I received an email in my inbox over the weekend from Bishop Michael Rinehart of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the ELCA (I’m on his blog feed) sharing the news that Professor Eric Gritsch had died. One of the Lutheran greats was gone. He taught Reformation Studies and Church History and at Gettysburg Seminary. I never had him as a teacher. I cannot comment on his personality, teaching style, or how his voice sounded. Actually, I didn’t know him at all. But I have read some of his work. His “God-talk” has stuck with me over the years, along with the many other saints that range from family members, coaches, teachers, pastors and friends that inform my thinking.
Before I went to Seminary (I considered going to Gettysburg Sem. in PA before enrolling at Luther Sem. in MN) I bought a copy of his book, Fortress Introduction to Lutheranism. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994). The only picture I have seen of him is the image on the back of that book (that was until I looked him up Monday on Google). I think there is a newer and expanded edition of this book, but the version I have is a concise 158 pages. His summary of Luther and the Reformation in the first chapter is only 20 pages – which is a nice summary for those just entering into a deeper understanding of the Lutheran perspective within the Christian tradition. He covers a lot of ground – from Lutherans in Europe to America, Lutherans involved in the missionary movement, the formation of the Lutheran World Federation, and contemporary issues. Gritsch himself was part of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogues over the past several decades and was a giant in his field. The whole church is at a loss without his voice as we enter 2013.
I paged through my old book Monday morning that has, I confess, remained pretty much unopened upon my shelf since I first read it in 1998. I didn’t mark-up books and dog-ear them like I came to learn how to do in Seminary, so it took a while to find what I was looking for that morning. After some time well spent with this teacher of mine that I never knew, I found a passage on “God-talk” that I think may be a good summary of Luther’s contributions as Gritsch saw them. It seems to pair well with Luther’s concept of the church being a “mouth house” – giving voice – God-talk – to the people assembled. Gritsch’s words still speak to the world in which we live in this “spiritual but not religious” age, as he encourages us in our own “God-talk” with others.
“The enticement of honors has always been a part of the spice of life, especially religious life. Luther called it ‘do-it-yourself’ faith propagated by ‘pig theologians’ who enjoy bathing in the mud produced by intellect and pride. These theologians tell people to rely on their own individual efforts to please God, and then provide a rationale for the church to offer the forgiveness of sins.
When life becomes meaningless, however, and when one is drowning in despair, this kind of do-it-yourself faith does not work, and this kind of pastoral care is most unpastoral. When the bottom has dropped out, one discovers that one’s own ego power is reduced to zero and that it takes two to believe, for one must borrow faith from someone still strong in faith when one’s own faith is gone. When one is in doubt and despairs over the meaning of life, when one is close to denying the very existence of God, it is a word from outside that promises radical change and brings comfort. The biblical God is a lover who offers ‘good news’ in the crucified Christ, who endows victims of ego power with gospel power.
In the sixteenth century, Luther rediscovered this God of the Bible and the Bible’s way of talking about Jesus. He called such talk a ‘theology of the cross’ because its focus is on Jesus ‘the crucified God.’ ‘Learn Christ and him crucified’ he told a friend searching for proper God-talk. ‘To seek God outside Jesus is the devil.’ All theology – all God-talk – must be Christ minded according to Luther, meaning that the cross of Jesus is the only true source of knowledge about God we have. Anything else is mere speculation…
…For Luther God-talk is precisely talk about salvation – about a God who loves humanity and woos people back to himself. The Bible’s God descends to the world and joins people in space and time, between birth and death. God the ‘father’ of Jesus enters the world as a baby born of a refugee named Mary, lives an ordinary life in Israel as the man Jesus of Nazareth, and dies on a cross erected by the Roman army. This kind of God-talk is truly an offense to those who cling to traditional religiosity, which professes faith in a deity aloof from this world. Traditional religiosity affirms a God whom to whom we must ascend by way of moral achievements, mystical contemplation, and rational speculation. But Luther insisted, ‘Our theology is certain, because it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God who cannot deceive.’ Such talk was a comfort to people who had vainly tried to ascend to God, having been convinced that they were created to please God through their own efforts.
To Luther and his reform movement, theology is not just an academic tool to explain the Christian faith or develop dogmas to control the faithful. Instead, God-talk focuses on Christ, God’s self-revelation; it is the only rule in the grammar of faith and Christian living, the function of which is to keep one’s focus on Christ alone. Like a snowplow, theology clears the road so that one’s future with God can be discerned plainly. Proper God-talk does not explain or ‘prove’ the existence of God. it challenges human pride, lays bare the ego, and opens the way for a childlike faith in what God in Christ does for us. In this sense, proper God-talk is the means by which Christians live the praise and thanksgiving for what God has done in Christ. Christ-centered God-talk leads to true worship, to adoration of the God who came to us in a manger and dies for us on a cross, signs of His never-ending love.” (Eric W. Gritsch. Fortress Introduction to Lutheranism, pp. 99-100.)
As we enter this New Year, let us give thanks for those who continue to put “God-talk” in our ears, and let our New Year’s Resolution be to make clear our own “God-talk” to others.
Peace be with you on this day, and into 2013.
May that same peace that surpasses understanding surround the Gritsch family, Eric’s friends and students who will miss him, and all who find themselves longing for God to speak as we enter this New Year.
Lord, you were favorable to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
you pardoned all their sin.
You withdrew all your wrath;
you turned from your hot anger.
Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
and put away your indignation toward us.
Will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful,
to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.