This book is a collaboration between three individuals, one of which sadly passed away in an accident in the final stages of the book. It is evident that these three men all have a passion for reaching the lost. Together they formed a consulting service called the Transforming Congregations Network (TCN) with the desire to “transform” and “revitalize” congregations in such a way that everything congregations and pastors do—from weekly worship to congregational events, daily life, preaching and teaching—is centered on reaching out to the lost (unbelievers). The foundation of their efforts is clearly laid out from the beginning.Read More
Most pastors are bibliophiles but also busy and so can appreciate the clever (if a bit macabre) Internet meme that says, “I’ll probably die next to a stack of books I was meaning to read.” Don’t let this book stay on that stack. As the fruit of “ongoing discussions” (p. 9) among pastors and theologians from three Lutheran church bodies, The Necessary Distinction means to be the first course of its subtitle: a continuing conversation.Read More
The Rev. Philip Hale, pastor at Zion West Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE, takes on a problem that may suggest itself to anyone keeping up with exegetical theology produced in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod at present, and that is—for want of a better way of putting it—turning the Gospel into a wax nose of the exegete’s own making (see pages 208, 211).Read More
In Lex Aeterna, Jordan Cooper strives to defend the scholastic view of the eternal law and a positive use of the law. He seeks to do so over against what he perceives to be Gerhard Forde’s view of the law and its place in Christian preaching and the Christian life. Cooper writes well and accessibly. The book has exceptional flow and is clearly organized.Read More
The “solas” are at the forefront, appropriately so, of a lot of Reformation jubilee discussion and literature as October 31, 2017 approaches. Because they can be seen as providing a content-rich but extremely compact summary of the Reformation movement, Reformation teaching, or of the motivations of the Reformers, even the fact that they’re in Latin is overlooked. I myself find, as I pastor in a setting where Lutherans are one of the rarer breeds of Christianity, that a short reference to sola gratia,sola fide, and sola scriptura can go a long way, not only to describe who we are, but also to garner some respect among those who otherwise suspect me of having a shrine to Martin Luther in my house.Read More
Much ink has been spilled over the subject of Christian parenting, especially the vocation of “father.” The critique of modern Western society that the role of father has been degraded to the point that we no longer recognize the true purpose or value of having a father is more than accurate. Doubtless this is a contributing factor to the Western acceptance of the equivalence of mother and father or much worse the irrelevance of the father. Yet many recognize the need of some sort of father-like figure—certainly all the super-villains and heroes in the movies having “daddy issues” is no coincidence. So what is a father? Is he necessary? What does he look like? What does he do?Read More
Praying Luther’s Small Catechism. By John T. Pless. Concordia Publishing House, 2016. 182 pages. Paperback. $8.99
In a day and age where there is a great famine of God’s Word and a culture beset on removing all voices of a distinctly Christian worldview, Pless’s Praying Luther’s Small Catechism must find a space on your bookshelf. In the preface, Pless sets the tone that there is always more to learn and receive in this exemplary reformational and catechetical text. “Readers will be drawn into a deeper and lasting appreciation of this handbook for doctrine, vocation, and prayer. It is especially desired that your own praying of the catechism will be enlivened and enlarged” (ix).
Chapter 1 begins by emphasizing that Luther’s Catechism is more than an adolescent text used for a short period of instruction. It is a book to be prayed and digested for a lifetime, confessed before the world, and uttered incessantly against the devil. These simple words, Pless says, “are not too difficult for the young pupil yet they contain abyssal mysteries into which the mature Christian sinks” (2).
Chapter 2 is devoted to the Ten Commandments. The Law is inscribed upon creation. The voice of prayer lies in every throat. The question however, as Pless aptly points out, is to what god are your prayers addressed? Is it a voice searching and hoping that a divine ear will hear? Or is it the voice of faith that our heavenly Father always listens to with joy and thanksgiving? Drawing on Luther’s “Simple Way to Pray,” Pless shows the reader how to pray through the formula of instruction, thanksgiving, Confession, and prayer. This formula helps the reader to see that Luther’s Small Catechism is not just one book, but a “school text, song book, penitential book, and prayer book” (16).
Chapter 3 turns to the Apostles’ Creed. The Creed instructs the Christian over what kind of God he has, what He has done, and what He will do, for God has bound Himself graciously to His own promise and gift of creating, redeeming, and sanctifying the sinful creature. Drawing upon Oswald Bayer, Pless concretely expresses the reality of the relationship of faith, giver, gift, and response, showing the reader how he should rightly confess, pray, and give thanks to God for such marvelous gifts. Pless helps the reader to see how Luther understood everything which is contained in the Creed is pure gift, “without any merit or worthiness in me.” “Luther’s whole exposition of the Creed proceeds in terms of divine giving” (50).
Pless then turns his attention to the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer that governs all Christian prayer. Not only is it our Father’s words, but they are words placed into the mouth of the Christian that he might pray aright, according to the will and desire of his heavenly Father. Pless shows how the first three chief parts of the Small Catechism come together in command, promise, and petition. Not to be missed in this chapter is how Pless cuts through every false theology of prayer, demonstrating that all prayer is prayed under the crucible of the cross: “The Lord’s Prayer is a cry wrung from the crucible, an exposition of the shape of life lived under the sign of the cross in the hope of the resurrection” (53).
After the Lord’s Prayer, Pless moves to consider Baptism. In order to pray in God’s Name, one must first be given His Name, and that is precisely what God gives in baptism. The instituting words are the gift and the gift is embedded in the words. In baptism God is not out to make religious people, but rather He creates new creations by water and Word. Pless seeks to reclaim the understanding of the present tense reality of baptism. Baptism is not an empty religious ritual, an invisible force field that protects the sinful man by the mere performance of the rite. Rather the Christian hears in the word spoken a new reality being declared. “Baptism works for the forgiveness of sins, and as such it brings about a change of lords. Sin is no longer lord. Jesus is” (83). The sinful creature is now a new born creature, water and Word, promise and gift, all at work by the Triune God, giving sinful creatures new born names by which they petition and plea for grace and mercy to the open ears of their Father.
In chapter 6 Pless moves to Confession, Absolution, and the Office of the Keys. Confession is not merely good for the soul, it is the soul’s mercy and life. While giving the historical background of the insertion of this chief part into the Small Catechism, Pless argues that “Luther certainly didn’t want to jettison the practice of individual confession, but filter it through evangelical sieve of justification by faith alone, so that purified from its Roman abuses it might be restored as a means of consolation for those terrified by their sin” (96). Far from a father confessor’s tool to extract tidbits of information, confession is retained for the sake of the absolution, for those well worn by their sins and in need of rescue and respite from the old wicked foe. Burdened consciences need a place where they are not turned inward, but outward to an external Word that pronounces Christ’s forgiveness apart from the internal struggles that haunt them. That outward Word, “Your sins are forgiven,” is the “word which opens the heart and unlocks the lips for prayer, praise, and thanksgiving” (107).
From Confession and Absolution Pless turns to the Sacrament of the Altar. Pless underscores that with the Sacrament of the Altarthe gift must not be confused with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving does not result in gift, but gift always results in thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is not removed from the life of the Christian, but simply relocated, as in the post-communion collect that orders faith and love in their proper spheres. Pless observes that Luther sought to ensure that “Christians know what the Sacrament is, its benefits, and how it is to be used in faith” (110). Pless reminds readers that at time of the Reformation Luther was fighting a battle on two fronts. First against the Roman Catholics who turned the Sacrament into a work of merit; second, against the Sacramentarians who divested Christ’s body of its corporeal presence. Pless demonstrates how Luther was able to confess both the sole divine gift of this Sacrament alongside the true presence of Christ’s body and blood that gave enfleshed comfort to weak and dying sinners. For Pless, as for Luther, Christ’s words are key for “Christ’s words bestow what they promise” (113).
Chapter 8 is devoted to daily Christian prayer. From morning to night, from abundance to scarcity the Christianis a beggar that pray for daily and eternal bread. It is from one’s creatureliness that he pray. “The heavenly Father is to be praised and thanked precisely at those junctures in daily life where it is most clear that we are creatures: when we wake from sleep and again when we take our rest, as well as at mealtimes, when we receive nourishment for our bodies” (120). We always pray as creatures, always dependent upon our heavenly Father’s hand to satisfy the desires of our bodies and souls. In the home, the table of meat and drink become a table of gifts, a little altar where we creatures give thanks that our heavenly Father has given such sustenance out of His pure and divinely gifted hand. Here the Divine Service is “transported into the everyday space of the family dining room” (125).
