500th Anniversary Book Sampling

Editor’s Note: The Journal of Lutheran Ethics welcomes Dr. Nancy Arnison as our new Book Review Editor.

[1] A publishing bonanza has accompanied the 500th anniversary of Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses” issued in Wittenberg in October, 2017. This issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics surveys a diverse sampling of these new resources. While future issues of the JLE will continue to have longer form book reviews, here we offer shorter treatments of a larger number of books in an effort to touch on the range of resources available for congregational study, personal reading and academic scholarship as we ponder the past and future of the Protestant Reformation.

[2] A lively and accessible introduction to Luther and the early years of the Reformation is found in Craig Harline, A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) 312 pages. Harline is Professor of History at Brigham Young University. His book focuses on the flesh-and-blood Luther, emphasizing the drama of this monk’s personal and spiritual struggles. Luther emerges as a brilliant scholar, a tormented soul, a vociferous critic, and stubborn actor in a time of religious and political turbulence. Harline combines the storytelling of dangerous escape as Luther flees for his life, with a picture of the social, cultural and spiritual climate of the 16th century. Suitable for the general reader, this book brings to life an era, a large personality and an intense life. Instead of addressing Luther’s legacy, Harline narrows his focus to the early years of the Reformation, inviting the reader into a story of a particular time, place and person, emphasizing the role of Luther’s personal spiritual quest in igniting a revolution.

[3] Another biography, recently translated from the German, also focuses on Luther-the-man. It carefully disputes commonly held views of Luther-the-legend. The author is Volker Leppin, Professor of Church History at the University of Tubingen, and his book is Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life trans. Rhys Bezzant, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017) 135 pages. The book opens with a forward by Timothy Wengert who situates the work within the lineage of other Luther scholarship. Each chapter highlights the evolution of one of Luther’s many roles – monk, professor, publicist, prophet, preacher, educator, etc. In this brief but scholarly work, Leppin brings both theological and historical detail to Luther’s life and to the development of the early Reformation. Leppin criticizes narratives of “breakthrough moments” in Luther’s life and work, siding instead with scholarship that emphasizes not only Luther’s originality but also his continuity with late medieval Christendom. For example, Leppin cautions against over-reliance on Luther’s own later accounts that attribute his theological insights and reforming spirit to earlier life traumas. Turning to Luther’s earlier writings, Leppin disputes the view that credits Luther’s insights primarily to his spiritual struggles with a judging, wrathful deity and his quest for a merciful God. Instead, Leppin emphasizes that Luther’s vision of a gracious God was deeply congruent with his embrace of the German mystical tradition with its tender and loving God. Similarly his pro me approach to scriptural interpretation was consistent with the existential readings of earlier writers and his mentor, Staupitz. Without detracting from Luther’s uniqueness, Leppin places him strictly within the context of his era and describes a gradual process of development in which he was both steeped in medieval faith and culture, and also a key agent in the Western transition to modernity.

[4] Moving away from biographical approaches, we find a wide-ranging introductory academic overview of the Protestant Reformation in Paul Silas Peterson, Reformation in the Western World: An Introduction (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017). 275 pages. Where the previously-mentioned books focus primarily on Luther and the early Reformation period, Peterson, who teaches theology and church history at the University of Tubingen, addresses the long-term legacy of the Reformation for the Western world. Suitable for coursework, the book begins with definitions and the medieval context of the Reformation, examining both continuity and discontinuity with contemporaneous movements. A chapter on the “evils and errors” of the reformers addresses the persecution and violence with which reforms were both opposed and implemented. After illustrating the connections of theological and ecclesial reform with political authority in the Middle Ages, Peterson turns to a wide range of cultural, social and political issues in the Western world, examining the influence of Reformation principles (e.g. grace, scriptural authority, priesthood of all believers) on modernity, democracy, freedom, capitalism, secularism, and pluralism. He describes the Reformation as the most important event in the early modern world and surveys its legacies (positive and negative) into the present day. This is a lot of ground to cover in a compact book. The historical sections are stronger than his treatment of contemporary society in which he discusses Western narratives of decline, multiculturalism and Islam. The final chapter on ecumenism addresses the Reformation’s legacy of a divided church. Offering thorough historical and theological perspectives, Peterson reviews past and present ecumenical efforts, noting in particular the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed in 1999 by the Lutheran World Federation and Roman Catholic Church. In light of ongoing debates about unity and plurality, Peterson calls for differentiated unity and ecumenical commemoration of the Reformation.

