in claiming membership of the true Catholic Church. The man who joins in the affirmations of the confession of our Church must have the will to be a Catholic Christian. Desiring, moreover, as we do, to find ourselves in agreement with the sound faith of the Church in all centuries, we give our assent to the development which history has brought. With all Christians we believe that Holy Scripture has Divine authority, as the document and evidence of the historical revelation of God. But we are convinced that it is impossible to reproduce the conditions and order of primitive Christianity as the Bible reflects them. It is for this reason that the leaders of the Lutheran Reformation would not consent to destroy the existing fabric of the Church, or to set in its place a structure framed on the pattern of the primitive Church. They knew that to do so would be Utopian. Therefore, while determined to do away with usages and teachings which seemed to them to stand in contradiction with the Gospels, they pursued a conservative policy wherever no such aberrations were concerned. And thus they were able to link themselves on to the dogma of the mediæval Church at all points where they observed no contradiction with the Gospels: they took over many liturgical forms; they translated the hymns of the mediæval Church into their own language; and they preserved much of the episcopal constitution of the Church.

It is upon this assent to the facts of historical development that the great tolerance of our Church in outward and temporal things is based. We tolerate much variety of constitution and rite; and we yield to each other mutual recognition as equal members of the orthodox Christian Church, because we agree in one and the same confession of belief.

Our third desire for this Conference is, therefore, this: that varieties in constitution and rite may form no hindrance to that affirmation of unity in the truth, which it is our desire to achieve, and we feel in particular that all those forms which give external expression to our unbroken relationship with the ancient Church have a special claim upon our sympathy.

Patres reverendissimi! Fratres carissimi! The call of unity has been sounded. We have heard it and count ourselves bound in duty to obey. I have attempted to tell you what it is in this call that specially moves us, and have spoken from the standpoint of the Lutheran Church. I have done so because I believe that no one can abandon the standpoint of his own Church without losing his relation­ship to the Church of Christ in general. But we also believe that the best contribution we can bring to the deliberations of this Conference consists in the truths and the experiences which we have gathered in the Church which is our home. The great inheritance handed down to us by the fathers of our Church includes the will to Catholicity; and I trust that this will to Catholicity has made itself plain to you all in the words that I have spoken.

There are two responsibilities of which we are gravely conscious—our responsibility before God, and our responsibility before those whose faith we share. We, therefore, ask the help of the Holy Spirit that the great hour of this Conference may find us not narrow-hearted, not contentious, not self-assertive, not faithless or of little faith, but broad-minded, peaceable, conscious of high responsibility, filled with faith and with the wisdom of God.


UPDATE: For an update on the situation from all the involved parties, please click here.


Editor's Note: This article was written about three years ago but speaks to suffering in light of the events in Connecticut last week.  —John T. Pless

“But who can supply the reason for the things that he sees the Divine Majesty has permitted to happen? Why do we not rather learn with Job that God cannot be called to account and cannot be compelled to give us the reason for everything He does or permits to happen?” –Luther on Genesis 3:1 in Luther’s Works, Volume I:144.


Preparing to write this article on Easter Monday, 2009, I heard the news of a fire in Prague that claimed over twenty lives as it swept through a shelter for the homeless. Recent memories of 9/11, the tsunami, and Katrina are compounded with countless personal tragedies that press people to ask the ancient question, “Why is there suffering?”

More existentially put, “What did I do to deserve this?”

In 1981 Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The book is an anguish-laden attempt of the rabbi to come to terms with a painful illness that claimed the life of his young son. Struggling with issues of God’s providence and mercy, creation and chaos, the rabbi can finally only conclude that those who suffer must “forgive God.” God’s intentions might be good but His power is limited seems to be a better solution than calling into question His goodness.

If a Lutheran were to do a re-write of Kushner’s book, it would have a different title, When Good Things Happen to Bad People. In the Divine Service, we confess that “we justly deserve” God’s “present and eternal punishment,” but times of calamity call into question whether we really believe it. In defiance or moaning resignation, we cry out “why me?” as though God had to explain himself. In this role reversal, God becomes the defendant and man the judge.

Theodicy is a term coined from two Greek words theos(God) and dike(judgment) literally meaning a judgment of or justification of God. The term became the title of a book by G.W. Leibnitz (1646–1716) in which he argued optimistically that this is the best of all possible worlds. After the destructive All Saints’ Day earthquake of 1755 killed thousands in Lisbon, his argument was ridiculed but the term remained. Its use indicated something of a reversal. Werner Elert writes “We try to ensnare God in our moral categories, and we do it with the best of intentions because we wish to rationalize our assertion that he is just and kind." ((Werner Elert, The Christian Ethos. Trans. Carl J. Schindler (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957): 156.))  But as Elert goes on to explain, there is a reversal going on. The Creator who is the judge now becomes the defendant while the creature now becomes judge over the Creator. Rather than God justifying man, man now attempts to justify God.