Pless concludes by considering the Catechism’s Table of Duties. Here Pless instructs the reader in the three estates that God instituted, congregation, civil government, and the family. The Table of Duties are informed by these estates that the Christians inhabits in faith. They are the orders that restrain sin, that allow for life to increase, and provide peace and safety so that the gospel may be preached for the joy and edification of God’s holy people, and that the church be enlarged through this proclamation. Pless notes that Luther spoke often of these three estates, especially in his magisterial work, “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper.” Here Luther shows that faith is not bound to any one estate but is found in all three. Pless does warn that none of these estates “are paths to righteousness before God . . . they are concrete locations where faith is active in love for the well-being of the neighbor” (128). The various vocations of the Christian lead him to see and act in love for those who are entrusted into his care. He is a slave of love to his neighbor, and yet because of Christ and His gifts, he is lord of all, subject to none, a citizen of heaven.
Pless’s text is a gem in the church’s work of catechesis. Against the failures of generations fixated upon themselves, and a disintegration of culture, Praying Luther’s Small Catechism will aid all children of God, no matter their station in life, to receive and teach the language of Christ’s church and to confess her Lord’s will that all come to Him, the sole author of grace and mercy, forgiveness and eternal life. In these difficult and perilous days this book that will aid the Christian mightily, not only teaching him how to pray, but how to live in the world according to the heavenly Father’s good pleasure. Most assuredly, this book will teach the Christian how to receive the Father’s gifts through the Son and by the Holy Spirit. Every Lutheran should have a copy of this book. And its pages should be well worn.
Christopher L. Raffa
Pilgrim Evangelical Lutheran Church
West Bend, WI
Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation by Andrew Pettegree (Penguin: New York, 2015), 338 pgs.
The flood of words in books and articles, on blogs, and at conferences commemorating, discussing, and making hay of 1517 is already here. One of the insights of Andrew Pettegree’s new book on Luther and the media of his day is that this flood is nothing new. The German printing market boomed in the first quarter of the sixteenth century in large part thanks to Luther’s very modern ability to write about theology in clear, brief, and convincing vernacular language, and fortunes were made printing and publishing in the German world where each printer could without hindrance reprint the Luther texts from Wittenberg he knew would sell by the hundreds and thousands. Pettegree marshals a very detailed knowledge of that particular story into line with the larger stories of the Reformation and Luther’s life and career.
Pettegree does not write for the specialist. He uses the word “Reformation” with a capital R and without any discussion of a variety of “reformations,” including a Catholic one. Although the book covers the period from roughly 1480 to 1580, the word “confessionalization” does not appear once even when he is talking about the clarification of confession and political status at events like the Diet of Speyer in 1529 or the publication of the Book of Concord in 1580. Commendably, he wants to make the outline of the history of the Reformation, the biography of Luther, and the role of printing in both comprehensible to someone neither pursuing a degree in or making a living from the subject.
The narrative heart of the book is the biography of Luther, traced from his father’s investment in copper mines to his death at Eisleben seeking to reconcile feuding brothers. Someone without much or any very clear knowledge of Luther’s life story will gain it from this book. Into the bargain, Pettegree draws Luther without enlisting him as the herald or hero of something much larger than himself. Pettegree’s Luther is not the harbinger of modern freedom of conscience, the German nation, or even of all the Lutheranism that followed him. He was a man of singularly great intellect and facility of expression who was courageously tenacious or foolishly obtuse, depending on one’s sympathies. He was mighty at Worms in defending a conscience captive to the Word of God, uniquely instrumental in the history of the German nation and the German language, and the theological progenitor of what Pettegree calls a new way of being a Christian community instantly recognizable to modern Lutherans in its devotion to Scripture and the primacy of congregational song. Yet Pettegree is careful never to make Luther merely the sum of everything or everyone he influenced, a cipher we fill in for ourselves in commemoration of the great man.
This is most clear when Pettegree narrates Luther’s two major absences from Wittenberg between 1517 and his death in 1546—his friendly imprisonments at the Wartburg in 1521-22 and at Coburg Castle in 1530. It was during those times that we have the clearest picture of how much Luther was involved in from day to day as he wrote and agonized about all he could not control. He gave detailed instructions to his wife Katie in 1530 about how a manuscript should be yanked from one printer and given to another, even as the first printer sent a beautiful final copy of the book to him, arriving after Luther’s excoriating instructions were already en route home. As he wrote at a superhuman pace in 1520-22 and managed and reviewed everything from university curricula to the placement of pastors in rural Saxon parishes to numerous manuscripts at divers and sundry printers all at once, Luther’s energy is astounding and his very human frustrations and dislikes evident.
The “brand” the title identifies is the distinctive appearance of Luther’s writings that the reformer promoted after early mishaps with Rhau-Grunenberg, the only printer in Wittenberg when Luther arrived there. There were six other centers of printing in the German world: Leipzig in nearby ducal Saxony with its own university, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Basel, Cologne, and Strasbourg. Wittenberg’s sole printer was terribly backward by comparison, and once the thirty-four-year-old, hitherto obscure professor of Bible began to make a sensation with the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses, which were quickly reprinted throughout the German world, Luther knew that Wittenberg needed a sophisticated, modern look for its German-language Flugschriften, the very brief, very pungent writings so popular across Germany, and for its academic works in Latin and eventually for the German Bible, issued in parts from the September Testament of 1522 to the first complete Bible printed by Hans Lufft in 1534. With the aid of Lucas Cranach and the Lotter printing family, Luther put together a “look” for even the smallest pamphlets that would make his name and Wittenberg’s name sufficiently famous for both “Luther” and “Wittenberg” to be used on writings that were not strictly his and certainly had not been printed in Wittenberg. A specialist in the history of books, especially printed books, Pettegree is at his most detailed when laying out the nature of early modern printing and why, for instance, a Leipzig printer with Catholic convictions would petition his staunchly Catholic ruler for the right to print Luther’s works for sale in his staunchly Catholic territory. The interconnection of Luther with the emerging print media of his time is so necessary to understanding his success in view of his early obscurity and later ignominy, and Pettegree demonstrates the interdependence of the writer and his market masterfully.
In connection with that central story of Luther and his use of what were then new media in ways before unused by any theologian, Pettegree deftly adds a general sense of the flow of the Reformation (including the humanists like Erasmus and Pirckheimer initially sympathetic to it), political and theological opposition to it (including a very sympathetic portrait of John Eck), and its eventual theological diversity, introducing at least briefly everyone from the more famous Zwingli, Bucer, and Calvin to the less famous but important Rhegius, Zell, and Müntzer. He is eloquent obviously on the role of printing and its suppression in markets more highly regulated than Germany’s, like France, England, or the Low Countries, where the suppression of early print media meant the suppression of nascent Lutheran sympathies. In a few paragraphs or a few pages, he covers topics as various as Zwingli’s progression from parish priest to his battlefield death, the relationship between Duke George of Saxony and Jerome Emser, and the southwestern German origins of the Bundschuh cause leading to the Peasants’ War of 1525. He is able to discuss all of this without becoming pondersome or superficial.
There is much to enjoy here, not least the detailed maps of Luther’s world and well-chosen illustrations of major figures. There is much Pettegree says that is characteristically concise and precise that we cannot here discuss. Amid a flood already begun and perhaps now itself 500 years old of Lutheriana, this new book can retell the story you may already know with accuracy and fresh facts and insights and tell a newer story about Luther’s relationship to media fruitful for reflection on our own time of massive changes in how people come to see what they see and know what they know and finally to believe what they believe.
Rev. Adam Koontz
Mount Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church (LCMS)
Editor's Note: This letter was originally written for Luther Academy.
A Letter from our Chinese Brethren
—by Pastor Jason Li
We, Chinese Lutherans, need solid, genuine, and orthodox Lutheran teaching as much as possible. Luther rediscovered the Gospel, and that is the only reason why we were baptized and became Christians. We believe that Lutheran theology is the faithful interpretation of the Gospel.
Lutheran writings in Chinese are extremely scarce, almost next to none in Chinese circles, compared to Reformed and Catholic books that are flooding the market. If Luther felt frustrated when he saw the deplorable conditions of the German churches and then wrote the Small Catechism, I believe Luther would be deeply depressed to see the even more deplorable conditions of the gospel among Chinese churches. We Lutheran pastors don't even have orthodox Lutheran books in Chinese to read, let alone the Christians in our churches.
As bad a situation as this is, Luther Academy supports us by donating many confessional books (see below). These books will be a huge blessing to our Chinese Lutheran pastors in over 30 Chinese Lutheran Churches in North America, including Canada.
As for one example, the theological teachings on the Lord's Supper is the distinguishable point between Reformed churches and Lutheran churches. Every Lutheran should pay more attention to this point and not allow the Devil to take away our dear Lord from the Lord's Supper.
Another example, I am reading the article "The Decline of Biblical Preaching in the Past Century" from the book The Word They Still Shall Let Remain. I realized that I need to pay more attention to preaching biblically. The article shows that "there is nothing that keeps people at church more than good preaching. The true adornment of the churches is godly, useful, and clear doctrine, the devout use of the Sacraments, fervent prayer, and the like" (Ap. XXIV.50-51).
