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Lutheran theologians exchange views at Gustavus gathering

How does the church embody the infinite? What is the essential symbol that draws Chris-tians together — the cross or God’s covenant with us? How can we educate people to serve the world’s crucial needs?
The average Lutheran may not dwell on questions like these, but they occupy the minds of those who teach theology. Fifty representatives of ELCA colleges and seminaries met on the campus of Gustavus Adol-phus College in St. Peter August 11-13, to discuss the topic, “Lutherans and The-ological Method: Perennial Questions and Contem-porary Challenges.” They were joined by 20 additional conferees.
Theology professors at ELCA institutions have been meeting regularly since 1990 to discuss issues of common concern, and topics on the cutting edge of their field. In 2000 they began meeting annually, and in 2002 they established the Association of Teaching Theologians, according to Prof. Darrell Jodock. The member of the Gustavus religion department was chair of the steering committee for this year’s convocation.
Professor Leonard Hummel of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, one of several featured speakers, questioned whether the infinite — God — is embodied in the finite. The short answer is yes, Hummel said, otherwise, “We would be receiving an unsigned note saying, ‘I love you.’”
Hummel continued, “I would suggest a Lutheran perspective that pastoral care may itself be the revelation of God … God is most manifest and fully present in the care that one Christian offers to another.” This does not mean, however, that the infinite is wholly contained by the finite, he said.
Professor Marit Trelstad of Pacific Lutheran Univer-sity presented a paper arguing that salvation is found in God’s actions before and after the crucifixion, rather than in the cross itself. “The cross signifies human rejection of God’s covenant, yet God persists in offering grace.
“Either intentionally or accidentally, theology [centered in] the cross can become oppressive,” Trel-stad said. “It has helped to perpetuate the oppression of women, for example. When we allow women in abusive relationships to think, ‘This is my cross to bear,’ we risk having a God who insists on passivity.”
In contrast, she said, both parties are active in salvation by covenant. Trelstad, who previously taught at Gusta-vus, referred to the covenantal relationship as God’s “lavish love.” She compared it with the exotic banquet in the film, “Babette’s Feast,” served to fearful townspeople who are transformed by the meal.
Professor Tom Christenson, Capital Univer-sity, teaches philosophy, not theology. He was invited to speak on the topic, “How do teaching theologians serve the life and mission of the church?”
“Philosophers question assumptions,” Christenson said. “Rather than assume that the church needs service, suppose we say instead, ‘The church is service.’
“Suppose we define the church as the Body of Christ serving the deep needs of the world.” Christenson argued that teachers, not only of theology or philosophy, but all faculty members at Lutheran colleges and seminaries constitute the church. “Teaching is one of the ways in which the love of God is refracted into the world.”
Christenson reported asking his students what gifts are required of people who try to meet the world’s deep needs. Their answers included: peacemaking, justice, viewing the world holistically rather than in terms of “us” and “them,” knowing how to live sustainably, and having the ability to combine realism with hope.
Other topics during the three-day convocation included justification as the meta-doctrine of Lutheran thinking and a Lutheran perspective on bioethics. The group also viewed an exhibit on the treatment of Jews in Witten-berg, Germany, under Na-tional Socialism, 1931-1945. It was displayed at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, in spring 2006 and is currently installed at Gustavus.