[5] Ecumenical commemoration is instantiated in a joint publication of The Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017) 157 pages. This small and useful book contains the 2013 report of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity along with a study guide and liturgical materials for shared Catholic-Lutheran worship. The book opens with a helpful introduction by William Rusch, who teaches Lutheran studies at Yale Divinity School. He provides historical context for the document, including a clear and interesting outline of official Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical efforts (both international and US-based) and the growing consensus in the last 50 years on a range of issues, reflecting increasingly closer ties and shared understandings, though not total agreement. The purpose of From Conflict to Communion is to create opportunities and resources for deeper communion between Lutherans and Roman Catholics to celebrate their common witness to the gospel. The opening chapters provide a historical sketch of the Reformation and the Catholic response (Ch.3); new perspectives on Luther emerging from recent scholarship (Ch.2); and the contemporary context for commemorating the Reformation in a global era (Ch.1). Chapter 4 identifies themes in Luther’s work that are especially relevant to ecumenical dialogue: justification, eucharist, ministry, and Scripture and tradition. Chapter 5 finds the basis for Christian unity and common commemoration in baptism, through which we belong to the one body of Christ. Both groups acknowledge sinning against this unity and seek forgiveness. The final chapter offers ecumenical imperatives including an attitude of unity; openness to being transformed by the other; rediscovering the power of the gospel in this time, and witnessing together in proclamation and service. Scholars and students will find useful the two Appendices on Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue and the Common Statements and Membership of the Commission, while congregations will welcome the Study Guide and liturgical resources including services of Common Prayer and Vespers. Studiously prepared, this book is nonetheless accessible to lay readers and parishioners who wish to learn more about the Reformation and ensuing dialogues, and who ponder the future of the unity of the Church.

[6] Today, more Protestants live outside the West than in it. Authors Alberto Garcia and John Nunes issue a heartfelt plea to reimagine the Reformation legacy through the voices of those who live at the margins – those in the Majority World (Global South) and in the US diaspora. Garcia is Professor Emeritus at Concordia University Wisconsin and Nunes is President of Concordia University New York. Their book, Wittenberg Meets the World: Reimagining the Reformation at the Margins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017) 188 pages, joins the choir of contextual theologians calling for theology that listens to the lives and voices of the marginalized. Garcia and Nunes bring a postcolonial lens and traditional Lutheran theological commitments to the task. Lively writers, their stories and analysis will reach general readers and college/seminary students, while the discussion questions in the appendix also support use in congregations. Portions of the book specifically reflect and address the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, but in general, the writing has broader applicability. A forward by Martin Marty highlights the emotional pull of the book and an afterward by Melanie Trexler distills the arguments that gradually unfold in the text. Using classical Lutheran doctrines to do theology “from below,” the authors attempt to bring new life to the principle of the priesthood of all believers. In listening to believers, primarily of Caribbean and Latin American descent, they hear a search for the “God of life.” Focus is directed to communities marginalized by culture, economy, migration status, and race, but unfortunately there is little attention to gender. The doctrine of justification provides the theological framing from which the authors then move specifically into martyria (witness), diakonia (service) and koinonia (fellowship). Garcia and Nunes devote two chapters to each topic, alternating authorship. Their discussions of martyria recall simul justus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinners), structural sin, and the church’s role in perpetuating and dismantling harmful systems. They argue that witness from the margins can teach Northern Christians that God’s mercy is wide enough for all. The chapters on diakonia urge a constructive reimaging of service. Consistent with trends in philanthropy and charity they advocate service with and alongside, rather than to or for others. In a more controversial stance, Nunes mourns the professionalized separation of human care ministries from witness and proclamation, arguing for a return to holistic ministries that integrate service and evangelism. Last, the authors address koinonia as they envision fellowship and life together across communities in a spirit of solidarity.

[7] Elisabeth Gerle looks at the legacy and promise of Reformation insights for a theological perspective that begins with the body. Contemporary culture expresses ambivalence about the human body – worshipping it on the one hand, and devaluing and exploiting it on the other. The church, too, has been home to widely divergent views of sensuality and the body. Medieval mystics describe Jesus as lover, while other views disparage sensuality as an obstacle to faith, positing that bodily desires should be controlled by the intellect; sexuality competes with devotion to God; and women’s bodies are dangerous. Gerle saw need for a study exploring Luther’s work in relation to love, the body and sensual presence. Using Luther’s insights to challenge traditional Protestant dichotomies between spirit and body, Gerle presents Luther as an ally in reclaiming the body from spiritual exile. She explores the implications of this work for religion, gender, ethics and politics.