We pastors always want to know how to attract people to come and worship. The Apology already tells us that a good sermon is a must. After all, the most important reason that people come to church is to be fed by the Word and the body and blood of Christ. Just like the flower without water will wither, without good biblical preaching, the hungry faithful Christian will fade away sooner than we think. And the Apology already gives me the criteria for good sermons: godly, useful, and clear doctrine. When we pray, we pray fervently. When we receive the Sacrament, we receive devoutly.
We greatly appreciate Luther Academy's support of the Chinese Lutheran Ministry. May the Lord bless your ministry and bring to us more books with solid, genuine, and orthodox Lutheran doctrines. If these books could be in Chinese, that would be the best blessing for us all.
Lutheranism began as a preaching movement. While not often given the attention it deserves by scholars, Luther put a premium on his Postille, sermons published to serve as models for preachers and for Christian edification. Doctrinally sound, engaging, and Christ-giving preaching is a non-negotiable hallmark of the Church of the Reformation. This collection of seventeen essays by both younger and seasoned theologians and pastors will strengthen that conviction and provide substantive, meaty reflection on preaching today. It is fair to say that contemporary American society values therapeutic, pick-me-up, inspirational talks but not robust proclamation. Preachers who wish fearlessly to proclaim the truth will find their vocation empowered in these essays.
First in line, John Bombara describes the current milieu for preachers as consumerist. But obviously preaching cannot be tantamount to selling goods if it is to be faithful to the truth. He indicates that sermons can be modeled after a number of different structures, (1) textual (i.e., exposition), (2) thematic (i.e., topics), and (3) dynamic (i.e., narrative preaching style). But the key to Lutheran preaching “is the living dynamic of law and gospel applied to hearers (as primary discourse), which discursive and living dynamic can make use of virtually any type of sermon structure (including dynamic structures) toward the proclamation and application of law-and-gospel” (24). This law/gospel approach pits Lutheranism against consumerism: “Consumerism and Lutheranism are a clash of orthodoxies precisely at the point of justification. Lutheranism, however, is at home in the church as the church, while consumerism must remain alien to the church if the law and gospel are to be efficaciously preached and ‘the whole counsel of God’ broadcast” (26).
Developing a theme echoed by other essayists here, Mark Birkholz grounds preaching in truth. The scriptures upon which preaching is based are reliable. “The preacher’s words are certain, even if they are not judged so by the hearers. The certainty of the message of Jesus is testified to by its coherence with the preceding word of God (fulfillment) and by the witness of those who have seen and heard the events of salvation” (40). Paul Elliot notes that the time-honored approach to the Old Testament through typology, i.e., that the Old Testament throughout mirrors and portrays Jesus Christ, makes it relevant and powerful for Christian proclamation. Christ is the “link” between the Old Testament and today (61). Rick Serina appeals to a late medieval theologian, Nicholas of Cusa, noted for his role in education, theology, and the care of souls, in order to advocate that “the reform of the church—including anything resembling a reformation of preaching—would prove impossible apart from the reform of the clergy. Without well educated, theologically competent ecclesiastics and pastors who can bring their competence to bear upon their responsibilities within the church, there is no hope for changing thought and practice in a healthy, productive fashion. Reformation begins with the clergy” (75). Furthering the theme of truth, Roy A. Coates, appealing to Johann Gerhard, maintains that sound preaching needs systematic content. “Without systematic knowledge, preaching has nothing to instruct or refute, and no certain basis from which to encourage, correct, or comfort” (95).
Jacob Corzine appeals to Johannes Brenz’s articulation of a double faith (fides duplex) in order to help preachers who proclaim to those who oscillate between faith and doubt (as so many of us do) and rightly shows that faith rests on the objectivity of the means of grace (111). Jonathan Mumme builds from the distinction of preachers identifying with their audience (we) and differentiating themselves in proclamation (I and you). Ultimately, in proclamation it is Christ speaking through the preacher, and that is the basis for the preacher’s authority in preaching. That Christ is so present frees preachers from having to “actualize” the text for hearers (137). Steve Paulson notes that the preached word is a verbum reale or efficax, a creating word, and not merely one which persuades or instructs. John Pless similarly underscores the sacramental dimension of preaching in which the preacher “does the text” that kills and justifies the hearers (169). The liturgical undergirding of preaching is precisely sacramental. Countering antinomianism, Hans-Jörg Voigt claims that proclamation is not to be set in opposition to parenesis. Instead, in light of the gospel there is a third use of the law. The Christian is called to struggle against sin in his own life and to seek to better this world.
In light of the fact that the great homilies of the church fathers could be read in lieu of one’s own sermon, then why preaching? David Peterson takes on that question. In a word, the Holy Spirit creates faith for the assembled congregation through preaching. A parish pastor has a word that no one else can say since he is most in touch with the life of the parish. Esko Murto takes on the doctrines of election, the bondage of the will, and original sin that naturally offend all sinners. The answer to the question of election (“am I elect?”) is that preaching frees the conscience, brings the promise home to sinners, secures them in salvation; to the “bondage of the will,” preaching imparts Christ and so frees the despairing conscience; and, with original sin, we can be forgiven that we are unable to offer perfect contrition.
Realizing that many parishioners are in grief, Jeremiah Johnson advocates that we should preach from the lament psalms precisely because “they do not peddle easy answers or seek to resolve the eschatological tension between the present age and the age to come. . . . [T]he laments are also brazenly confident not only in the Lord’s past faithfulness, but especially in his future action” (238). Recognizing that most preachers care for souls, Jakob Appell develops the metaphor of preacher as “physician for the sick in spirit.” Ultimately preachers are not mere healers but share a word that unlocks death and hell (256). Again, appealing to truth, Daniel Schmidt notes that there are many methods for preaching, but ultimately a sermon is not to be judged by its method but its theology. Finally, Gottfried Martens unguardedly shares the exigencies of the preparation process for preaching. With time, the steps can be internalized. Sermons are best when memorized. “In memorizing the sermon the preacher steps, to a certain degree, into the shoes of the hearers, for that which lacks clarity of thought cannot easily be memorized and similarly will have a hard time sticking with the hearers. In being memorized the sermon is honed to a final sharp edge that also makes it better for the hearers to follow” (296).
These essays are of the highest caliber. The only way to have improved this book would have been for each author to have published a model sermon alongside his essay. That is where the rubber hits the road. Not many authors here refer to the “goal, malady, means” approach to homiletics, but I have puzzled over the fact that Luther’s sermons tend to be expository, didactic, personal, and direct. Luther never has a three-point sermon (which I ever heard as a child) nor does he have a sermon proportioned as half law and half gospel. Law and gospel shine through Luther’s sermons, but only as he exposits the word of God. Nor is Luther shy of admonition, as Voigt would remind us, especially when he preaches on the epistles.
Need a recharge in your confidence in the ability of God’s word to “bring home the goods”? Give this book a sustained reading and allow it to unsettle your despondency about preaching and empower you to joyfully proclaim the good news.
Mark C. Mattes
Grand View University
Des Moines, IA
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.
Grand View University
Des Moines, IA
Luther Reed: The Legacy of a Gentleman and a Churchman by Philip H. Pfatteicher (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press), 2015.
The shock of the past is how utterly unlike our own time it is. The shock of the recent past is how quickly it became so unlike our own. This brief biography of Luther D. Reed by the liturgical scholar Philip Pfatteicher is an exercise in justification, an attempt to provide a fresh analysis of Reed’s relevance for the present day. It succeeds in this but not because the line between today and Reed’s day is straight and highly visible.
Reed was born a few years after the Civil War to a parish pastor in suburban Philadelphia and spent his entire life in Pennsylvania. His brief trips of liturgical and artistic reconnaissance in Europe are the exceptions that prove the rule. His father’s parishes included several stops in suburban Philadelphia, the upper Susquehanna Valley, and in Lancaster, where Reed took his BA and MA at Franklin and Marshall College. He attended the Mount Airy Seminary and served two parishes near Pittsburgh for a total of ten years before being recalled to Mount Airy in 1906 to oversee the building and operation of Krauth Memorial Library, named for C.P. Krauth, the founding father of the General Council and the Seminary to which Reed devoted the great majority of his life.
This Eastern Lutheran world was German by descent but English in language and American in outlook. It was 150 years old when Reed was born and intimately connected to the country from before its founding. By Reed’s birth it was so devoted to the thought and life of the past that it had outstripped its own fathers in that devotion. Krauth had repudiated the theology of the seminary at Gettysburg at which his father had taught. Reed and other proponents of the Common Service would promote and promulgate a liturgical service and standard hitherto unseen in the United States. In his pastorate and in his writing and activity throughout his life Reed represented well the spirit of recovery and renaissance in doctrine and especially worship that was in the General Council and at Mount Airy from their founding. This spirit may rightly be criticized as “romantic,” a term Tappert used for Reed, but in its intense desire to bring the best of the past into the present, it often succeeded, changing American Lutheran liturgy decisively and in the chapel overseen by Reed, modeling that change for the church.
