Lutheran Insights for Science-Theology Dialogue

The Luther Cross at Schlosskirche, Wittenberg (By Nick Thompson [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr)

Editor’s note: This piece was originally shared as a discussion starter during a session of the ELCA Theological Roundtable, hosted by the Theological Discernment Team in the Office of the Presiding Bishop.  The Roundtable is a network of networks, bringing together representatives from diverse ELCA theological conversation communities, including the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology.  This piece was drafted by George Murphy, physicist and retired pastor in collaboration with Lea Schweitz, theologian and professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science and Roger Willer, Director for Theological Ethics who serves as liaison between the Alliance and the Churchwide Office.  It is offered here for the same purpose, as a conversation starter about distinctive insights that Lutherans bring to the intersection of theology and science.


Three closely related themes of the Lutheran theological tradition provide a distinctive starting point from which to approach dialogue between Christian faith and science.  First, Luther’s theology of the cross insists that we are brought to know the true God only from God’s historical self-revelation centered on Christ crucified.

We do not know who God is, how God acts, or discover “the mind of God” by a study of natural phenomena or the laws of physics independently of that historical revelation.

“Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isaiah 45:15).  The paradoxical hiddenness of God in the revelation of the cross is typical of God’s activity in the world.  This frees us from being embarrassed by the ability of science to explain phenomena in the world “though God were not given.”

On the other hand, we can know God, and can discern God’s activity in creation, because of God’s revelation in the event of the cross.  “We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know” (Bonhoeffer).  In particular, we can see God present in situations of suffering, loss and death, as in evolution via natural selection.

The theology of the cross does not mean, however, that we are just to dwell morbidly on suffering and death.  The crucified Christ is risen, and God is present and active as well in the orderly and beautiful things of the world.

Thus a second aspect of the Lutheran tradition is a positive evaluation of, and rejoicing in, the natural world recognized as God’s creation.  God is continually at work in the world, as the Small Catechism’s explanation of the First Article describes.  The phrase finitum capax infiniti, “the finite is capable of the infinite,” expresses the belief that God is fully present and active in Jesus Christ, and points to the belief that God is genuinely present “in with and under” the sacramental elements.   The Lutheran tradition emphasized the value of matter by retaining much of the physical ceremonial and imagery of the catholic tradition.  It can express the same belief by encouraging the scientific study of the material world, in accord with its concept of vocation.

In the same vein, Lutherans also point to Scripture (Psalms 104:30) and confess in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit is the creative source of all life.   Thus, from the standpoint of faith, the tradition encourages a robust Trinitarian theology of creation as a basis for its appreciation of nature.

The third important feature of Lutheran theology to be noted here is the doctrine of justification.  In many discussions this “article by which the church stands or falls” would of course have pride of place, but in the present context it comes at this point because of its relevance for ethical considerations about the uses of science-based technologies.  We are justified in God’s sight for Christ’s sake, and not because of the correctness of the decisions that we make.  Therefore, while drawing on study and prayer and called to be just and wise, we recognize that in uncharted territory of new technologies we are free to make ethical decisions without being 100% certain that they will work out flawlessly.

 With contributions by Lea Schweitz and Roger Willer

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