[8] Gerle is Professor of Ethics at Lund University and the Church of Sweden Research Department. Passionate Embrace: Luther on Love, Body, and Sensual Presence (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017) 323 pages is an extensive study placing Martin Luther into a global conversation with contemporary feminist, liberation and eros theologies as well as key historical figures shaping the intellectual traditions underlying various Christian views of the body. All of this is done in the context of current questions regarding “contemporary wounds associated with gender, sexual orientation, and ethnic and religious affiliation.” Echoing Luther’s style, the book is non-linear. Gerle does not attempt a comprehensive systematic study of his often contradictory and evolving body of work, but rather brings select Luther texts into dialogue with each other and with a broad range of historical and contemporary perspectives, culling insights for today’s world. Her arguments are clearly presented, with a roadmap in the first chapter and summaries dotted throughout. This study will be useful for seminary courses, scholars and clergy, and Gerle’s engaging writing style will delight general readers.

[9] This book begins by examining multiple views of Luther, ranging from hero to oppressor, and setting forth reasons to reread him today. Identifying contemporary trends toward austerity and asceticism that deny healthy attention to the body and risk re-marginalizing women, Gerle argues for thoughtful theological attention to the body. Reviewing the medieval era, she discusses the erotic language of the mystical tradition as it expresses union between God and the soul. She identifies Luther’s own contributions that value sensuality and the body not only in expressing the divine/human relationship, but in everyday life and in relationships between human beings. Highlighting recent scholarship on Luther’s writings about the nuptial mystery, Gerle argues that in Luther’s Christ mystery in which Christ is the bride/groom, Luther both uses and breaks with tradition. He uses gender-fluid language and embraces mutual love, reciprocity and the independence of every human being, offering resources for contemporary relationships.

[10] Gerle draws on Scandinavian creation theology and eros theology to tackle the disparagement of eros and to break down the Lutheran tradition’s rigid distinctions between different kinds of love found in Nygren’s classic opposition of eros and agape.

[11] Permeating the book is an incarnational theology that emphasizes immanence. God is mysteriously present now — in earthly life, in human bodily form, and in human sensory experience of the divine. Body and spirit need not be opposed, nor must physical desire impede the spiritual life. Luther’s emphasis on God’s gracious gift of the body as means of support provides a positive lens for sexuality, desire, physical work, and ordinary life. To Luther, the human body and sensual presence are neither sinful nor threatening to a relationship with God. For Gerle, Luther is a forerunner to an embodied, holistic spirituality that simultaneously upends both the denigration of the body found in ascetic renunciation, and the idolatrization of the body in contemporary culture.

[12] Permeating the book is also recognition that theology deeply affects actual people and real issues—gender, sexuality, and vulnerable bodies of all types. For example, while recognizing that Luther reflected his own patriarchal world, Gerle nonetheless finds in his work, useful resources for addressing gender. She warns against the contemporary turn to an asceticism that sharply distinguishes between male/female and sacred/profane that risks re-marginalizing women. As Luther affirmed the imago dei, disrupted traditional gendered images, celebrated everyday life and its vocations, and insisted on the priesthood of all believers, he offered insights that can be culled to fuel the recognition of women as valued, autonomous, ethical agents.

[13] In Jason A Mahn, ed., Radical Lutherans / Lutheran Radicals (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017) 156 pages, we encounter five contemporary theologians asking whether it is possible for Lutherans to be sociopolitically radical. Can Lutherans be faithfully and deeply grounded in their theological tradition and simultaneously radically disruptive in society? This edited volume of case studies answers “yes.” It takes four key figures spanning the Reformation to the modern era (Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Dorothee Soelle) and examines the way each of them draws on the roots of Luther’s life/work in order to undergird an extraordinary life of social and theological transformation.

[14] Samuel Torvend opens the case studies with Martin Luther himself. Calling Luther the “forgotten radical” Torvend shows how revolutionary Luther’s reforms were in his own time, particularly his focus on the poor and marginalized. Social reforms go hand in hand with his theological reforms. Torvend focuses on Luther’s writings on the two forms of righteousness, arguing that the first form, justification by God’s grace, leads inexorably to the second, love for the neighbor. Luther’s radical perspective reversed the standard theological stance and released the Christian from a life spent earning God’s favor, toward sharing God’s gifts in a life of neighbor-love, ameliorating suffering and addressing injustice.

[15] Soren Kierkegaard drew on his Lutheran theological heritage to issue a searing critique of cultured Christianity and the Danish Lutheran establishment of his day. Carl Hughes’ essay accomplishes the difficult task of making Kierkegaard accessible to the general reader. He describes Kierkegaard’s blistering attacks against his 19th century Lutheran compatriots for selling out to the status quo. Kierkegaard claimed that Christianity should never be in alliance with, but should always oppose, the powers that be—whether social, political or ideological.