It was the world that then was, and from the postbellum era down to the early 1960s it prevailed. Reed was a large part of that, building up the library at Philadelphia with funds from an incredibly generous layman he had known in Pittsburgh, enriching the worship life of the Seminary and promoting that richness for his students over a half-century, guiding the Seminary after the sudden death of its scholarly light, C.M. Jacobs. All of these duties came as surprises to the self-deprecating Reed. There is much to appreciate and to revisit in this slim volume: the rise of liturgical interests among American Lutheran pastors, the churchmanship Reed exhibited in his tireless service, the broad artistic tastes he had and cultivated in his students. The best part of the book, though, is Reed’s rebuttal of Theodore Tappert’s 1964 History of the Philadelphia Seminary.
Pfatteicher includes Tappert’s acerbic summation of Reed’s life and works and then gives the reader the entirety of Reed’s nine-page, semi-public response to Tappert. It is a marvel of cutting wit, but it is above all a ninety-one-year-old man’s justification of his deeds. Reed believes Tappert was scholarly to the exclusion of churchmanship, perfunctory in the liturgy to the destruction of the Seminary’s chapel services, focused on books to the detriment of humans. He cites the fathers, Krauth, H.E. Jacobs, Schmauk, and many other earlier lights, as those who hoped in the future of confessional English-language American Lutheranism. Reed senses that his part was to carry on that legacy of renewal into his day of work and the realms of liturgy, hymnody, and church architecture. As you read, you can feel that world slipping away. He had outlived his world.
That is no justification of Tappert’s malevolence. It is a recognition that by Reed’s death in the early 1970s, the world outside and inside the church had changed so drastically as to be unrecognizable. The change was a deluge, not a development. The reader is surprised to learn that Service Book and Hymnal in 1955 was Reed’s second major hymnal on which he had worked and was in its time the longed-for appearing of Muhlenberg’s fabled “one book” that would bring about the one Lutheran church body in America so many then wished to see. One is surprised because the book to which Pfatteicher contributed so much, 1978’s Lutheran Book of Worship, is now thought to have been that book, and it itself is now obsolete even in the church bodies that used it, not to speak of those that never did. Reed promoted the Common Service, now almost forgotten in the successors to his own church body, and with LCA President Franklin Clark Fry vastly preferred Jacobean English to all others. These are all liturgical reflections of an Eastern Lutheranism that then ordained only men, officially communed only Lutheran Christians, and celebrated the Divine Service only according to a few different musical settings of the Common Service of 1888.
When one lives almost a century, he is sure to see change, but Reed lived to see a new world. Yet he was not a Columbus, nor do his books remain valuable because they herald changes to come. One can still read The Lutheran Liturgy or Worship for the same reason one might read Krauth’s The Conservative Reformation or Jacobs’ dogmatics. They are valuable in themselves and historically as witnesses to a world and a seminary and a tradition of churchmanship now gone, though buildings and names remain for now. He was the last man of the world that then was, parts of which survive in unexpected places. If he isn’t Columbus, he may be Montezuma. The Common Service is still used in American Lutheranism, but not by his direct heirs. Krauth and Schmauk are still read by some, but perhaps not so much anymore inside Krauth Memorial Library. This book is valuable to know the world before the deluge, especially if it is not your particular ancestral strain of American Lutheranism. It is also valuable to see what may be recovered from the past, as Krauth and Jacobs and Beale Schmucker and in his own way Luther Reed did in their day.
Mount Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church (LCMS)
Lititz, Lancaster County, PA
Reclaiming Lutheran Confirmation by Oliver K. Olson with and Introduction by Mark C. Mattes. Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2015. Paper. 65 pp. Click here to purchase.
This monograph by veteran Reformation and liturgical scholar, Oliver K. Olson, is deceptively short but potent. In his Introduction to the book, Mark Mattes observes “If we were to adopt the implication of Olson’s work, admit that a grave error was made in the late 1960’s, the educational program of the church for young people would look quite different. We would reassess our beliefs about the relations between confirmation and first communion. We would also increase our expectations for young people’s admission to the Lord’s Supper” (10-11).
Olson traces the story of how the liturgical renewal flowing out of the Second Vatican Council and uncritically embraced by American Lutherans, joined forces with advocates of modern educational psychology likewise welcomed without theological critique to destroy Lutheran confirmation. Olson is not speaking of the destruction of a rite, but the dismantling of a practice of teaching Luther’s Catechism in preparation for admission to the Lord’s Supper.
A major conduit for the flow of contemporary Roman Catholic liturgical theology into the Lutheran Church is Aidan Kavanaugh, a Benedictine monk who taught at Yale. Kavanagh famously concluded that confirmation is a rite in search of a theology, calling it a “confusing mistake” (27). While Kavanaugh’s judgment seems to resonate with Luther’s criticism of medieval confirmation as “monkey business” or a “delusional fraud,” the similarity is only on the surface. Luther threw out the excessive ceremonies connected to rite and accented the need for instruction and examination. Kavanaugh sought to re-ritualize confirmation as component of a single event of sacramental initiation. The influence of Kavanaugh would run through Hans Boehringer and Eugene Brand both of whom would be architects for the Lutheran Book of Worship.
From the educational side, the theories of Carl Rogers, Arnold Gesell, Louis Ames, Vernon Anderson, Ronald Goldman, Robert Havishurst, Erik Erikson, Sigmund Freud, and Jean Piaget are invoked by Frank Klos in his 1968 study, Confirmation and First Communion: A Study Book published under the auspices of the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Klos argued for earlier communion and a later confirmation (tenth grade) so that the young person would have the intellectual capacity work out his or her own religious identity. Reflecting what Hermann Sasse would call the modern lust for a non-dogmatic Christianity, Klos was dismissive of Luther’s Catechism as “a train of boxcars” that transport “sterile bits of information” and “isolated globs of facts” which go “highballing through the child’s mind” (17).
The recommendations set forth in Confirmation and First Communion were officially adopted by the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America. The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod never officially adopted the report nor did they decline it. Significant numbers of LCMS congregations—especially on the east and west coasts—implemented earlier communion with later confirmation. LCMS congregations each seemed to do what was right in there on eyes. The Lutheran Service Book Agenda and Pastoral Care Companion sought at least to bring some uniformity to the Synod as a rite, “First Communion Prior to Confirmation” (LSB Agenda, 25–27) and “Guidelines for Pastoral Examination of Catechumens” (LSB Pastoral Care Companion, 664–71) make it clear that the child is to know the basics of the faith expressed in the Catechism prior to admission to the altar.
After the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the trajectory would continue toward infant communion and in the case of adults, admission to the Lord’s Supper without any instruction and, in some cases, without Baptism itself. Chapter 5, “Disobeying St. Paul” deals with this outcome.
Whether under the the appeal of Eastern Orthodoxy, a sentimentalizing of the child, or a failure to grasp the Lutheran confession of what the Sacrament is and how it is to be used, the question of the admission of infants and toddlers to the Lord’s Supper has arisen also in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Olson’s work provides needed help in addressing this issue. He is also of assistance in clarifying the fact that Lutherans historically have been concerned not with the rite of confirmation (an adiaphoron) but with catechesis (which is mandated by the Lord).
I highly recommend Reclaiming Lutheran Confirmation for pastors and congregations who are struggling for faithfulness in teaching and practice when it comes to confirmation and admission to the Lord’s Supper. Discussion questions at the end of each chapter enhance the book’s usefulness in a Bible class or with the board of elders studying how best to address confirmation practices.
Prof. John T. Pless teaches Pastoral Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.
Fundamental Theology: A Protestant Perspective. By Matthew L. Becker. New York: T & T Clark, 2014). Click here.
Matthew Becker’s Fundamental Theology is a textbook designated for college undergraduates. “Fundamental theology” refers to theological subjects that Protestants commonly associate with the prolegomena to dogmatics. As Becker explicates these various subjects, he reveals his theological views on a variety of issues that have made him a controversial figure within the LCMS.
That said, the first few chapters of Becker’s book are relatively uncontroversial. Becker does an excellent job describing the history of the early Church and the development of theology (44–59). He discusses how a series of major theologians (Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Gerhard, Schleiermacher, etc.) have defined theology is as a discipline (59–102). A few more chapters discuss the question of natural theology and various post-Enlightenment philosophical challenges to theism. Enlightenment thinkers, such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, are discussed. Becker also engages contemporary figures such as Richard Dawkins and the other so-called “New Atheists” (131–40). Becker does a good job demonstrating the problems with scientism and metaphysical materialism. Becker also deftly summarizes the work of contemporary Christian philosophers like Richard Swinburne (198–9) and Alvin Plantinga (202–3) who defend theism.
