Book Review: Theology is Eminently Practical


Theology is Eminently Practical: Essays in Honor of John T. Pless. Edited by Jacob Corzine and Bryan Wolfmueller. Fort Wayne, Indiana: Lutheran Legacy Press, 2012. Paper; 272 pages. Click here.

These fourteen essays by Concordia Theological Seminary (CTS) alumni pay tribute to the thirtieth anniversary of the ordination of their teacher, John Pless, who is well known to LOGIA readers and those who uphold confessional Lutheranism. The high academic caliber of these essays testifies to the outstanding education offered at Ft. Wayne—a benchmark due not only to the faculty’s academic stature or to library resources, but also to the quality of the students. The essays are somewhat eclectic, but, in general, focus on issues broadly related to apologetics, the use of reason in Christian theology, aspects of the Christian life, the work of Christ, and Christian theology. While these forays are products of young theologians, it does not mean the essays lack weight. Just the opposite: they are meaty, vigorous, wise, and daring. Several of the papers had been developed originally for CTS’s “Luther Seminar,” a group of faculty and students facilitated by Prof. Pless for presentation and discussion on Luther and Lutheran theology.

Originally raised in The American Lutheran Church, Prof. Pless was persuaded to join The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod due to the efforts of Norman Nagel. Prof. Pless was called as the LCMS campus pastor for University of Minnesota for nearly two decades. Naturally he had a concern for apologetics. Since the summer of 2000, he has taught pastoral theology at CTS. He expresses a passionate commitment to law and gospel preaching and ministry and those who support that view, a voice in right-to-life issues, and a critic of liberal trends in American Lutheranism.

To summarize the essays, we start with Peter Brock who makes a case for apologetics among Lutherans. Apologetics encourages faith and helps with evangelism. For instance, it helps counter hostile objections to faith and can offer arguments for the historicity of the resurrection. Even so, it has its limits. As David Scaer notes, faith is grounded finally in history not logic. Even appealing to evidences from science is limited in its apologetic prospects since science produces knowledge that is ever under constant review. Most importantly our audience, as the late Kurt Marquardt noted, is composed of “condemned criminals searching desperately for escape” but who seldom want the gospel to rescue them (27). For Brock, apologetics is best understood as a secular task of the baptized. Following C. S. Lewis, Brock concludes that the “best apologetics in which Christians can engage will be the best secular work such Christians can produce” (29).

Roy Axel Coats offers an interpretation of Johann Georg Hamann’s political theory, showing how Hamann finds autonomy as a basis for government to be inadequate. Hamann’s work is done in conversation with that of the Enlightenment thinker Moses Mendelsohn. Both Mendelsohn and Hamann seek a path to political theory beyond the voluntarism of Hobbes, based on individual’s agreeing to establish a political state, or the essentialist approach of Leibniz, in which government is etched into human nature. What Hamann sees in Mendelsohn, however, is a stance more Hobbesian than what Mendelsohn intends. Mendelsohn’s political theory grounds the basis for society in the individual agent’s will (42). What he ignores, as Hamann points out, is that the basis from which social contracts can be formulated—reason—is mediated through language (43). Mendelsohn’s approach to government is far too simplistic. Ultimately, for Hamann, Jesus Christ is the Word by which all created reality holds together.

Jacob Corzine raises the question: from where have the Reformation “solas” come? He notes that there is no standard list of solas and that there is often a hidden agenda when someone favors one list of solas over another. A thorough list of proposed solas include: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solo verbo, solus deus, solus Christus, and (new for me) sola experientia. Corzine shows how contemporary German thinkers such as Jüngel, Beintker, and Beutel situate the solas within preestablished commitments. Interestingly, while sola gratia and sola fide have long histories in the Lutheran tradition, the triad of solas can be traced to the work of Theodore Engelder who, in 1916 advocated three: sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura, the latter a likely confessional Lutheran response to modernism’s rejection of scriptural inerrancy (67).

