Book Review: Dona Gratis Donata

Dona Gratis Donata: Essays in Honor of Norman Nagel on the Occasion of His Ninetieth Birthday.  Edited by Jon D. Vieker, Bart Day, and Albert B. Collver III.  Manchester, MO: The Nagel Festschrift Committee, 2015. Xiv + 309 pages.

Few scholars receive the honor of two Festschrifts.  Norman Nagel is one of them.  And Every Tongue Confess was presented to Nagel in honor of his sixty-fifth birthday.  Dona Gratis Donata is in honor of his ninetieth birthday.  The first book presents outstanding essays furthering Nagel’s legacy.  The second, in my judgment, sets the gold bar in festschrifts, at least for confessional Lutherans.  Not only does each essay build on the theological legacy of those topics most important to Nagel, such as Christology, liturgy, hymnody, Hermann Sasse, and ministry, but each one is both finely-crafted and rich with insights.  If you think you’ve mastered Lutheran theology, read this book.  You’ll be proven wrong.  You will find some angle or perspective on Luther and the Confessions which is new.  

The best way to review this book is to provide a snippet from each essay which hopefully will offer a sense of the book’s excellence as a whole.  William Cwirla presents the classroom Nagel who had internalized a Socratic approach to theology, never spoon-feeding, but eager to get his students to weigh the sources and publicly defend their positions.  Cwirla notes that Nagel’s confessionalism, unlike Reformed theology, offers not a logically consistent systematization of faith but instead honors the grammar of faith through a catechetical or topics approach to theology (1).  The gospel sets limits on human reason’s ability to systematize.  Likewise, Nagel teaches us to place Luther’s various theological positions within their contexts, since the anti-papal Luther can sound, at times, like a Schwärmer, while the anti-Schwärmer Luther can sound like a papist (5).  Rudolph Blank describes visiting Nagel in the Convalescent Home where he resides.  Insightfully he notes that for Nagel prayer is never a chore but always a struggle (16), surely a prayer life with which many of us can identify.  

David Maxwell builds on Nagel’s work on Luther’s Christology, particularly Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction, and so alters how divine impassability should be understood.  God is not in need of or dependent on anything in his creation, but in Jesus’ death God the Son bears not only human sin but also divine wrath.  So, Jesus’ atonement does not square with a Platonism in which God is completely unaffected by the world, at least in the person and ministry of the Son.  Now, the doctrine of divine impassibility is not completely thrown out; after all, for Nagel, God is “always the one doing the verbs” (20), is always active with respect to man.  But building on the church father Cyril of Alexandria’s comments on the Cry of Dereliction, Jesus makes human forsakenness his own “and puts himself in the position where he can address God as one forsaken, just like the rest of the human race” (29).  This he does “not as an expression of suffering but as an invocation of the Father’s graciousness” (29).  While Cyril fails to fully break with Platonism, he certainly shows us how in the person of the Son one of the members of the Trinity suffered divine wrath for the sake of human salvation.  Kent Heimbigner develops the theodicy of an earlier church father than Cyril, Athanasius.  He notes that for Athanasius evil does not exist as human nature has been created by God.  Instead, evil is a result of the misuse of human will.  What is clear is that Athanasius’ approach is incompatible with Manicheism.  

In light of Luther’s translation of Ephesians 4:12, Brian Mosemann takes on the Pietistical cliché that “everyone is a minister” (48) and notes that the office of ministry is a gift and not a right, and through which the means of grace is administered to sinners for the building up of the body of Christ (59).  In a provocative article, Jonathan Mumme contrasts the medieval view of ministry in which the clergy exercised power over the laity, from that of today in which the laity exercise power over the clergy.  In a confessional perspective, the power of the church is a “pneumatic reality constantly locating itself in the world, without being of the world, or impinged by its imperium,” especially for administering God’s gracious gifts (79).  Naomichi Masaki builds on his work on nineteenth-century German Church administrator Theodor Kliefoth.  Masaki notes that faith is “never autonomous” (95) and that it is in the means of grace where sinners find a “concrete place” where they can meet their Lord (99).  Thomas Winger defends the reading of the epistle lesson in the divine service as not adiaphoral but instead as an apostolic response to the Son’s sending of the Spirit to guild the church and empowering apostolic witness in the world.  Charles Henrickson (tune by Henry Gerike) offers a hymn in honor of Nagel’s ministry, “Always More than We can Measure,” highlighting the triune work of delivering good news in word and sacrament to Christians.

Reacting against the Danish Pietist Erik Pontoppidan’s catechism that urges sinners not to “blindly depend” on baptism as if “true repentance and faith” were not required, Eugene Boe claims that “It [baptism] is a water word that does not recoil from the dirt of sin but seeks it out that it may wash it away resulting in a cleansing that passes the inspection of the law” (138).  Al Collver notes that unlike modern ecumenical approaches to the “real presence” of Christ in the Lord’s Supper which pit Christ’s “person” against his “body and blood” (162), even, as in the case of the Arnoldshain Theses disassociate the person of Christ from the body and blood (165) that such separation is abstract, artificial, and unscriptural.  Joel Brondos says that overall Luther’s view of suffering the cross as a path not to be sidestepped overturned the Augustinian favoring of the Christian life as continuous progress from matters “lower” to ones “higher” (177).  Hence, the sacrament should not be understood as a sign (signum) but as a testament (testamentum) and the gospel is not configured through dualism of lower and higher but paradox, the “higher” coming as the “lower,” (181), incarnationally seen asthe infinite as capable of the finite.  John Pless illustrates cross-bearing as endemic to those in church vocations, modeled after Herman Sasse, who suffered hardships as he confessed Christian faith before both Nazis and union Protestant Church in Germany.

Charles Arand develops a sacramental approach to creation, based on Luther, and seeing all creation as filled with wonder and mystery, opened for the eyes of faith for delight.  Geral Krispin develops the theology embedded in the hymnody of Nicolai, highlighting forgiveness granted in the Lord’s Supper as the basis for communion with Christ and the saints, both here and hereafter (231).  Jon Vieker notes that C F W Walther’s heritage in hymnody occasionally fell short of orthodox doctrine since some hymns of the Pietists included in his hymnbook assumed an “internalizing of spirituality” (273).  William Weedon notes though that hymns written by Reformed, Roman, or Anglican authors can be appropriated in church when distinct Lutheran confessional criteria are maintained (288).  Finally, Norman Nagel’s famous essay “Heresy, Doctor Luther, Heresy!” is reprinted in this Festschrift.  Nagel’s point is that Western Christologies of the ancient church fall short of the truth of the incarnation since they wish to configure the relation between the divine and the human in the one person of Christ in terms of proportion.  But Christ is not to be understood as a man in God or from God but a man who is God (306).  Luther’s est conveys the truth that in Christ the creator is the creature (308).

These essays in honor of Nagel are brilliant, conveying a loyalty to the Lutheran tradition and commending it to the world as the best way to convey the gospel.  They merit your diligence and attention.

Mark Mattes

Grand View University

Des Moines, IA