Overall, Becker is convinced of the reality of natural revelation. However, as with most Protestants theologians, he emphasizes that such knowledge is law and not gospel (186–200). Natural reason therefore cannot reveal God’s true heart of grace. Likewise, in this section there is also a fairly good summary of Luther’s theology of the cross and the dialectic of the hidden and revealed God (205–18). There is little that is problematic about Becker’s interpretation at the point. He captures Luther’s understanding of God’s hiddenness very nearly perfectly. These sections of the book are well written, informative, and accurate.
This being said, Becker begins to move in a more controversial direction in the chapters dealing with revelation and then Scripture. In the chapter on revelation, Becker employs Avery Dulles’ fivefold delineation of the various Christian approaches to revelation. The first is the notion of revelation as propositional truth, a concept shared by conservative Catholics and “Protestant Fundamentalists” (225–6). Becker frequently uses the term “Fundamentalist.” He seems to define a “Fundamentalist” as a Protestant committed to creedal orthodoxy and a high view of Scripture. This would seemingly encompass all Protestant Christians outside the current American Mainline establishment.
Becker argues that these conservative theologians, who view revelation in propositional terms, wrongly assume that infallible authority is necessary to establish the true propositions of the faith. For such propositionalists, this necessary authority could either be an infallible Pope or an inerrant Bible. Becker is of course critical of this approach for a variety of reasons that we will discuss below. It never seems to occur to Becker that, given the historic Lutheran definition of faith as unconditional trust in the content of revelation (“This is most certainly true!”), it is difficult to see how one could unconditionally trust revelation if it were a mixture of truth and error. As we will later observe, Becker partially solves this problem through a form of Gospel-Reductionism.
Becker then takes a not-so-veiled swipe at the LCMS’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations, stating that many conservative Protestant denominations claim that Scripture alone is the supreme authority, but in practice make the denomination’s interpretation of Scriptures the supreme authority. This is a rather odd remark on a number of levels. First of all, it rather significantly misconstrues what the magisterial Reformers meant by the principle of Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura did not mean (as it has come to in later forms of Protestantism) a free-for-all regarding the meaning of the biblical text. The Reformers held that Scripture was to be read within the context of the Church, while remaining the supreme authority within the Church. Moreover, the principle of Scripture alone did not render a lack of public teaching authorities (See Augsburg Confession XXVIII). Rather, the Reformers held that those teaching authorities should be held accountable to the Word of God. This made the magisterial Reformers’ understanding quite different than that of Rome, in that the latter refused to set up any mechanisms whereby public teaching authorities could be held responsible to Scripture.
In any case, one could very well reverse Becker’s argument (or better yet, his insinuation). Mainline Protestants have often rejected the notion of formal limits on acceptable teaching, but nevertheless covertly apply limits through national assembly votes and the persecution of more conservative members by denying them academic or otherwise influential positions. Ultimately, since this procedure eventually comes to appear arbitrary and tyrannical, ecclesiastical authorities begin to attribute divine inspiration to denominational voting assemblies with familiar slogans such as, “the Spirit is doing a new thing.” An example of this may be readily found in Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s election speech to the ELCA assembly. Having rejected a divinely inspired, infallible Bible, there is an inevitable drift to an infallible and divinely inspired Church.
It should also be observed that Becker’s argument makes very little sense in light of what the LCMS and other conservative Protestant denominations claim with regard to their official statements on various doctrinal issues. LCMS pronouncements on various theological matters represent the official position of the denomination on a given issue. The LCMS and other conservative Protestant denominations would accept that everyone (including Matthew Becker) is free to test the all official statements against the teaching of Scripture.
In this, ecclesiastical authorities are held accountable to the teaching of Scripture in a number of ways. First, they are either directly or indirectly elected by the priesthood of all believers, who have the right to test their teachings on the basis of Scripture. Secondly, it should also be observed that no one is under any obligation to continue to be a member of the LCMS if he does not believe the denomination’s official teachings agree with Scripture. In light of both these mechanisms of accountability, Scripture does indeed remain the final and supreme authority, since no one is forced to join, or submits himself to the authority of the denomination and its doctrinal statements, without first accepting its teaching as scriptural. In any case, the real issue is not that Becker thinks that the LCMS has misinterpreted the Bible, but rather that Becker simply chooses for a variety of reasons to reject portions of Scripture.
In the end, the real question is whether or not any denomination will have official positions that they enforce on those who hold ecclesiastical offices. Just as no one is obliged to be a member of a particular denomination, likewise, no one is entitled to hold an official position or membership in of a given denomination if he does not agree with its teachings. For this reason Becker’s implicit argument about the actual limits of acceptable teaching in a given denomination is simply illogical. Ultimately, beyond the New Testament’s repeated admonitions about fleeing from false teachers and the necessity of imposing church discipline on those promoting heretical beliefs, there is the rather commonsensical point that it is illogical to expect any organization to tolerate members who do not want to obey its rules. If a Church body cannot hold members and teachers accountable to the core tenets of the faith, then what is the point of having such an organization in the first place? If no one expects the American Communist party to tolerate members who promote capitalism, why should the LCMS (or any Church body) tolerate ministers or professors who reject its core teachings?
Returning to Fundamental Theology, the next theory of revelation is that of salvation history (226–9). This theory of revelation sees God as revealing himself through the historical process of the history of Israel culminating in Jesus Christ and the Church. As Becker correctly observes, this model does not contradict the propositional model per se. Rather, for theologians adhering to this paradigm, the emphasis lies on the fact that Bible is revelatory because it is a witness to the process of God’s self-revelation in history. It is less a list of ahistorical propositional truths to which Christians must give their assent to, than it is a description of God’s character as revealed through his dealing with his people over time. Among the varieties of salvation history models, Becker notes his preference for Hofmann’s and Ebeling’s version over against that of Pannenberg (228). This is mainly because Hofmann and Ebeling recognize the need for a proper interpretation of salvation history as it is presented by the Word of God, found in the Scriptures. On the other hand, Pannenberg typically tends to argue that the divine purpose in salvation history is simply transparent to human reason. On this point, Becker is quite correct (228–9). Moreover, Becker is right to not play off the propositional model off against the salvation history model. By not doing so, he recognizes necessity of a propositional dimension to Christian doctrine. He is similarly correct to acknowledge that God’s truth is never abstract, but necessarily embedded in concrete history.
This being said, what is problematic about Becker’s use of this model is his insistence that it allows one to discard revelations proved to be inauthentic in later eras of salvation history. Among these supposedly inauthentic revelations, he cites the Old Testament’s acceptance of slavery, polygamy, and the subordination of women (228). Such a theological perspective presupposes that on some level God bungled the communication of his revelation in some earlier eras of salvation. Then later on, he somehow became more competent, as time went on, in communicating it. Becker’s procedure also comes off as extremely arbitrary, since the discarded revelations seem to consistently correlate to things that upper-middle class, white Americans would find objectionable.
Such a notion dovetails with Becker’s conception of scriptural authority. Much like Barth, Becker sees Scripture as a witness to the Word of God rather than the Word of God itself. The Bible can be called “the Word of God” in an indirect sense, not because it is verbally inspired and inerrant, but because it is a primary source for the Church’s witness to the gospel (272–3). The most he will grant to a notion of inspiration is that this witness possesses the existential force to inspire faith (273).
According to Becker, since the central mission of the Church is the proclamation of the gospel, it is only minimally necessary to believe the content of Scripture to the extent that it makes the gospel capable of being proclaimed. Implicitly, this means that in Becker’s mind scriptural doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation are still necessary, insofar as it would be impossible to proclaim the gospel without them. Nevertheless, one may also infer that Becker sees little need to maintain male-headship, a literal reading of Genesis 1–11, and the biblical strictures against homosexuality in order to logically maintain a belief in justification by faith alone. In this, Becker largely affirms the version of “Gospel-Reductionism” articulated by the late Erlangen school (notably in Althaus and Elert).
Since the perspicuity and validity of revelation progresses throughout the scriptural witness, there is a hierarchy of scriptural normativity within the canon. The gospel is the actual norm of all revelation (285). Consequently, the writings in the apostolic witness that most directly relate the historical Christ are the clearest and most noble witnesses to revelation. These can be found in the homologoumena, that is, those books of the New Testament universally attested as apostolic and authoritative in the early Church. Below these rank contested books of the New Testament, the antilegomena. Still lower in the hierarchy rank the books of the Old Testament, in large part a superseded revelation, since they contain practices and norms rejected by Jesus and the New Testament authors, and only indirectly witness to Christ and his gospel (285–292, 296–99).
If Becker were merely suggesting the homologoumena have interpretative priority over both the antilegomena and Old Testament, he would be on fairly solid ground. Such a position is not only in keeping with the logical unfolding of salvation history, but also the historic Lutheran tradition as taught by Luther and the subsequent fathers of scholastic orthodoxy. This is not what Becker means. Under the principle that the Bible is not actually the Word of God (or perhaps only in a very qualified sense!), Becker posits that those earlier eras’ written witness to revelation can, in many cases, be discarded altogether in favor of the better human apprehensions of God and his ways during later stages of salvation history (289–90).