Recent attempts at theodicy often attempt to excuse God. After the tsunami, one North American clergyman when interviewed on a national television broadcast claimed “that God had nothing to do with it.” In a futile effort to protect the Lord God from anything that might cause human beings to fear him, this cleric tried to extract God from the picture altogether! The attempt falters, leaving a God who is remodeled according to human imagination. This is hardly the God known by Job and Jonah in the Old Testament.

Others would suggest that God is not the cause of suffering, but he merely allows it. If God is almighty then it is of little comfort to assert that this all powerful God allowed evil when he could have stopped it. To this argument, Oswald Bayer responds: “The first attempt is an effort to soften or give up completely on the concept of omnipotence. It is thus often said that God does not cause evil, but simply lets it happen. But such talk about the bland ‘permitting’ (permissio) of evil is too harmless. It assumes the possibility of a power vacuum or even that there is an independent power that is in opposition. At the very least, it assumes that the human being has the power to stand up against God.” ((Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008): 206-207; Also see Oswald Bayer, “God’s Omnipotence” Lutheran Quarterly (Spring 2009): 85-102.))  But God is not impotent. He is “God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” as we confess in the creed. Attempts to get God off the hook, to defend him by limited or weakening his omnipotence end up with an idol.

Rather than try to construct a philosophical theodicy that assigns human beings the impossible task of justifying God, we do better to listen to Jesus as he responds to the “why” question in Luke 13:1–9. Whether it is Pilate’s slaughter of the pious as he mingles their blood with the blood of sacrificial animals, the engineering failure of the Tower of Siloam, or more contemporary examples of seemingly unjust suffering, such stories prompt us also to inquire of God, “Why?” Yet the words of Jesus preempt the question with a stark warning: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).

Jesus does not offer a philosophical explanation for the religious massacre in the temple or the random toppling of Siloam’s tower upon the heads of eighteen innocent bystanders. The Lord wastes no time with theoretical distinctions between the malicious banality of the butchery done by the human will of Pilate and catastrophic collapse of stone and mortar. Jesus’ words will not let us go there. His words call for repentance, not speculation.

Repentance lets go of the silly questions that we would use to hold on to life on our own terms, to try to protect ourselves against the God who kills and makes alive. The theologian Oswald Bayer observes that the world is forensically structured, arranged in such a way as to demand justification. We find evidence of this, Bayer says, in the way we defend our own words and deeds. ((Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003): 1–8)) What happens when you are confronted with wrongdoing? We attempt to justify our behavior. It is a rerun of Eden: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me of fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12) Adam blames Eve. But behind his accusation of Eve is the accusation of his Creator. To repent is to die to self-justification and turn to the God who justifies the ungodly by faith alone. He is the God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but instead has sent forth his own Son to pour out his blood in atonement for the world’s sin, to be crushed by the weight of God’s wrath that in his righteousness sinners might not perish but have life in his name.

Unexplainable tragedies bring pain and chaos. God leaves the wound open to use the words of Bayer. ((Oswald Bayer, “Poetological Doctrine of the Trinity” Lutheran Quarterly (Spring 2001), 56. Also see Oswald Bayer, “Toward a Theology of Lament” in Caritas et Reformatio: Essays on Church and Society in Honor of Carter Lindberg. Edited by David M. Whitford (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2002): 211–220.)) We cry out to God in lamentation in the face of events that defy our capacities for understanding. But the anguished lament ascends from the crucible of faith, not unbelief. It is a confession of trust in the God who works all things for the good of those who are called (Romans 8:28). Living in repentance and faith, we are freed from the inward turn of speculation that seeks to investigate the hidden God, and instead we trust in the kindness and mercy of God revealed in Christ Jesus. With such a freedom we are liberated to rely on God’s promises and turn our attention to works of mercy to bring compassion and relief to those who suffer in this sinful world.


Prof. John T. Pless teaches practical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary Fort Wayne, Indiana.


Second Sunday in Advent, 1918

An Advent Sermon from Werner Elert translated Adam Koontz

 Luke 21:25-26

            “There shall be signs in the sun, moon, and stars.”—says the Lord. So far it hasn’t happened yet. Certainly at times a new show takes place in the night sky. There a comet ascends and after a time disappears again. A few months ago a new star in the sky was discovered, but after a few days, it became small again. Or an unusually long drought or long wet period prevails. Or once a great storm on the sea—“the sea and the waves will roar”—yes, all this occurs also in our times. But it has often been so before. Comets have often stood in the sky. And all manner of horrors at sea have disturbed men. In all these and the like, our time does not distinguish itself from other times.

Certainly one thing does apply to our day in a special way: “On Earth people will be afraid, and they shall say”… “And men will die off for fear and for awaiting the things that shall come on the Earth.” There is a monstrous restlessness among our people and seemingly also among all other peoples. One lives in the anticipation of great things. One hopes and fears. One waits.

“But when this begins to happen, look up and lift up your heads, for your salvation draws near.” When what begins? The sky’s activities? They have not changed, so long as the thoughts of men stretch into the past. Therefore we come to the other option: when the angst and restlessness of men and the restless anticipating becomes ever greater—then lift up your eyes. Lift your heads, for your salvation draws near.

