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My Lutheran Perspective on Faith
Barry Ritchie, PhD

Lutherans are a relatively small denomination, so I will first briefly sketch what we believe in general, and then turn to a few of the practicalities for myself.

In a small book called Principles of Lutheran Theology, Carl Braaten suggests there are eight basic principles in the Lutheran expression of Christianity. With some variation, I would suggest that five of these eight principles are shared in significant ways by most Christians around the world. The canonical principle identifies the Bible as the norm for the life, faith, and proclamation of the church. The ecumenical principle underlies a belief that Lutherans are not exclusively the only Christians. The Trinitarian principle reflects belief in the historically-confessed three-fold nature of God. The Christo-centric principle places Jesus as the prime axis of faith. The sacramental principle describes how practices instituted by Jesus provide special ways of building our relationship to God.

The remaining three principles provide more distinctiveness. The confessional principle points to a set of belief statements, collected in the Book of Concord, with which Lutherans accurately summarize their beliefs. The set includes the three traditional creeds—the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed—and a collection of documents expressing how our understanding of Christianity may be distinguished from other traditions that hold to those creeds. The most compact of those specifically Lutheran statements is Martin Luther's Small Catechism, originally intended as a family teaching tool, but now used in every Lutheran church to instruct people of all ages.

The law/gospel principle speaks of how Lutherans understand that the Bible functions as a guide. God has ordered all that exists in ways and through words, that show us how we should act toward God, and how we should treat others. While much of this order is accessible to public scientific inquiry, psychologically healthy humans also feel an inner ordering instinct with respect to their behavior; we believe this instinct reflects God's ordering activity when we were created. Honest introspection reveals we constantly miss the mark set for us, which points out to us again and again how we fall short of God's expectations. This "law" aspect can drive us to despair, but the totality of Scripture shows that God earnestly desires to forgive these failures and to be reconciled with us, the "gospel" aspect.

Finally, there is the "two kingdoms" principle, speaking of how God works now within the world, both through human institutions and through the church. We are members of both realms, the secular and the sacred, the society and the church. The interrelationship between these two kingdoms is too large a topic to be parsed here. Furthermore, Lutherans still disagree among themselves about what this understanding should mean regarding how the church should act within the secular realm. The positions seem to range from absolute world-denying separation to distinction-eliminating identification.

Which, of course, is a good place to point out that, all this said, there is nearly as broad a range of belief and practice within North American Lutheranism as between any two denominations, or, in some cases, all humanity.

Practically, for me as a rather traditional Lutheran, my faith in God encompasses an abiding trust in the One who created the universe, who gave and gives it order, who has and continues to sustain it, and who has acted and acts now through and within it to reconcile us with each other and to Him. Having been created imago Dei, as all humans have been, I am obligated to strive for those things God desires: to care for those around me and the world we inhabit, to do those things that help sustain them, and to act through and within it to reconcile us to each other and to God.

Being so tied to writings that describe their beliefs (particularly the Bible), Lutherans place a high value on literacy, and, consequently, on the life of the mind. This is reflected in the observation that countries with larger populations of Lutherans often have high literacy rates. As a practical matter, Lutherans were born from a dispute about doctrine and dogma, so we believe that debate and critical inquiry are appropriate activities for the life of the church and for those within and without. Being a teacher at a major research university, then, is to me both vocation and blessing.

As a matter of integrity and reflecting my own understanding of the "two kingdoms", I strive to consistently live and share my faith in ways, actions, and words that help others see why it is that I do what I do. Lest I have been too vague here, I admit my faith makes specific truth claims, and those claims stand opposed to any reduction to the caricature Richard Niebuhr provided of mainline Protestantism, "A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." It's a small matter, but I have long worn a cross on my shirt collar as "truth-in-advertising" about my identity as a Christian. While unashamed to share my faith with others (including ways such as this), I acknowledge that there are, and likely always will be, significant and serious differences in belief (and non-belief) with friends and colleagues whom I cherish. Respect for each others includes respect for those differences. Even so, those differences, big or small, cannot remove from me the God-given obligation I have to care for them as God would.

Barry Ritchie, PhD

Barry Graham Ritchie is Professor of Physics in the Department of Physics at Arizona State University. He is also serving as the Director of the university-wide effort for the reaffirmation of the accreditation of Arizona State University by the North Central Association Higher Learning Commission in 2013.
After receiving a bachelor's degree in physics from Appalachian State University, he earned MS and PhD degrees in nuclear physics from the University of South Carolina, and served as a postdoctoral research associate at both the University of South Carolina and the University of Maryland. A member of the American Physical Society with over 170 refereed publications, Professor Ritchie's research specialty is in experimental nuclear and particle physics.
Professor Ritchie served as Interim Vice President and Dean of the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at ASU 2006-2007. Prior to that appointment, he served as Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU from 2000-2006, and Associate Chair of the Department from 1995-2000. He has been with ASU since 1984, being promoted to Professor of Physics in 1996.