Introduction to Hinlicky Book Review

[1] At an Ash Wednesday Service a few years back, the Dean of an Episcopal Cathedral in the South began his sermon by apologizing for what he deemed to be a “conservative” element in his homily. I braced myself for a torrent of reactionary, Bible-thumping, “hell-fire and damnation” rhetoric with women and children covering their ears and grown men cowering in guilt in the back pews. But, such was not to be the case. The dreaded “radioactive” ingredient in his proclamation proved to be his mere mentioning of the word “sin.” No matter that the entire message that night consisted of a catalogue of the “corporate sins” Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology from Luther to Leibniz by Paul Hinlickyof an American society whose systemic inequities in the political, economic and social spheres of our common life are so deep and profound that nothing less than an eschatological denouement of the present world order would ever be able to resolve it. It was the use of the dreaded “s” word that elicited the caveat at the beginning of the sermon. To this day, I am bewildered by that Dean’s notion that he had somehow veered into a conservative abyss and owed his congregation heart-felt contrition.

[2] Then, just a matter of months ago, there was the discussion with a seminarian who was on leave from one of our ELCA seminaries who had not a clue as to the meaning of the phrase “liberal Protestantism” when that term is contrasted with traditional Lutheranism.

[3] Finally, there was the comment from a Lutheran seminary professor to the effect that he is uneasy dealing with “confessional” Lutherans because he suspects they want to resurrect the bad old days when heresy trials threatened to stain our national reputation as Lutherans, and when those holding orthodox Christian dogma seemed not to understand the full meaning of “speaking the truth in love.”

[4] Such experiences make me wonder: are the seminaries of the Church giving solid theological education to our pastoral candidates? Do we as Lutherans even understand — much less agree — on what is meant by ‘solid,” or ‘theological’ or ‘education’? To ask the questions is probably to give an answer of a sort.

[5] All of this is to say that one of Lutheranism’s very brightest theological lights has just recently authored a book that should be required reading for graduation from any Lutheran seminary in this country. Titled, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology from Luther to Leibniz, Paul Hinlicky of Roanoke College has performed an enormous service to the church catholic, but especially to its Lutheran branch of the 21st century. He has done this in two ways: first, by providing what amounts to a compendium of theology over the last five hundred years(!), and then by stimulating the reader’s imagination as to the future of philosophical theology.

[6] Make no mistake, this relatively small volume packs a very large philosophical and theological wallop. It is not intended for the faint of heart: i.e., those who consider theology an impediment to the genius of one’s own inner spirituality. Nor is it aimed at those who pit theology over against “practical” studies for ministers. And it fairly explodes the prevailing sentiment these days that the theology of the Church is reserved for the rare few who like to deal with arcane abstractions, and need not concern the parish pastor or committed lay person. Hinlicky’s exposition of the trajectory that philosophy and theology have taken since the days of G. W. Leibniz [1647-1717] — a philosopher he deems to have been deeply influenced by both Luther’s and Melanchthon’s thought — is a virtual graduate course in theology, and a testament to the crucial role of theology in the life of a pastor.

[7] Hinlicky does write in a fashion that assumes you are willing to use the dictionary you packed away with the old seminary texts, that you will occasionally bother to crack a Theological Encyclopedia, and even — in spots — that you have access to a Latin-English Dictionary. This is a serious work; but for those who are the least bit curious about the dynamics between Luther’s own and Melanchthon’s thought — and the possible trajectories that an evangelical-catholic theology might take in our post-modern world — it is an immensely rewarding one. To repeat: this book belongs in every Christian pastor’s study, and it should be essential reading for Lutheran seminarians.

[8] The special treat for those who inhabit the Journal of Lutheran Ethics website is that this month’s reviewer of Paths Not Taken is Mark Mattes, like Hinlicky one of contemporary Lutheranism’s truly bright young stars. He brings to this task a passionate commitment to Luther’s doctrine of “justification” as not just the foundation, but the “hub” of all other doctrines of the church, and with it the insight that “faith cannot and should not be transcended by understanding, by sight (2Cor. 5:7).”1 It is this perspective of the potential idolatry of all metaphysical systems, a view nurtured in the school of Gerhard O. Forde, which you will find in tension with the evangelical catholic stance of Paul Hinlicky. Enjoy the friendly debate, and soak up the rich tradition that is ours as Lutherans.

[9] Paul Hinlicky is the Tice Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College, in Salem, Virginia. He is internationally known, has published more than fifty articles and several books, has edited Lutheran Forum and Pro Ecclesia, and is an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Before arriving at Roanoke, he served for six years as a missionary professor of the ELCA at Jan Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. His Ph.D is from Union Theological Seminary.

[10] Our reviewer, Mark Mattes, is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa. He previously served parishes in Gardner, Illinois and Antigo, Wisconsin. He holds a Ph.D. from The University of Chicago; and among his many publications has authored the brilliant study of the uses of justification in modern thinkers in The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology (2004).


1. Mark C. Mattes, The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004) 5.

Michael Shahan

Michael Shahan is Book Review Editor of Journal of Lutheran Ethics. A retired ELCA clergyman, Shahan does freelance writing from his Nashville home.