Thursday, August 15, 2013

Ten Best Reads to Understand ELCA Theology

To say I love books would be an understatement. So just imagine the exhilaration I felt when the following question arrived in my Facebook messages yesterday:

What is the best read for an astute lay person to understand ELCA theology?

I immediately thought: Thanks for asking!

Then I thought: This is actually a somewhat tricky question, because although there are many ELCA teaching theologians, there is no one monolithic ELCA theology per se.

Instead, there are ELCA theologies (plural). There are many ELCA theologians. Read enough of them, and you begin to get a sense of how there is unity even in the midst of diversity.

To represent diversity, I have to offer a list of resources rather than one book. So, here are my top ten best reads for an astute lay person to understand ELCA theology. I would welcome readers to add their own suggestions in the comments.

The List

1. Heidi Neumark's Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx

This is a memoir, but it is living theology, one pastor's commitment to living out ELCA theology as she develops a vibrant ministry in the South Bronx.

2. The Promise of Lutheran Ethics. Although this book is about ethics, it is one of the more cogent attempts to answer the question of what unifies Lutheran theology.

3. Here I'm suggesting another memoir, this time a pastor who served a rural parish in southern Illinois before going on to become a professor of homiletics. Richard Lischer's Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery

4. My friend wanted something that presented moderate Lutheran theology in general, a work of theology, and something that would present the nature of Christ as understood by Lutherans to a Coptic friend. For this, I'd recommend Where God Meets Man. I could recommend almost any book by Forde, including some of his essays collected in the Lutheran Quarterly series. But this one is his classic.

5. I would be remiss in not mentioning the Augsburg Confession, which is best read as it is included in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Many different kinds of Lutherans consider this their confessions, but so do moderate Lutherans.

6. For a living sense of the vitality and diversity of Lutheran theology, you can't do better than Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives

7. I've not read this book, but it is probably the book written most intentionally as an answer to my friend's question. Martin Marty's Lutheran Questions, Lutheran Answers: Exploring Christian Faith

8. If you'd prefer to read a web site rather than a book, I could recommend either browsing the ELCA web site,, which has many entries on our theological commitments as a denomination;, which is Luther Seminary's weekly commentary the lectionary;, which if you read it over time would point you to many different blogs that give a sense of living ELCA theology; or, which is the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. I might also mention, a journal for Christian ministry.

9. Three recent books that I hope represent where we are headed theologically as a denomination. Jessicah Krey Duckworth's Wide Welcome, Gregory Walter's forthcoming Being Promised, and Cheryl Meese Peterson's Who Is the Church?

10. Finally, let's say a book just isn't working, or you need a resource other than a book. Then I'd recommend Sparkhouse's Animate series. Although these are videos with speakers from traditions other than Lutheran, Lutheranism of the moderate variety is like that, and is loosely a participant in what I would call the emergent or progressive Christian conversation.

I'm sure I've overlooked something in this top ten list. On the other hand, this list will bring any reader a long ways towards understanding the diversity in unity that is the great strength and joy of experiencing theological reflection from an ELCA, moderate Lutheran perspective.


  1. So, I'd recommend Douglas John Hall even though he's not actually a Lutheran. He does theology from a very Lutheran place.

  2. I'd suggest Robert Jenson on this list. Specifically, I'd look towards a few of his works

    His two volume Systematic Theology is a bit longer than what you've profiled, but it's an important read in systematics.
    He also had a series of books he edited with Carl Braaten. Maybe taking a look at the Catholicity of the Reformation or Union With Christ, which was my first entry into the Finnish interpretation of Lutheran.
    His volume with Eric Gritch, Lutheranism, is one I still refer to on a regular basis.
    Finally, his book Canon and Creed is worth a read.

  3. Leif Grane's "The Augsburg Confession" does a nice job of putting the Augsburg Confession in conversation with Catholic and radical theological teaching. Reading the confessional documents as a whole can be disorienting without a prior understanding of Lutheran theology. It's much easier to pick out why the confessional documents matter when they are put in dialogue with other schools of thought.

  4. That is a solid choice, as is the addition of Hall or Jenson. Thanks!

  5. FWIW, I found Carl E. Braaten's Principles of Lutheran Theology very helpful to read as I was reading James Keenan's Moral Wisdom: Lessons and Texts from the Catholic Tradition and Dianne Bergant's Scripture: Engaging Theology: Catholic Perspectives.