Dr. Caryn Riswold on the Lutheran Tradition [Voices from the Branches]

{This is the second installment of a series on Christian traditions called Voices from the Branches–a collection of interviews with pastors, bloggers, and scholars from various traditions. Read more about it here.}

Dr. Caryn Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition.  She is Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. In addition to several books and articles (which you can find here), Dr. Riswold has a blog at Patheos called FeminismXianity where she writes about religion, politics, social justice, and pop culture.


Tell us your story. How did you end up in the Lutheran tradition?

CRteaching5-300x199Simply put, I was born. We know there’s always more to a story, yet this is how mine begins. I was baptized in the Lutheran church when I was two months old, at the same altar where my maternal grandparents had married decades earlier, the same altar where I would come to marry my beloved twenty-three years later. I was educated and confirmed in this same congregation, and still return there to worship with family when I return home. Of course I made choices along the way – we all do. The fact that I went to a Lutheran college (Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota) and a Lutheran seminary (the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago) means that something kept me engaged in this tradition, and still does.

Give us a brief introduction to the Lutheran tradition. How did it begin?

For this, as for a few other of these questions, I will give my own “nutshell” response and then refer readers to far more eloquent and thorough texts for the rest of the story. Simply put here, Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk in the sixteenth with vexing questions about his personal salvation that intertwined with his growing critical view of the institutional church. Stories about his life, his theological breakthrough, and his methodology are all over the place. Read Alister McGrath’s Luther’s Theology of the Cross for one description of the reformer’s tower experience, the “aha!” moment he had when working on a translation of Romans. Read Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand for a more comprehensive view of Luther’s life and work. Read my own Two Reformers for my take on his political theological work.

Lutherans celebrate Reformation Day on and around October 31 each year, to mark the supposed anniversary of Luther posting his Ninety-Five Theses (A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences) in 1517 on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. In that document, a medieval listicle you might say, Luther mounted his argument that institutional corruption seen in the practice of buying and selling indulgences was endangering the souls of the faithful; it was a corruption of the gospel itself.

What are the distinguishing doctrines of Lutheran theology?

Lutheran Christians ground all doctrine in the claim of justification by grace through faith in Christ. It’s the basic gospel claim threaded throughout all of Paul’s letters that shook Luther free from his own anxiety about not having done enough to merit God’s grace. You can’t do enough. You are enough. Grace isn’t earned, it is a gift freely given.

There are other catch-phrases that we Lutheran theologians like to use insofar as they capture distinguishing ideas in the tradition. Sola scriptura (scripture alone) informed Luther and other reformers as they sought to ground the human relationship with God. How is one to know God? Through scripture. The freedom of a Christian was a core idea that informed Luther (see his 1520 essay of that name) and continues to inform the traditions that bear his name … freedom from having to earn salvation that brings with it the freedom to serve the neighbor. The theology of the cross (see McGrath text referenced above) informs a method of doing theology, of knowing and speaking about God, in and through the cross. (I and other Lutheran feminist theologians have a whole lot of critical stuff to say about Lutheran and other Christian talk about the cross, which you can read about in my first book, Coram Deo, in Marit Trelstad’s Cross Examinations, and in Deanna Thompson’s Crossing the Divide.) I’ll say more about a Lutheran view of the sacraments and the physical world below.

Tell us about the variations in the Lutheran tradition as far as denominations go.

Lutheranism is a global phenomenon, and the existence of the Lutheran World Federation bears this out. I highly recommend readers peruse their website for a sense of their work. In the United States, the most visible variations in Lutheranism are among the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America(the one in which I am engaged), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Reasons for and descriptions of their differences will depend on who you ask. There are historical, theological, and social reasons for the divisions. Again, head to any of their websites for more information.

Since you asked me, I will give two issue examples. One difference among these three is that the ELCA (via its predecessors) has ordained women since 1970, and has ordained openly gay and lesbian pastors and allowed for same-sex marriage since 2009. The LCMS and WELS do not ordain women, and in many cases do not allow women to vote in congregational decisions. Additionally, the ELCA embraces interfaith dialogue, while the LCMS sanctioned one of its clergy for participating in the Yankee Stadium interfaith prayer service in September 2001, and another for participating in a similar interfaith event following the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut.

Lutheranism seems to tow the line between Protestantism and Catholicism as it contains much Protestant doctrine, but holds onto some of the ritual aspects of Catholicism. How do the sacraments and liturgy of Lutheranism differ from the rest of Protestant Christianity? Why are these elements important?

The sacraments were one point of theological and political contention for Luther in the sixteenth century. In his 1520 essay on “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” he outlines ways in which the Roman Church of his day was committing grave errors in its teachings. As an Augustinian, he argued there (and elsewhere) that a sacrament was something that 1) had a visible/physical sign that 2) was a means of God’s grade that 3) had been instituted by Christ. The only two things that meet these criteria are baptism and eucharist. Marriage was not instituted by Christ; penance lacks a physical element; Jesus never ordained anyone … and so on.

Many Lutheran theologians play with Luther’s Latin phrase finitum capax infiniti … the finite is capable of holding or bearing the infinite. This is the basis of the incarnation, the basis of creation itself. It is also the basis for a robust theology of the sacraments and affirmation of our embodied human existence. Luther himself had extended argument with fellow reformers like Ulrich Zwingli about the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine. For Luther, in short, it was Real. Presence. Period.

What resources would you recommend for getting more acquainted with Lutheran theology?

I’ve mentioned a few key texts above. Go back and follow those links. Then, here are four more:

Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives, edited by Mary Streufert.
Martin Luther: A Life, by Martin Marty.
Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Tim Lull.
Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, by Gerhard Ebeling.


In the next post in this series we will look at the Reformed tradition with Nate Pyle.


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