Book Review: Stjerna, Kirisi.  Lutheran Theology: A Grammar of Faith. (NY: T&T Clark, 2021)

[1] In this issue of JLE, which is dedicated to the discussion of the vocation of ELCA colleges and seminaries, it is fitting to review Kirsi Stjerna’s new handbook on Lutheran theology, a textbook dedicated to her students. This book is, itself, a connection for the Lutheran college with the church and laity.  It provides short summaries of key points in the history and theology of the Lutheran faith alongside ready-made lesson plans that include learning goals, vocabulary lists, questions for discussion, and recommended accompanying readings. The book is student and novice friendly.  The sections are short, quickly readable and digestible. Therefore, the book is useful to faculty, clergy, adult education leaders, and individual readers who are interested in teaching and learning about the history, texts, and ideas that are the foundation of Lutheranism.

[2] Importantly, the book is not a simple catechism. While it offers solid explanations of key terms and issues it is not a dogma but an invitation to “constructive theologizing, courageous proclamation, and compassionate spirituality.” (1)

[3] The book is broken into three parts focusing on three core areas: Martin Luther, Lutheran Confessions, and Lutheran Faith Language.

[4] In Part One, Stjerna focuses on Martin Luther as the foundational voice in the Lutheran tradition–a theologian who is first and foremost a preacher of Christian freedom.  The chronology of Luther’s life is an ample cheat sheet for anyone who wants a good introduction or review.   This is followed by a helpful synopsis of Freedom of a Christian and the Large Catechism.  Of special note are two ideas set up for critical thought.  The first, raised in the introductory section and revisited in Part One, asks readers to think about the rationale, benefit,  and problems with continuing to use the word “Lutheran” for the denomination. The second, poised as an intermission between the chronology and the synopsis on Luther’s views of freedom, raises the concern about Luther’s anti-Jewish views and requires the reader to commit to “rigorous, openminded, honest, and informed” work as they attend to the ethical implications involved.   The conclusion to the section as a whole is that Luther’s ideas “were revolutionary in his day, but no less for our time as they can still set the world on fire.” (29)

[5] In Part Two, Stjerna presents a road map of the Lutheran Confessions which includes a detailed look at the Book of Concord and a chapter focused on two key principles: Justification and Freedom. Stjerna reminds the reader that the goal of the Book of Concord was to provide unity for Lutherans who “were at risk of disappearing in their internal debates” (47)   Walking the reader through the pieces of the book, Stjerna ably names the central aspects of Lutheran theology—emphasizing its Catholicity.  Beginning with the creeds, Stjerna explains the Lutheran commitment to the faith statements created at the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople.  Next, Stjerna explains the Augsburg Confessions in terms of both historical and theological significance. The Smalcald Articles and the Treatise on Power and Primacy of the Papacy are briefly summarized. The Formula of Concord is explained thoroughly. Throughout the section, Stjerna concisely explains and chooses quotes that demonstrate the sincerity of  the early Lutheran church in its desire to explain its contrast with Roman Catholicism and Calvinism while emphasizing that the writers “intend to create or accept no special or new confession of our faith” but rather to formulate a “pure, Christian creed’ to “guide” Christians in a time when major controversies were raging. (51)

[6] After summarizing the Book of Concord, Stjerna explains how various parts of the global Lutheran church have emphasized or de-emphasized its parts, maintaining that the  key element in the Lutheran confessions is the ideal of Sola Scriptura. “We believe, teach, and confess that the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teachings and teachers are to be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic writings of the old and new testaments alone.”  (Formula of Concord, as quoted on p. 53) Lutheran understanding of Scriptural interpretation, according to Stjerna, took a middle path between the Roman Catholics who left this vocation in the hands of the clergy and the radical reformers who left Scripture to be interpreted literally among the laity. Importantly, stressing the Lutheran understanding of the need for both literacy and historical critical study, she points out that Lutherans historically strove to equip all children with the necessary education to read the Bible. This education for all alongside a sense of vocation for women to teach their families allowed women to gain the tools to read and interpret Scripture in Lutheran communities.  This, she argues, led to several aspects of women’s liberation and finally women’s ordination in 80% of Lutheran communities globally by 2020.

