The question of the church in North American Lutheranism: Toward an ecclesiology of the third article

Cheryl M Peterson, Marquette University


Ecclesiology is an oft-neglected topic in Lutheran theology. In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the primary arena for addressing the nature of the church is in polemical debates over the structure of the church between "Evangelical Catholics" and "Radical Lutherans." This dissertation suggests a different starting point for an examination of the church: the post-Christendom context of mission. The task is to find a new way to speak about the church that addresses this context, is faithful to the Lutheran heritage, and moves the discussion beyond the polemics in current ecclesiological discussions. The dissertation begins with a historical overview of various "church concepts" held by Lutheran theologians of the last two centuries using the typology offered by Kent Knutson's 1961 dissertation, "Community of Faith and the Word." In Chapters One and Two, I examine Knutson's typology and methodology. While Knutson correctly points to hermeneutics (how one reads the Lutheran tradition) as contributing to the variety of "church concepts," he fails to consider the importance of historical context. In Chapter Three, I argue that the context in the U.S. is one of post-Christendom and calls for a missional ecclesiology. In Chapters Four and Five, I examine and evaluate the two main approaches to ecclesiology in the ELCA today in light of this thesis: an Evangelical Catholic approach, represented by Robert W. Jenson; and a Radical Lutheran approach, represented by Gerhard O. Forde. In Chapter Six, I consider narrative as the appropriate method for a missional ecclesiology and evaluate the narrative methods of Robert Jenson and George Lindbeck before proposing a narrative method of the third article. In Chapter Seven, I explore resources in the Lutheran theological tradition for this task, in particular Luther's spirit/letter hermeneutic that defines the church as "spiritual community" whose story arc is narrated in the third article of the Apostles' Creed. In Chapter Eight, I outline a missional ecclesiology in dialogue with other contemporary theologians, proposing that the church lives out its missional identity as a communion of saints who lives out the forgiveness of sins in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Recommended Citation

Peterson, Cheryl M, "The question of the church in North American Lutheranism: Toward an ecclesiology of the third article" (2004). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3154001.