Veith, Gene Edward Jr., & A. Trevor Sutton. Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Postmodern World. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017. “Chapter 2, “Reconsidering God” p. 61-79.
Veith and Sutton observe that even in a formally secular society, many people still have some concept of a God. However, most “have difficulty conceiving of a God who is connected with the world” (Veith & Sutton 2017, 61). While people can imagine a God who is either transcendent or personally present in the believer, Veith and Sutton do not think most people can hold the two concepts at once, nor the additional Christian distinctives of God being incarnate as man and continuing to act in the world (Veith & Sutton 2017, 62).
Much of modern spirituality takes a view of God as distant, as in deism, the philosophy which was very prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here, “God exists without intervening in the world; God made the world and ensured its rationality, but then left it alone” (Veith & Sutton 2017, 64). Veith and Sutton describe much modern spirituality in terms of “moralistic therapeutic Deism,” following the work of Christian Smith and Melinda Denton (Veith & Sutton 2017, 64). Here people are supposed to be good and kind to one another. Occasionally, but rarely, God has to intervene and make a correction, but generally, if we are nice enough, God doesn’t have any need to act (Veith & Sutton 2017, 65). Veith and Sutton affirm that this view of God will always prove disappointing. He would understand nothing of our troubles and we can never comprehend him. In this system, eventually, life becomes meaningless (Veith & Sutton 2017, 66).
In contrast to Deism, in the 19th century we find a new growth of Materialism, in which concrete material forces govern everything (Veith & Sutton 2017, 67). In this philosophy meaning must be individually defined. Because of a desire for the divine, within Materialism there was a rise of “the God within,” subjective and dwelling in experience and feelings (Veith & Sutton 2017, 68). “Such notions put the self squarely in the position of God as both creator and lawgiver. When Christianity is seen as an internal state and as a function of the self, the Christian is thrown on his or her own resources” (Veith & Sutton 2017, 69). This leads to arrogance or uncertainty. Christianity, or any other religion, viewed in this way, is again meaningless.
Veith and Sutton recognize that, at the heart of Lutheran theology, we find not the abstract God or the God of our heart, but the God who “has drawn near to us in the most intimate way imaginable by taking on human flesh in Christ Jesus (Veith & Sutton 2017, 70). Jesus, as fully human as we are, knows exactly what it is to live as a human. In the incarnation we see a God who, though transcendent, is not distant, coming to redeem and rescue humans (Veith & Sutton 2017, 72).
Lutheran theology, as Veith and Sutton observe, is radically trinitarian. The unity of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit means that the very real transcendent God can live in us by His Spirit, and has lived as one of us on the earth (Veith & Sutton 2017, 73). We recognize that in the incarnation we find God as the gracious and forgiving one who saves his people. This changes our concept of God (Veith & Sutton 2017, 74).
When we reconsider God in this way, we begin to ask where He can be found. Veith and Sutton note that Lutherans have always asserted God’s presence “in the Word, the Sacraments, and the Church” (Veith & Sutton 2017, 75). We see God speaking through the written, read, and proclaimed Word, something outside of ourselves, not in our inner voice. The Word of God is understood as God’s way of speaking to us. In the Sacraments Lutherans confess God is truly present, just as he has always been able to be present and work through physical places and means (Veith & Sutton 2017, 76-77). God can deliver his grace using physical means, and the means he has chosen are baptism and communion, as well as the words of forgiveness in absolution. Veith and Sutton see these promises delivered in the context of the local church, where believers are assembled around Word and Sacrament (Veith & Sutton 2017, 77). In this setting the holy and perfect God has chosen to work his forgiveness.