Becker cites in favor of this conclusion the fact that Jesus and Paul reject portions of the Old Testament revelation as being no longer authoritative. Two points should be made about this. First, the idea that aspects of the Old Testament are no longer authoritative (for example the ritual laws of Leviticus) does not mean that they are any less divinely inspired—something repeatedly implied by Becker, though never directly stated. It merely means that within the historical development of his relationship with humanity, God placed persons and peoples under the authority of different revelations for a variety of purposes. This fact is recognized by Jesus, Paul, and the author of Hebrews. Secondly, the portions of Scripture which Jesus and Paul assert are no longer binding on the New Testament Church are nevertheless the Word of God. Jesus and Paul use scriptural arguments in favor of this abrogation. In Jesus’ cases, Moses’ allowance of divorce (and implicitly also such practices as polygamy) lack binding force because they were concessions to sin and not in keeping with God’s original creative purposes expressed in Genesis 2. Likewise, for Paul, the Abrahamic covenant promised Christ and communicated salvation through faith long before the curses of Deuteronomy (which were exhausted in the cross of Jesus) were put into place. Hence, Jesus and Paul’s teachings do not so much represent a criticism of Scripture as the recognition that certain portions of Scripture relativize others in light of God’s variegated purposes within the economy of salvation.
What is perhaps even more disturbing is that Becker asserts that Scripture can be criticized on the basis of what he calls “contemporary experience” (295, 310). The scriptural authors lived in a different environment where slavery, polygamy, the subordination of women, and anti-democratic political structures were the norm. According to Becker, now that we have “discovered” human rights (an odd claim, in light of the present philosophical crisis of foundations of secular modernity), as well as eliminated slavery, the portions of Scripture that seemingly validate slavery or the subordination of women can be eliminated or rejected. Indeed, the conflict between Scripture and “contemporary experience” (read: upper-middle class white American values) is one of the reasons that Becker cites for rejecting the notion of scriptural inerrancy (309–10).
There are a number of problems with these remarks. First, in keeping with his notion that revelation is both progressive and imperfectly received by human beings, Becker seems to be positing that the values of contemporary American upper middle class whites are essentially on par with the scriptural revelation—indeed, superior to the Scriptures, insofar as they can serve as a basis and criterion for the criticism of the Scriptures. In this Enthusiasm of historical progress, one hears echoes both of Hegel’s concept of the Geist, as well as the tagline of the United Church of Christ’s cable ad campaign from the mid-2000s: “God is still speaking.” Secondly, as noted above, Becker’s “contemporary experience” privileges a particular kind of contemporary experience, namely, that of upper-middle class American whites. Indeed, later on in a discussion of how to interpret Scripture, Becker also posits the necessity of taking into consideration the perspective and experiences of oppressed minorities and the poor of the Third World. This is of course in keeping with various Liberationist and Feminist interpretative schemes. Nevertheless, the value of Third World perspectives is limited to economic issues which promote governmental redistributionist schemes that contemporary upper-middle class whites are often all too ready to embrace (Read: David Brook’s so-called Bobos or Charles Murray’s New Upper Class). With regard the status of women, or sexual morality, Becker’s interest in affirming the consciousness of contemporary minorities and the inhabitants of Third-World nations (the latter being fairly notorious for their rejection of both women’s rights and homosexual behavior) completely fizzles.
This is one reason why “contemporary experience” cannot be revelatory. Not only does it represent a form of Enthusiasm, which Luther identifies as the oldest of all heresies, but it is ultimately a dead end. On the one hand, “contemporary experiences” contradict one another, as the aforementioned examples of differing ideas regarding human rights and sexuality demonstrate. Moreover, if one attempts to overcome this aporia by appealing to a particular group’s experience of reality (as Becker seemingly does), then theology degrades into a sort of ploy to deify that particular group’s set of values. Indeed, as Karl Barth correctly noted, this was the ultimate problem with both the Liberal Protestant support for World War I, as well as the “German Christians’” exaltation of volkish consciousness above the Word of God. The result of both forms of Enthusiasm were ultimately a divine mandate for German imperial ambition and, later on, genocidal racism. Though Becker would of course reject all of this, one cannot help but see that his reliance on contemporary experience results in a critical mechanism insufficient to counteract such destructive theologies.
Indeed, that being said, it is perfectly compatible with a doctrine of verbal inspiration and inerrancy to say that slavery, polygamy, and the like do not embody God’s ideal purpose for creation. Nevertheless, one comes to recognize this by listening to Jesus when he tells the Pharisees that God made many concessions to sin (as indeed do all civil codes) in giving the law to Moses. In doing this, Jesus does not appeal to some now-discredited High-Modernist concept of “the Progress of Man,” but rather goes back to the Edenic harmony of the first man and woman (Mt. 19:3–9). Unfortunately for Becker, although the words of Jesus serve as a basis for the rejection of slavery, polygamy, and divorce, they also keep intact male-headship and heterosexual marriage as God’s plan for humanity.
Indeed, in the past, Becker has appealed to the protological humanity as posited by evolutionary biology in order to discredit the male/female relationship as suggested by Genesis 1–3. Becker has stated that biological evolution proves that there was no Eve derived from Adam as her head. There is thus no reason to assume that male-headship is valid. Nonetheless, Becker must certainly recognize that, as Jane Goodall showed many years ago, apes are patriarchal, and presumably our supposed hominid ancestors would have been as well. Likewise, homosexuality (which Becker also believes is acceptable) possesses no evolutionary value (Stephen Jay Gould’s claims notwithstanding) and therefore stands in contradiction of what Becker considers to be the law of nature. It would seem that in any appeal to the protological situation (either theistic evolution or the Bible), one ends up getting more or less the same results.
For Becker, “contemporary experience” trumps the Bible with regard to science as well. Francis Pieper’s rather eccentric position (at least for the early-20th century) that scriptural inerrancy entails the rejection of heliocentricism is the object of derision by Becker (268–9). For those familiar with Becker’s writings, this is a point repeatedly brought up, presumably to demonstrate the backwardness of the LCMS and its formative theologians. Beyond this, Becker seems implicitly to be suggesting that if earlier generations of LCMS theologians eventually caved on heliocentricism, then why not also cave on evolution? Becker states that Pieper’s position makes Scripture supreme, even when it contradicts science. Nevertheless, Pieper’s position is unsustainable unless free scientific inquiry is interfered with by authoritarian theological norms, and, by implication, Church leaders (269). For Becker, one should simply accept that the Bible is in error with regard to many things scientific (such as references to the “pillars of the earth”, etc.). Indeed, Becker argues, the Bible contains many minor errors and contradictions, and consequently cannot be judged to be inerrant at all.
A couple of points should be made here. First, Pieper’s position was a rather eccentric one, even for the Age of Orthodoxy. As Robert Preus notes, the Lutheran Scholastics accept a notion of inerrancy compatible with idea that Scripture often described things as they appear (“the sun is setting”) rather than in literal scientific descriptions of the world. This does not undermine inerrancy or the scientific accuracy of scriptural statements any more than contemporary people lie when speaking in the same manner (“the sun is setting”). They are not speaking a falsehood, but using a turn of phrase. It should also be noted that this hermeneutical principle was by no means a desperate attempt to shore up inerrancy in the face of Copernicus, but rather one taken over directly from the Church Fathers, who lived long before any supposed crisis caused by heliocentricism. Interestingly, there is currently a historical debate about whether heliocentricism caused a theological crisis at all!
In any case, one can view references to the “pillars of the earth” in a similar fashion. Much as contemporary poets do not base their descriptions of nature on quantifiable scientific descriptions of the universe, neither did the Biblical poets (notably in the Psalms, or Job). Indeed, as Peter Leithart has pointed out, language like “pillars of the earth” has the very specific theological/poetic function of describing creation in non-literal terms as cosmic temple. Ultimately, trying to take poetic descriptions of nature by the Biblical authors as scientific propositions of the era is a highly questionable procedure. The Biblical poets did not use literal cosmological language for describing the world any more than contemporary ones do.
Secondly, the claim that the issue is matter of free inquiry vs. ecclesiastical authoritarianism is highly naïve. As Thomas Kuhn has shown, the scientific community operates with its own paradigmatic communal lens through which reality is interpreted authoritatively. Such a lens consists of the dogmatic commitments of the scientific community. Hence, for Scientists to do science they must accept certain dogmas. Such dogmas are enforced by a magisterial authority in some cases far more powerful and vindictive than contemporary ecclesiastical ones, as the persecution of advocates of scientific beliefs outside the current paradigm (such as of Intelligent Design) clearly demonstrates. Hence, the question of teaching evolution at a Christianity university is not really a matter of free inquiry vs. arbitrary Church authority, but rather whose dogma and whose magisterium one will accept.
