First of all, I benefited much under the tutelage of Dr. Paulson in a correspondence independent study I took with him while I served as a missionary in Slovakia. His teaching and writing is provocative and clarifying. He teaches in the tradition of a theologian for whom I have immense respect--Gerhard Forde.
Therefore, it pains me to have to say what I need to say next.
I think his project is wrong-headed and is potentially hurting the theological witness of the Lutheran church.
Let me offer just two examples from his new book, Lutheran Theology (Doing Theology).
Here is the first sentence of his book: "Lutheran theology begins perversely by advocating the destruction of all that is good, right, and beautiful in human life."
I'm going to assume that, like most authors, Paulson gave considerable thought to this sentence, re-writing it a few times and re-reading it often to ensure it carried the weight of what would follow.
But my question, would Lutheran theologians generally speaking identify with such a statement? I for one would not. Certainly, Lutheran theologians would be united in condemning anything that is considered good, right, and beautiful that is offered as some kind of system for attaining righteousness before God.
But Paulson pushes the notion out to the ontological level, as if God works against rather than with the grain of the universe.
Having made this claim, Paulson then hunkers down in the next problematic notion, which is that the only thing that will repair the breach is oral proclamation. Now, I'm all for oral proclamation. I'm a preacher, and I inherently like any theology that makes such wide claims for the office I occupy. And I do think there is a lot going on in preaching, including the forgiveness of sins in Christ's name.
I am especially happy for the Fordean insight (that Paulson continues) that preaching "we are justified for Christ's sake apart from the works of the law" is absolutely central to what it is the church is and does. And I am radically in favor of the "atonement" theory that arises from this context, "What shall we do? Nothing. Listen to Christ, whom you killed; the Father raised him from the dead, and he has come to give you the sole source of new, eternal life by forgiving sin."
That's good, good stuff.
However, I just do not buy the argument that creation, the good, true and beautiful are "nothing" while sermons are "everything." Where do sermons come from, after all? They don't arise ex nihilo. They are preached by a preacher, in a context, inspired by the Holy Spirit and centered in the scriptures, aimed at doing something "new."
I just don't think doing something "new" requires, in God's economy, the complete destruction of the "old." Perhaps that is our main difference, and why I disagree vigorously with the approach.
The second problematic moment in Paulson's new book is his summary of four episodes in the development of Lutheran theology. He walks briefly through Lutheran orthodoxy (Gerhard), pietism (Spener, Arndt, Kant), biblical eschatology (Schweitzer), and finally the existential moment (Bultmann). Of these four movements Paulson has this to say, "They all developed a treatment of the law as a way of avoiding the conclusion that salvation was death first and only then resurrection unto new life."
Really? It's that simple? If it is, it seems like our work has been made easy, for there is very little reason to engage any of those theologians, other than to read them as negative example.
There is something simply too clean about all of this. It's definitely analytical and crisp. But it lacks humanity somehow. I could probably go further, but I will conclude with my counter-sentence to Paulson's opening salvo.
Lutheran theology need not be defined as attack. Instead of perversely advocating destruction, Lutheran theology can simply clarify what has always been at its center, "Lutheran theology declares the righteousness of God (and our being made righteous) through faith apart from the works of the law."