Gerhard O. Forde is a theologian whose books are often recommended. He authored titles now rightly considered classics in English-language Lutheran theology. Among Forde’s most important contributions (and there are many) is his insistence on the inseparability of theology from preaching. If theology doesn’t prepare the pastor to enter the pulpit, or the Christian to address the neighbor with the gospel’s glad tidings, it has fallen short of its one purpose. From the absolution formula – “I forgive you” – Forde taught theology’s most important distinction between law and gospel. He understood that sinners have an incurable tendency to mix the two instead of articulating their proper difference.
He teaches vigilance about these two words of God so that sinners might actually hear both of them. First, there is God’s judgment and wrath for our sin in all its seriousness. To pretend that the law can save and redeem empties God’s demands of their true purpose and robs sinners of their highest comfort. Second, such clarity about the law is matched by the proclamation of God’s undiluted mercy for those same sinners God has pronounced guilty. At the center of Forde’s theology is the event of Christ’s cross, which brings to an end the primal human ambition to be God - instead of being a creature who receives all good things from God.
Forde grew up as a pastor’s son in rural western Minnesota. After military service and an abandoned interest in chemistry, he eventually pursued the ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. There he studied with the great Herman Preus, one of that institution’s most ardent advocates for old Lutheran confessionalism. Preus was most notable for promoting the doctrines of election and predestination as taught in Luther’s Bondage of the Will (1525) and the eleventh article of the Formula of Concord (1577).
The original Lutheran teaching on the human will, captive to sin, and God’s free election of the godless unto saving faith had been thrown into disarray during the era of Lutheran orthodoxy. The loss of this teaching came to a head in the nineteenth century, when some immigrant Lutherans in North America from Germany and Norway sought to reclaim the original Lutheran teaching. Preus was heir to this recovery effort, and passed on to Forde a vital interest in the human will’s bondage to sin and God’s free mercy imparted to sinners in word and sacrament.
Forde’s graduating class from seminary also included several others who went on to be luminaries in their own right. Carl E. Braaten, Robert W. Jenson, and Oliver K. Olson went on with Forde to shape the theology of Lutherans in America for more than a generation. Together, Forde and a number of other young scholars founded dialog journal, which hosted crucial conversations about theology, culture, doctrine, and history from a fresh perspective. Their aim was to open the windows and doors on their own insular church culture to new horizons of academic discourse. Forde would then go on to join the faculty at Luther Seminary where he taught until his death in 2005.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Forde and many of his colleagues also completed doctoral work at major institutions in the US and Europe. Forde himself engaged in doctoral study in history at Harvard, and eventually published his research in 1969 as The Law-Gospel Debate. Drawing on recent studies of Luther’s view of the law, Forde concluded that an inconsistency had haunted the Lutheran tradition since its inception.
This inconsistency turns on the status of God’s law. Post-Reformation Lutheranism holds that the law is simply God’s unchanging moral character. Luther himself, especially in his Antinomian Disputations, teaches instead that the law is his created instrument of wrath that ceases when the gospel bestows God’s proper righteousness in the form of mercy. The law has its place, but it comes to an end in Jesus Christ. And for Christians, it comes to an end in faith (Rom 6:14). Forde’s insight in The Law-Gospel Debate is that Lutherans, and other Christians, will always struggle to distinguish demand and promise if the law is understood as an eternal standard to which the gospel must finally conform.
Working from this recovery of Luther’s teaching on the law, Forde then went on to canvas the basic topics of Christian theology in Where God Meets Man (1972). Here Forde implements what he learned from Luther by attacking the most basic human inclination to use God’s righteous standard of holiness as a ladder up into heaven. We should instead suffer the judgment it delivers to us instead of thinking that God gave it as a means of attaining his favor. Only the gospel can bestow God’s proper righteousness, which is his mercy.
Naturally, Forde was also preoccupied with the doctrine of justification by faith. Serving on committees for ecumenical conversation with the Roman Catholic Church cemented his commitment to the Reformation’s principle of sola fide (faith alone) as our only righteousness before God. In Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life (1982) Forde made the important observation that the promise of the gospel does not just describe reality but creates reality. So when a preacher says “I forgive you,” those words perform or enact the reality they contain. The effective word (verbum efficax) ensures that sinners can really trust that God’s favor is theirs because it’s tied to a specific declaration actually given to them – whether that’s in the word preached verbally or in water applied at baptism or in Christ’s body and blood consumed at the altar.
To be a theologian is not primarily to think about God, but to hear God’s word and then deliver its commands and promises to others.
Forde’s view of justification as a creative word that bestows righteousness leads naturally to his most important work, Theology is for Proclamation (1990). Forde’s outlined dogmatics seeks to cover the topics of theology from the perspective of preaching. Crucially, he teaches that all the various bits of Christian doctrine lead to the work of preaching law and gospel in the pulpit and amidst everyday life. Theology is not – as sometimes conceived – a speculative activity theologians undertake to peer into God’s majesty and glory. Instead, Scripture’s teachings are organized dogmatically so that preachers can bestow the gifts and promises of God on their hearers. To be a theologian is not primarily to think about God, but to hear God’s word and then deliver its commands and promises to others.
Forde’s next project tackles the great reversal Luther unleashed on the work of Christian dogmatics. Using the reformer’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518) as his template, Forde’s On Being A Theologian of the Cross (1997) deals with Luther’s understanding of the cross as the stumbling block of theologians. Forde lobbies for Luther’s view of theology as something that happens to people when they suffer the word of the cross, which unmasks the persistent human attempt to find God everywhere except the place where he wants to be found: the body of his son crucified on Calvary. Luther hands us a reversal of the usual order of things, asserting that God is found in the form of his opposite – not in glory but in Christ’s suffering for us.
Forde was beset late in his life by a particularly vicious case of Parkinson’s. Completing his course in this life, Forde took up most directly the preoccupation of his old teacher, Herman Preus, and went to work on Luther’s doctrine of the bound will and divine election. The Captivation of the Will (2005) is Forde’s final book. Fittingly, Forde worked over The Bondage of the Will while he struggled against debilitating illness, nearing the completion of his baptism in his own physical death.
Of Luther’s most dangerous insights in this treatise is the fact that God works in all things, good and evil, according to his secret majesty. The one escape from God’s threatening sovereignty is the promise of the gospel in which sinners die to themselves, especially their illusions about free will. Only then can a new creature be raised to life in the hearing of this word of forgiveness. God’s promise truly bestows the life of the world to come unto faith, which is certain that God will deliver all those he elects with his word to the blessed life to come with Jesus Christ.
Forde’s reach is far beyond the bounds of the Lutheran church. He has shaped how Christians of many different confessional traditions understand Martin Luther and the tradition that bears the reformer’s name. Lutherans in America have often had their differences, but Forde’s influence is felt among many different Lutherans of various backgrounds and synods. Most importantly, his contribution is marked by an unflagging devotion to the Lord’s unconditional favor donated to sinners in Jesus Christ and his word. Forde’s work testifies to the liveliness and vitality of confessional Lutheranism, and its promise for the continuing need to preach Christ crucified in this, and every, age until the Lord’s return.