[7] In addition to the idea of Sola Scriptura, Stjerna explains other key terms that will be elucidating to the lay reader and to the teacher or pastor who is looking for ways to explain these Lutheran concepts crisply to a contemporary audience. Stjerna defines the dual nature of the Christian as saint and sinner, the concept of justification by faith, the Lutheran understanding of forgiveness, grace, and freedom.  In a nut shell, Stjerna explains, Luther’s point is this: “I have been fooled.  I am not doomed.  God is not God of wrath but God of love.  I am saved without my own doing and regardless of my finitude and failure to meet my standards.  I am free. There is hope after all!” (74)

[8]The section on the Lutheran confessions ends with a reminder that the key concepts in Lutheran theology and even Scripture itself are always being re-interpreted according to new human tradition, for human tradition is always changing and moving.  With such an understanding Stjerna begins the third section of the book: a handbook on the faith language of Lutherans.  Beginning with the Trinity, Stjerna explains the importance of Christology for understanding justification by faith.  Of special interest in this section, she provides critical discussion points concerning the use of  gendered pronouns for the persons of the Trinity and a lovely historical overview of the role of Mary as the God-Bearer (Theotokos) in the Lutheran tradition.   Next, Sterna explains the concept of sin, saying that Lutheran theology “expresses a conviction that there is something seriously off in God-human relationships and that human beings suffer from a condition that makes them prone to want, orient, and act in ways that lead to heartache and suffering.” (116)  Her discussion of sin is adequately complex, addressing its impact in the daily life of all people as well as the role of the commandments for sinners.  Of particular note in this chapter is Stjerna’s treatment of Luther’s understanding of the family as a place for both sin and grace to be experienced.  An explanation of grace and faith flows from the final words about sin asserting that the bondage of sin does not imply a lack of responsibility for the sinner, but instead reminds the sinner that the means of freedom is not in her own control but in the help given to her by God, a help often mediated through others.

[9] The role of others in community brings the reader to consider the painful fact that 500 years ago in 1521, Luther was exiled from his faith community.  This excommunication forced him and those who followed him to deal with theological and practical questions about the role of church.  Stjerna stresses the unity of the holy eternal church according to Lutheran tradition. There is a unity wherever and whenever the Word is preached.  She notes that Lutherans are firmly opposed to the heresy of the Donatists who expected purity in their clergy. In Lutheran understanding, the church is populated with saints who are also sinners.  Luckily, it is God who does the work of the sacraments not the pastor, and thus their sins can harm the human community certainly but not destroy the efficacy of baptism or communion.

[10] Stjerna, then, explains the Lutheran position on the true efficacy of the sacraments with sections on baptism, including infant baptism, and the eucharist as the real presence of Christ. Sacramental efficacy is not affected by the purity of the pastor or congregant.  She quotes the Large Catechism, “We are not baptized because we are worthy and holy. . . we come as poor miserable people precisely because we are unworthy.” (LC 411,  p. 156-7)

[11] Inviting the reader into thoughtful reflection, Stjerna explains Luther’s concerns around other church practices and traditions that might persuade a congregant to try to purify herself through these exercises rather than letting the exercises be opportunities to renew her faith. Rituals, fasting, and feast days are considered.

[12] She notes that there was a strong desire among the first Lutherans not to be a new church, due to an understanding of themselves as reformers of the Catholic church on but a few abuses. But since that first division there has been continual division over questions of practice. Stjerna invites readers and teachers to consider what issues should frame our next ecumenical dialogues as we seek deeper unity with each other and other denominations.  Some questions emerge such as: Who do we welcome to communion? Who can marry? Is marriage a vocation for all? Is there a place for the celibate religious?  Who can be clergy? What is the role of private and public confession before the eucharist is taken? What is the power of the church? What is secular power?

[13] Having explained key concepts in Lutheran theology and offering topics for further reflection, Stjerna concludes her book with the understanding that Lutheran faith is one of radical hope in  a loving God who lives with us, dies with us, and offers of hope of resurrection for us. She leaves the reader with the request that this hope helps those associated with the word “Lutheran” drive for freedom and justice for all people.   This book is a fine introduction or review of the key elements of Lutheran theology with the important goal that such learning will be followed by continued constructive theological and ethical thinking.




Jennifer Hockenbery

Jennifer Hockenbery serves as Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics .  She is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at St Norbert College. She attends Grace Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI.