(Editor’s Note: Uwe Siemon-Netto directs the Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in St. Louis. He wrote the following stunning commentary on the present and future of the Lutheran church and the upcoming LCMS election. BJS owes Uwe a great debt. Before few people even knew who we were he was willing to join our steering group as an advisory member.)
Wanted: A Chief Distributor of Black Bread
By UWE SIEMON-NETTO
Martin Luther called the Gospel Schwarzbrot, meaning black bread, which he considered the most nourishing fare. Luther’s metaphor is magnificent in that it addresses the nutritional value of this spiritual kind of bread. It’s called Heilsgewissheit, or certainty of salvation. It frees the believer to roll up his sleeves and manage the challenges of secular life in the left-hand kingdom, as we Lutherans say.
I cannot think of any period in history when this message has been more pertinent than now. This world is in a frightening state: terror, wars, nuclear threats, the impending bankruptcy of entire nations, the ongoing genocide of unborn life, a spiraling collective ignorance, the breakdown of the family, one natural calamity after another, manmade disasters of unprecedented dimensions. Only a fool can feel safe in this situation where we have become witnesses of an “ecstasy of power and madness… [and] have seen a poisonous atmosphere envelop our globe,” as the late German theologian Helmut Thielicke observed in his powerful sermon on the Lord’s Prayer toward the end of World War II. Thielicke spoke of evil as a very real force “brooding over the world, its continents and seas.”
It takes good, healthy Lutheran theology to address this reality; it takes, more specifically, a confessional theology that has not been reduced to a museum piece. I am talking about “black bread” theology here, not mega church numbers games of the kind I am observing close to my new home in Orange County, California. Nor do we need the lethal theologies of “false clerics and schismatic spirits,” as Luther phrased it, a term I find particularly descriptive of the contemporary worldview that edits one or the other element out of Luther’s definition of the Christian as simul iustus et peccator (at the same time justified and sinner).
Theology without reference to sin amounts to a “Satanic attack upon the Church,” to quote a famous remark by Nigerian archbishop Peter Akinola about the sexualization of parts of Western Anglicanism and related post-Christian heresies. Theology without reference to justification, such as we hear in the sermons devoid of the Gospel preached to auditoriums filled with thousands of hand-waving enthusiasts is equally dangerous, and huge numbers don’t make it right.
We cry out for the “black bread” of the Gospel that never goes stale and provides the certainty we cannot find in “the world,” where we nonetheless dwell. This is the Lutheran moment. This is the moment when the true nutritious Gospel must urgently be posited against the multitude of absurd homemade gospels bombarding us from all directions. This I the moment when we must tell our fellow Christians how to worship once again in a manner based on Scripture as opposed to the trivial gobbledygook springing from the imagination of liturgists holding themselves in higher esteem than God’s word.
This is the moment that calls for a powerfully eloquent theologian-cum-pastor at the helm of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and this is why in my capacities as a simple Lutheran layman and as a writer on religious affairs I am endorsing the candidacy of Rev. Matthew Harrison for LCMS president. May he be elected chief distributor of black bread at this church body’s convention on July 14-19 in Houston.