With pastoral sensitivity, Michael Holmen comments on Romans 1–3, focusing especially on the phrase “let God become true and every man a liar.” Given that people tend to be hypocritically pious (self-justifying), if we are to apprehend Christ our savior and thus justify God in his words, it will only happen by agreeing with God against ourselves (79). Thereby our salvation renders all the glory to God.

Jason Lane takes on the critical supposition claiming that since Luther called James as an “epistle of straw” we are not required to maintain the trustworthiness of the Bible. Lane skillfully points out that Luther only seems to reject James. In fact, he preached on James, affirmed that James shows that faith leads to new impulses and good works (93), and finally interpreted Abraham in his Genesis commentary as an example of the working out of such a Jamesian approach to good works within the life of faith (97).

Benjamin T. G. Mayes points out the weakness of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s doctrine of the atonement that is due primarily to Pannenberg’s Hegelian, panentheistic belief that God will not fully be himself until the ultimate fulfillment of all in the eschaton. Given this philosophical commitment, Pannenberg’s view of the gospel does not square with that of historic Christianity.

Finnish pastor Esko Murto situates prayer within the context of battle—the believer as a battlefield between God and the devil. He notes that for Luther the creation is spiritual, a mask (larva) of God, but given the devil’s contention throughout the world, the masks of God are countered with larva diabolic. Christian prayer must pray against such evil powers (137).

Steven Parks examines Johann Gerhard’s classic Loci Theologici as “pastoral care.” Of course, for some, that is a counterintuitive claim. However, Parks makes it clear that the “greatest of dogmaticians” offers pastoral care especially in his polemics (154). He guards the flock from the wolves of false doctrine.

For Mark A. Pierson, Luther’s view of grace is no more compatible with Thomas Aquinas’s than it is with nominalists such as Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Gabriel Biel. Luther’s Against Scholastic Theology is directed as much against Thomas Aquinas as the nominalists (168). In common with the nominalists, Thomas affirms the exercise of free will and cooperation in our pilgrimage toward God. Pierson wants us to understand that for Luther, the problem about reason in our relation to God is not reason per se, but reason under the control of the bound will that wants to take credit for believing in Christ (167).

David R. Preus shows how the Wittenberg theologian Balthasar Meisner (1587–1626), following Luther, was able to show how philosophy can serve theology. “Since one branch of learning operates with a set of principles that is different from another (geometry deals with shapes and sizes, whereas arithmetic involves the study of quantities), the one cannot deprive the other of its unique properties. Likewise, theology, which assumes the grammar of Scripture and teaches salvation and eternal life, may no more rescind the laws of physics than physics may annul the promises of the Bible” (190). Each discipline can honor its unique sphere making a mixture between them unnecessary.

Mark Preus shows that our original righteousness was destroyed by Adam’s sin, and thus no sinful man can propitiate God’s wrath. Christ’s atonement is absolutely necessary if sinners are to be saved and express the truly human vocation of praising our Creator.

David Ramirez presents the phenomenon of evangelical Catholicism as found in recent decades in North America. He highlights a distinction between the Neo-orthodox type found in the Society of the Holy Trinity from that of Concordia Theological Seminary, who appeal to the standards of orthodoxy. Both are to be contrasted to high church liberals found in the ELCA and who support various unscriptural decisions in the ELCA.

Holger Sonntag notes that in opposition to Catholic views of sanctification and antinomian rejection of sanctification, Luther contends that we need to exhort people to good works that constitute Christian love.

In the concluding article, Bryan Wolfmueller accentuates one of Pless’s favorite topics, law and gospel preaching as able to overcome the devil’s hold on the conscience.

The most important book a teacher will ever write is that of his impact on his students’ lives. That alone makes this collection a powerful tribute to John Pless. More importantly, each essay in its own way witnesses to Christ.

Mark Mattes

Grand View University

Des Moines, IA