However, this does not mean that theologians should not strive to find agreement between contemporary science and the teaching of Scripture. All truth is one, and one should expect that when humans investigate nature and other fields of inquiry with right reason, then there should ultimately be no conflict with Scripture. Moreover, it should be noted that, contrary to Becker’s misrepresentations, Pieper actually shared this sentiment. In the passage in Christian Dogmatics in which he rejects heliocentricism, Pieper also expresses hope that Einstein and the theory of relativity would in fact vindicate geocentricism.
Obviously, although human beings are finite and have damaged noetic capacities due to sin, regarding that which is below them, they are still competent to gain some knowledge of the created world. Moreover, in that our noetic capacities are damaged, human beings are likewise capable of misinterpreting Scripture when they resist the Holy Spirit and do not follow the literal sense and the analogy of faith. Consequently, just as Scripture can expose the errors of science, scientific truth when pitted against a particular interpretation of Scripture may prompt the interpreter to rethink his interpretation. Perhaps a particular traditional interpretation and not the genuine teaching of Scripture itself may be the barrier to seeing agreement between certain historical or scientific facts and the text. That being said, if there is no way of reconciling certain scientific claims to the text understood on the basis of the literal sense and the analogy of faith, then Scripture must rule supreme. Damaged and finite human reason cannot place a priori limitations on what the Word of God can and cannot say.
In a later section on science and theology, Becker protests against this perspective. He asserts that our knowledge of scientific facts must, generally speaking, almost always be correct. If it were not, then God would be attempting to fool us by giving us access to faulty data through our minds and senses (440). Becker states at one point that he would like to see mutuality, cooperation, and dialogue between theology and science. His example here is the reality and moral impact of man-made global warming (446–7). However, ultimately he asserts that if science says that Scripture is wrong, Scripture must simply bow to the superior wisdom of science and modify its claims. For example, Becker tells us, that we can no longer believe that the wages of sin is death, since the theory of biological evolution presupposes that death is simply another cog in the cosmic machine of life.
Such a perspective is problematic for several reasons. First it presupposes that raw scientific data simply reveals the inner structures of reality to rational and autonomous human beings in an absolutely transparent manner. Nevertheless, although humans have access to the data of reality, their finitude means that such data is always incomplete. Moreover, such data is always interpreted within a scientific paradigm, or interpretive lens, that organizes the information. Since these lenses are always provisional and not infrequently wrong, humans cannot claim any scientific judgment is infallible.
Hence, if a scientific theory, or piece of historical or scientific datum seems to contradict Scripture, there is no particular reason to think Scripture is wrong. Many scientific theories have turned out to be wrong. These incorrect theories and discredited paradigms included many that contradicted Scripture. In these cases the error was in the minds of the interpreters and not in Scripture itself. If we follow Becker’s suggestion, we would operate under the assumption that the Word of God is fallible, but human reason is not. In light of history, this is an untenable position.
Indeed, if Christians of the past had followed Becker and his seeming faith in the near infallibility of science, they would have been proven wrong in the long term on numerous occasions. One wonders how Becker would answer such a challenge. Should Thomas Aquinas have simply rejected creation ex nihilo because Aristotle and the Arabic philosophers posited the eternity of the universe? What about scientific racism and eugenics? Should early-20th century Christian have simply rejected the scriptural teaching of a common origin of humanity and gone for what was then considered to be a highly scientific theory of polygenesis and racial gradations? To this latter point, Becker would likely say that scientific racism and eugenics were simply junk science, whereas macroevolution is not. Nonetheless, just as contemporary macroevolution is taught at all major universities and forms the basis of many governmental policies, so too was scientific racism and eugenics. Secondly, in light of the paradigmatic anomalies of irreducible complexity, gene entropy, and the lack of transitional species in the fossil record, macroevolution is not exactly the scientific slam-dunk that Becker seems to think it is.
Beyond his claim that modern science contradicts the Bible, Becker offers a few other criticisms of verbal inspiration and inerrancy. Becker suggests that verbal inspiration and inerrancy erase human agency in the production of the Scriptures (305–6). Becker claims that Johann Gerhard taught that divine inspiration makes the inspired author like a “flute” played by God (305). Becker does not provide a citation for the flute remark, and the author of this review was unable to find any passages in which Gerhard uses the flute analogy. In any case, recent scholarship on the subject has clearly demonstrated that this view of inspiration was quite specifically rejected by the Lutheran Scholastics. In fact, the Protestant Scholastics in general inherited a strong aversion to the notion of inspiration as a kind of mania from the late Patristic and Medieval theologians. This manic concept of inspiration would be more characteristic of the Ante-Nicene Fathers than it would be of the Protestant Scholastics.
Secondly, Becker also posits that prior to affirming scriptural inerrancy and verbal inspiration one would have to thoroughly examine every jot and tittle before believing that Scripture was true on every point (307). Instead, we are converted by the gospel and acknowledge God prior to believing in any theories of inspiration. Seemingly Becker wishes to prioritize the centrality of the gospel in his concept of theological authority.
Nevertheless, if understood properly, acknowledgment of the primacy of the gospel necessarily and logically leads to an acknowledgment of the authority of the whole of Scripture. If I come to believe in Jesus and that his promises are trustworthy, the trustworthiness of Jesus will also necessarily including his promise that the prophets and the apostles are infallible in all they teach (Luke 10:16; John 10:35, 15:26). I can directly affirm that what they teach is true because Jesus tells me that it is, and because God the Father has placed his stamp of approval on all that he has said by vindicating him through his resurrection from the dead. In the same manner, I can believe that his body and blood are present in the Lord’s Supper because he promises that they are, not by rationally verifying them.
Lastly, Becker argues that affirming verbal inspiration and inerrancy has a flattening effect on the content of Scripture (307). If every word of Scripture is divinely inspired, then even the most innocuous historical facts become as important as the chief article of the gospel. First, among the many points that might be made here, Becker seems to be unaware of the steady drum beat of “all theology is Christology” from major proponents of inerrancy in the LCMS, such as David Scaer and Robert Preus. Obviously, whatever he may say about the flattening effect, it does not work out that way in practice!
Secondly, Becker’s concern here represents an obvious category confusion, wherein the category “truthful” is being confused with the category “important.” To illustrate this with a thought-experiment, theoretically, if we posit a husband who was programmed to be utterly unable to tell a lie to his wife, every truthful utterance he made would still not be equally important. For example, the statement “I got gas on the way home from work” would be both equally true and nevertheless, considerably less important than his wedding vows. Moreover, to take another example, if our spouses regularly lied to us about petty things, then we might also begin doubt their general veracity, even perhaps when it came to their love and loyalty to us. Indeed, often people come to suspect an affair when such small lies are told on a regular basis, often with considerable justification. Becker would probably say in response that all couples lie to one another in small measures, and it does not disrupt the relationship or call into question the love present. Likewise, he would probably argue that the gospel could still be true, even if there are small errors in the biblical reports.
Like Hofmann and later Althaus (perhaps in a more limited way, also Elert), Becker seems to implicitly make a distinction between certain historical facts in Scripture that need to be true to make the gospel true (Jesus existed, died and rose, etc.) and others that do not. The difficulty with this that it is impossible to draw the line clearly between “essential” and “non-essential” facts in order to differentiate them from one another.
Ultimately though, the gospel does in fact depend on certain historical facts being true and infallibly so. To say that we can only believe them to be true insofar as they are verified by historical science would be to assert that the gospel is only probably true since all secular historical knowledge is merely probable. Nonetheless, since the gospel gives full assurance (“this is most certainly true”), then the history that it narrates must also be fully assured and not merely highly probable. Similarly, since the gospel makes no sense apart from the whole scriptural narrative of creation and redemption, to say that the gospel is certain and true logically entails that the whole of Scripture is inerrant and without falsehood.
Overall, Becker’s book is extremely illuminating. It is a clear and consistent exposition of his theological agenda. It reveals his rationale for rejecting key doctrines of historic biblical Lutheranism. At its heart, Becker’s theological vision is essentially provisionalist. Because history is one long sequence of ever greater and greater degrees of divine self-communication, no truth can ever be eternal and final for Becker. Moreover, the progress of secular history and science have the power ever to qualify what is credible in Scripture and what is not. Belief in any historical truth taught in Scripture must also be provisional, since belief in that truth may or may not be falsified at some point in the future. Likewise, the moral teaching of Scripture is ever capable of being revised by Western cultural trends. At the heart of this theological vision is the recognition that, as human beings, we live within the dynamic finitude of history and creation.
That human beings are the products of finitude and situatedness within creation and history cannot, of course, be denied. Nevertheless, the Lutheran claim is that the “finite is capable of the infinite” (finitum capax infiniti). Those of us who adhere to the historic biblical, creedal, and confessional faith of Church know that the infinite has definitively appeared in the finite in Christ. By his eschatological act of death and resurrection, he ended all provisionality and vouchsafed the goal and purpose of creation in the unconditional promise of the gospel. In this, he sums up all things in himself (Eph 1:10). Moreover, he promised that the perfection and infinity of his truth would be present in the finitude of the Scripture and the sacraments. In light of the Lutheran capax, Becker’s provisionalist approach to fundamental theology is largely sterile.