And so the appeal is addressed also to us today. Lift up your heads, for your salvation draws near. From this and the following words of the Lord comes an essentially different picture of the imminent end-times from that which most Christians among us maintain. Usually the matter is put forth as if horrible things are the most certain mark of the future coming of Christ, as though one must await a dreadful upheaval in all earthly conditions, indeed in all the conditions of the stars, the heavenly bodies among them, and finally, as though the best preparation were to hide oneself warily at one’s own hearth. Though all these things and opinions have a certain truth to them—this speech of the Lord shows that the matter also has another aspect. From this announcement comes much that is in contrast to this widespread opinion:

  1. The signs of the future coming of Christ shall be not only terrible but also full of hope.
  2. One should fix his eyes not on the ephemeral, but on the everlasting.
  3. One should be not worried, but watchful and worthy.


            One should certainly not overlook that in the proclamations of Jesus the description of events in the sky is by no means the only thing. It says, “He told them a parable, ‘Look at the fig tree, and all the trees—as soon as they leaf out, you look for yourselves and know the summer is near. So also, when you see all this going on, know that the kingdom of God is near.’” Had the Lord thought only of downfall and destruction at his future coming, he would have likened the time of preparation not to the spring but to the autumn. That he likened it to the spring, bright budding and the greening of the trees, so we may definitely expect that the end of time will also mean a bright budding and greening in his kingdom.

Is such budding and blooming something to be perceived in the present? Before the war, we received the reports of our missionaries every year. Who among us read them? Who was at all interested in them?—Yes, there was something of blooming in the kingdom of God to notice, when the heathens pressed in to hear the Gospel. How happy we would be today, if that happened again! But if also in this time some consoling news arrives, in general a monstrous reversal has come. It is autumn there instead of spring, and the young congregations of Christians there are far more like not to a greening fig tree, but to a fading one. The leaves for the most part are fallen. So here the Lord’s condition is not fulfilled.

And in Christianity here at home?—Some believed strongly during the rush to arms in the first months of the war that a rush to arms brought with it the chance to behold a greening fig tree in the area of prayer meetings for the war, of prayer, and of a penitent attitude. Granting there may have been something true in that—today we are in any case farther from a conversion of the entire people than ever. Here also no blooming, but a falling of barren leaves—for that reason we will not hold the horrible things of the present for more important than they actually are. Therefore they are not decisive, says the fact that the trees still are not green.


Not the ephemeral, but the everlasting.

            When many Christians busy themselves much more readily with the outward signs of the coming of Jesus than with the inward signs, it is presumably because above all the ephemeral is more important to them than the everlasting. You remember that the last Sundays of the church year preach the everlasting in ever-new phrases. And out of the prayers of those weeks rings out the tone: “Prepare our minds for the end.” But do not think, fellow-Christians, that that is a special cemetery-mood or autumn-mood that is again finished once happy Advent promises hopes and joys again. The season of Advent also in its way directs its vision to the everlasting.

Proof v. 33, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” That is: away with all thoughts of the temporal, but also with all thoughts and musings on the downfall of the world, etc. It all passes away—what does it matter to you? Think still more on that which will be saved, yes, what then will still be, and then always will rule all life. Those are his words.

The Lord’s words—they are not dead and gone like other people’s words. Some among us can only speak smartly; they give first-rate advice in all political and business affairs. But do not think, fellow-Christians, that such has eternal worth…. That Christ’s words have eternal worth, that is because he himself is an eternal being.

And let us apply these predictions of the Lord to some of his words. “Come unto me…” “The Son of Man—that he should give his life as a ransom for many.” “I am the Good Shepherd—I give them eternal life, and they shall nevermore perish.” These words have validity also in the eternal world, and to that let us turn our attention.


Not anxious, but watchful and worthy.

            From this follows—and that is for us the most important thing—how we should conduct ourselves in these hard times (which should however, as the season of Advent, lose all that is comfortless). First: not anxious. If we were to be anxious, fearful, then certainly it would be never be set there: “Lift up your heads.” So not a sunken head, but an uplifted one. Not fearful, but inwardly free and full of trust in a very strong Helper.

But beside that: watchful, v. 34-36. The day comes like a trap. Not as if someone has an interest in bringing us to a fall. The Lord, who brings it, wants rather the opposite. But he wants to preclude all hypocrisy. Were the preparation of the fulfillment such that no man could anymore doubt it, then the temptation would lie near that many would repent at last out of so-called smartness. What do you think, fellow-Christian? Oh, how many good Christians lean upon the possibility to still repent before the gate is closed and to still be able to come home. It doesn’t work that way with the Lord. The end comes unexpectedly like a trap.

So watchful. And further “worthy.” Oh, of worth among us we cannot speak, still less of worthiness. Namely then, not when this is connected to it: “Worthy to stand before the Son of Man.” Therefore there is only one way out. That is the begging outstretch of the hand to him: Lord, take me as I am. Forgive me my sins, and save me. I cannot. That strikes some among us not as worthy but as unworthy. That we still thereafter must humble ourselves is because the human measure of worthiness is generally invested in hypocrisy. Not with the Lord. And above this: it is not about humility before men but about humility before God. …