[16] Seeing complacency in a culture that conflated God’s grace with human latitude and privilege, Kierkegaard retrieved and extending Luther’s existential angst. Sharing the reformer’s sense of faith as subjective (pro me), Kierkegaard portrays faith as a radically individualized (non-institutional) longing and desire. Torvend emphasizes, however, that this fervent and passionate faith does not rest in isolation. It transforms how one lives, and manifests itself as love for human beings, including the enemy.

[17] Lori Brandt Hale authors the chapter on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose radical political resistance to the Nazi German state both drew on and exceeded Luther’s perspective.

[18] Hale describes Bonhoeffer as initially accepting, then rejecting, the bifurcation of political and ecclesial realms; challenging accepted notions of grace (“cheap grace”) and retrieving Luther’s more radical version; and radically taking Luther’s famous instruction to “sin boldly” into the socio-political arena.

[19] In her chapter on the German activist and theologian, Dorothee Soelle, Jacqueline Bussie argues that Soelle’s liberation theology is deeply grounded in her Lutheran roots, an affinity and heritage that is often overlooked. Indeed, like Kierkegaard, Soelle was a harsh critic of the Lutheran church and its acceptance of the status quo, but she remained passionately committed to the Christian gospel and the love of Jesus for the poor and marginalized. Influenced by Bonhoeffer, she sought to reform the church to actually live out the gospel within the pressing needs of the world. Bussie connects Soelle’s reforming work as a liberation theologian to her roots in Luther’s theology of the cross where God is hidden in the midst of affliction and can be known only through the cross. In Soelle’s emphasis that God is found in the suffering of Jesus and in suffering humans today, Bussie traces a lineage to Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation.

[20] Soelle goes beyond Luther and Bonheoffer in insisting that all theology has socio-political implications. Bussie illustrates that Soelle both draws on their insights and develops them further for application in a troubled world. In Soelle’s hands, Luther’s definition of sin as homo incurvatus in se ipsum (the person twisted/curved in on oneself) moves beyond the individual to encompass collective and systemic sin – structural evil. Radicalizing Bonhoeffer’s work on divine powerlessness, Soelle maintains that God needs us as much as we need God. By empowering humans to be co-creators with God, God shares power with humans, lovingly enacting a type of power that empowers others. Bussie concludes that in directing these insights to a liberating theology focused on the vulnerable and marginalized neighbor, Soelle should be most aptly called a “Lutheran liberation theologian of the cross.”

[21] Jason Mahn, editor of the volume, offers a helpful introduction and an inspiring final chapter, cleverly titled “You: Radicalizing Life’s Calling.” Having brought together a group of essays that has a coherence often lacking in edited volumes, Mahn turns his final chapter directly to the reader. Pointing to these radical Lutheran thinkers/activists who have used reformation insights to transform theology and society, Mahn invites the reader to see Lutheran resources with fresh eyes—as provocative tools for active engagement in the world.

[22] Taking the theme of calling/vocation, Mahn lifts up Lutheran, Anabaptist and liberationist critiques of common Lutheran views that seem to merely sanction the careers we find satisfying. Satisfaction, Mahn argues, must not come at the expense of our primary calling to do justice. Luther’s own understanding of vocation highlighted the poor and vulnerable as our guides to justice.

[23] Mahn identifies the central characteristics of Lutheran understandings of vocation (rootedness in creation, responsiveness to neighbors in need, attention to routine roles and responsibilities, and marked by gratitude) and radicalizes them. Both appreciating and transforming traditional Lutheran insights, Mahn warns against a tendency towards complacency. While God surely works through fallen structures and people, a too-slow reliance on working through these systems can also provide an excuse for waiting when instead we should be acting. Mahn’s particular focus on the environment is illustrative. and offers a timely call to action.

[24] Clearly written and passionately argued, the book is accessible to general readers. Each chapter contains discussion questions and suggestions for further reading/viewing, making the volume ideal for use in congregations and classroom settings. Lay readers will also find in this volume some very accessible windows into the thought of important figures in theology and society.

[25] Finally, we call attention to a new reference work, Timothy Wengert, general editor; Mark Granquist, Mary Jane Haemig, Robert Kolb, Mark C. Mattes, and Jonathan Strom, associate eds., Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017) 880 pages. While not the stuff of daily (or bedtime) reading, this large compendium of all things Lutheran will be a welcome addition to any church library. With noted scholars at the helm, its scope is vast, including global history and a broad scope of Lutheran traditions.

Nancy Arnison

Nancy Arnison is a lawyer, theologian and nonprofit executive and serves as the Book Review Editor for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.