Grand Rapids, MI
Lutherans in America: A New History. By Mark Granquist. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.
At long last there is a successor to The Lutherans in North America, edited by E. Clifford Nelson and first published when Gerald Ford was our president. Comparison between the Nelson volume and Mark Granquist’s new history of the Lutheran churches in America is difficult because the former had a stable of authors, each contributing on his period of expertise. There was an unevenness going from Theodore Tappert to some of the lesser lights. Now Granquist tells the story himself, so the strengths and weaknesses are at least equal throughout. The comparison is not between apples and oranges but between different kinds of apples. They have much in common but finally are not meant to taste exactly the same.
Granquist frames the story of American Lutheranism as a history of who came to America and when, who came into fellowship with whom and when, and how the faithful dealt with the innumerable changes America constantly brings. Granquist offers with the greatest possible precision tables and charts tracking Lutheran population, membership figures, and the various church foundations, mergers, and splits throughout all the years since Rasmus Jensen, the Danish pastor, was the first Lutheran minister to serve and to die in the New World. Anyone interested in telling this story will have to touch on common themes and figures. The derelict pastor Jacob Fabricius appears in colonial New York and then on the Delaware. Muhlenberg arrives in 1742 from Halle by way of London to set things in order and establish the first American Lutheran synod in 1748. In him the worlds of German Lutheran Pietism and British America meet: he is sent by the Halle Fathers with the urging and benediction of Michael Ziegenhagen, Lutheran chaplain to the Hanoverian English court. The Missouri Synod is established and grows extremely rapidly in the nineteenth century, even as Eastern Lutherans differ widely about what it means to be Lutheran. In the twentieth century Lutheran union eventually becomes almost everyone’s spoken or unspoken goal, and in a certain skepticism about the ultimate value of merger Granquist makes a very valuable contribution to Lutheran historiography.
This pessimism about merger is the child of the disappointing story of the ELCA. Readers learn that the Commission for a New Lutheran Church (CNLC), established in 1982 to bring the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and the American Evangelical Lutheran Church together, bequeathed all of its own tensions to the ELCA, when the new church came into existence in 1988. Strife over the doctrine of the ministry, the nature of ecumenism, the role of quotas in church governance, and the nature of human sexuality were all present on the CNLC, and so have been with the ELCA from its founding. Since 1988 it has in some measure declined in membership each year, and as early as the mid-1990s a task force on human sexuality drew up a report commending the ordination of actively homosexual candidates for the ministry. This report was hastily withdrawn when prematurely leaked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
To go deeper into the past, Granquist even observes that the bureaucratic difficulties of streamlining various groups into one and financially sustaining the one new church were present even in the ALC and LCA, although they had formed more than twenty-five years before the ELCA’s birth. He sees the difficulties experienced by the ELCA, the fruit of the hopes of so many Lutherans throughout American history, as endemic to any church body seeking to be nationwide and multiethnic in America. The General Synod, established in 1820, experienced theological dissension almost immediately, despite the relatively much greater homogeneity of the church body and the nation in the Era of Good Feelings. It even was the cause of a church split before its founding, when the Tennessee Synod formed as an exodus from the North Carolina Synod in opposition to a potentially nationwide church body. How much more, then, will there be dissension and variation in church bodies today that span across the United States and throughout the numerous social classes and ethnic groups America contains?
With a much appreciated lack of noticeable rancor toward the Missouri Synod and other Synodical Conference church bodies, Granquist points out the growing theological heterogeneity of the LCMS in the 1950s and 1960s, in part explaining it by the great demographic changes coming to the Synod with an influx of non-Lutheran, non-Germanic adult converts as the LCMS spread out into the growing suburbs of postwar America. At the very same time lifelong Missourians pursued theological degrees outside of the Synod in large numbers, so that in both church and academe Missouri was less separate than ever. Missouri then began to face the same challenges of integration and Americanization that the General Synod had debated back when the Ministerium of Pennsylvania withdrew to preserve its German heritage. All American Lutherans struggle with almost all the same social, political, and economic challenges, but their different histories lie in how they respond in their preaching and teaching.
It’s in that crisis of confession and theological discernment that one wishes Granquist presented a more theological view of theology. Words drawn from diplomacy crowd out theological words, so that a controversy over confessional subscription or the election of grace is often described in terms of “balance,” “moderates,” “the extreme,” as if everything is finally political. If the church’s history has anything to do with the calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying of the whole Christian church by the Holy Spirit, then a church historian has to make theological judgments. At any given time someone made a true confession and someone did not; if that is not the case, then church historians awash in relativism are of all theologians most to be pitied.
Granquist rightly notes that S.S. Schmucker was more Lutheran than his immediate predecessors in early America, but he is fuzzier on the exact differences between the General Synod and the General Council. It makes it hard for the student to see what all the fuss was about. The Missouri Synod is described in relation to seventeenth-century Lutheran orthodoxy, rather than particularly stringent adherence to the Lutheran confessions. This makes it hard to see why the LCMS objected to the General Council’s Akron-Galesburg Rule, since everyone claimed to be Lutheran. This lack of theological precision makes the old ULCA’s offer of fellowship to any church claiming to be Lutheran seem reasonable and even logical, whereas Missouri and much of Midwestern Lutheranism saw it as the acceptance of error.
Granquist points out succinctly and brilliantly that where nineteenth-century Lutherans presumed the Bible’s authority and clashed over the Confessions’ authority, twentieth-century Lutherans simply clashed over the Bible’s authority. Full-blown Protestant liberalism came late to American Lutheranism, and his suggestion that what he and Maria Erling have called the Lutheran Left, devoted to social and political progressivism as well as theological liberalism, rose to prominence only with the formation of the ELCA is fascinating but undeveloped. Even in the 1920s Charles M. Jacobs’ promotion of Erlangen theology at the Philadelphia seminary provided a way for American Lutherans to differentiate between the Word of God and Scripture. Much work remains to be done on both the Lutheran Left and the rise of biblical criticism in American Lutheranism, without which we have a lot of trouble explaining the events of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in both the LCMS and the ELCA and her predecessor bodies.
There is a disappointingly large number of typos in the book. Tulpehocken, the site of an early congregation in frontier Pennsylvania, is sometimes spelled correctly but most often spelled “Tuplehocken.” If that seems obtuse, words like “programming” and the last name of The Lutheran Hour’s founder, Walter A. Maier, are both misspelled, along with a host of other names. At one point the Formula of Concord appears to have been written in 1580, but three years are the difference between that single confessional document and the entire Book of Concord. More effort on its own history would be appreciated from Fortress. The very brief “excurses” between chapters, taken from columns appearing in the Metro Lutheran, repeat things said better elsewhere, except the pieces on Thea Ronning, a Norwegian-American missionary to China, and on Hispanic Lutheranism, the book’s final excursus touching on the Lutheran churches in Puerto Rico and Mexico. Granquist admirably seeks to cover the entirety of his subject’s breadth, although this will leave the author and the reader at times breathless. Based on his knowledge of the Augustana Synod, the reader will learn more about it than, say, the Wauwatosa gospel or the doctrinal differences on the ministry between the LCMS and the WELS. But space and time are limited, and Granquist covers all the main events and characters with as much thoroughness as 300-odd pages allow. His coverage of American history at the opening of each chapter sets the church’s history within the world’s history, where it belongs, since we are “in the world.”
If the world is impossible to escape, then every Lutheran church will face the challenges and opportunities it offers. Nothing will ever stay exactly the same, for better or worse. We all became or are even now still becoming Americans. The question at the end of reading this very valuable book is how an American can be a confessional Lutheran. All sorts of answers have been offered to that question, but one should pay particular attention to the Synodical Conference, which alone of any large church body did not pursue an organic union of its various constituent parts. While requiring a stringent confessional standard and actual teaching and practice in accord with that standard, the Synodical Conference contained the Midwestern and partly Eastern Germans of the LCMS (eventually with its annexed English District and the Finns of the old Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of America), the Midwestern Germans of what became the Wisconsin Synod, the Norwegians of the old Norwegian Synod and then the ELS, the Slovaks of the SELC, and in the LCMS what was by far American Lutheranism’s largest contingent of African-Americans. This is greater geographic and ethnic diversity than almost any other nationwide Lutheran confessional group, with perhaps greater doctrinal and practical unity than anything preceding or succeeding it. It could be that the organic merger and bureaucratic efficiency so long sought missed the point; that one hymnal, one seminary, or one church body cannot contain the linguistic, ethnic, and regional variety of American Lutherans. Yet unity might be found again as it has been found in the past: in a clear and unanimous confession.
Rev. Adam Koontz
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