Review: Martin Luther and the Called Life (Fortress Press, 2016)

[1] The first words in the introduction to Mark Tranvik’s Martin Luther and the Called Life, state the problem the book addresses:

Ask people the following: when they are on the job, walking or standing still, eating, drinking, sleeping, or engaging in any activity that sustains the body or promotes the common good, do they consider their action to be good works pleasing to God? You will find that they say no. They define good works very narrowly and confine them to church-related activities such as praying, fasting, and giving alms.1

[2] The passage is a quote from Luther’s Treatise on Good Works of 1520. Tranvik believes this problem, identified by Luther 500 years ago — that Christians too often regard Gospel faith and life in the world as separate realms of human endeavor, neither interacting with, nor informing one another — is still with us. He believes that the separation of faith from everyday life is harmful both to faith and to the world in which Christians live, and that Luther’s theology of vocation provides a vital alternative. Finally, Tranvik believes that telling the story of how Luther lived out his solution to this problem will be helpful to readers in the twenty-first century.

[3] As Luther was, Tranvik is both a minister of Word and Sacrament and an academic. He has been a professor of religion at Augsburg College for twenty years, before which he served for a decade as a parish pastor. Tranvik tells the reader he has always had a passion for helping ordinary Christians understand the most important aspects of Luther’s theology and that this book represents his “desire to carry faith into the home, workplace, and public square.”2 This is an introductory text primarily for church laity, and perhaps also for college or seminary students.

[4] Tranvik believes that Luther’s theology of vocation can help remedy a number of spiritual dangers Christians many now face. The first of these is “therapeutic moral deism,” the beliefs that “religion mainly has to do with being good (as you personally conceive it), maybe turning to God is a crisis, and otherwise seeing very little connection between this ‘faith’ and daily life.”3 Second, Tranvik believes Luther’s claim that “one becomes holy because of one’s relationship to Christ and not because a person has changed to become more like Christ”4 can stand against contrary notions of holiness. A third danger is a heroic conception of Christian calling, emphasizing the need to do justice at societal and global levels at the expense of less glamorous service as family members, workers, and participants in the life of the Church. A fourth danger is the conceptual reduction of one’s vocation to one’s profession or role in the economy. Finally, Tranvik warns against “vocation Light” perspectives which arise “when the notion of vocation is cut loose from its theological moorings and is interpreted exclusively in therapeutic or psychological categories.” 5

[5] What is Luther’s theology of vocation? Tranvik offers the reader an account of the Lutheran doctrine of the “orders of creation”.6 This is the claim that since God is the creator of all, God ultimately has authority over all realms of life. Christian faithfulness then entails exercising one’s freedom in Christ by serving in one’s roles in all “arenas to which a Christian has been called.”7 Tranvik tells the story of how Luther lived out his own roles as baptized Christian, spouse, father, teacher, and citizen in the sixteenth century, prompting the reader to consider how to live out Christian faith through these realms in his or her own life.

[6] However, Tranvik means not only to revive Luther’s orders but also to revise them, to “stretch them in a way that provides engagement with contemporary life,”8 He wishes to stretch them in three directions. First, he proposes the addition of two additional orders or spheres of relatedness. For Luther there were three: church, family, and society. Tranvik adds both a more intimate realm of one’s personal relationship with God in Christ through baptism, and a more expansive realm of one’s calling in the workplace.

[7] Second, Tranvik writes, “If I had to make one compelling argument for what it means to be a Christian, I would underline the gift of freedom.”9 And so he urges the reader regard to Luther’s orders in ways which will expand human freedom, acknowledging that Luther “was a child of his times in many ways,”10 whose views about these roles is not sufficient for our time. For example, “Much of what [Luther] says about the calling of a husband or wife simply reflects his sixteenth-century context and is no longer applicable.”11 Similarly, “Luther could not have conceived of citizen participation in a democratic process where people voted people in and out of office,”12 though of course Tranvik endorses this process.

[8] Third, Tranvik acknowledges the history of identifying Luther’s spheres of human life in order to keep them separated, and that this separation has had inestimably disastrous consequences, most terrifyingly in the Church’s silence and complicity in the face of the atrocity of Nazi Germany.13 Tranvik claims that in fact this separation of spheres was a betrayal of Luther, who conceived of the orders as concentric, overlapping circles. He suggests that in serving God above all one must sometimes accept the demands issued from within one of these orders by rejecting the demands of another one, as when Luther believed his call to the priesthood superseded his duty to obey his father. Similarly, Luther’s highest loyalty to God freed and compelled him to play a prophetic role before his political and ecclesiastical authorities.

[9] Tranvik has arranged this book into two parts, respectively reflecting the two parts of its title “Martin Luther” and “the Called Life.” Part One consists of three chapters, telling the story of the development of Luther’s theology of vocation. Chapter One sketches the history of Western thought on vocation leading up to Luther. Chapter Two provides a brief biography of Luther as a background for his conception of vocation. Chapter Three is dedicated to Luther’s understanding of baptism as providing the fundamental calling for all Christians. Part Two contains five chapters, each dedicated to one of the specific “arenas” Tranvik identifies: Chapter Four to one’s I-thou relationship to God rooted in baptism; Chapter Five to family life; Chapter Six to the political realm; chapter seven to the ecclesiastical realm; and Chapter Eight to one’s role in the economy. Each of the chapters in Part Two ends with a section headed “What Does This Mean?” in which Tranvik invites the reader to apply insights gained from Luther’s life and thought to the twenty-first century. Each chapter in Part Two contains a few questions as conversation starters for study groups. The short Conclusion restates the problem and again urges the reader to take up and live into Luther’s conception of vocation.

[10] Many who read this book will be refreshed by the reminder that for Luther being justified by grace means expressing one’s faith through joyful, freed service in all areas of life. Tranvik’s account of Luther’s life is lively, often charming, and generally engaging. His eagerness to rehabilitate Luther’s orders of creation will be intriguing if not fully persuasive to those familiar with the history of the doctrine and its abuse. Those not familiar with that history will find the doctrine as presented by Tranvik easy to understand and sensible.

[11] Three sorts of questions might be helpful for the readers of this journal as they prepare to lead discussions of Tranvik’s book for his primary intended audience (church laity and students without a deep understanding of Luther’s life and theology). First are questions of how the orders are to be related to one another. Does Luther’s disobedience to his father suggest that for him service in the ecclesial realm generally over-rides one’s service in the family? Does service to one’s family transcend public service, or should these be ordered the other way around?

[12] Second, there are questions of how to relate Luther’s theology of vocation to Christian ethics. Tranvik states, “[Christians] do have principles that cannot be compromised,” including “that we are to love our neighbors, care for creation, seek justice in society, and keep a special eye out for the vulnerable, weak, and marginalized.”14 But on what basis does Tranvik (or did Luther) hold these principles? Just where do they come from? A little bit more historical, theological, or philosophical exploration would be helpful here.

[13] Tranvik highlights Luther’s cautious attitude toward human reason,15 and so he might not wish to philosophize about Luther’s principles, or his own. But since Luther’s views about women and politics, views Tranvik urges we abandon, seem consistent with the second century views of the pastoral epistles (quoted in versions of Luther’s catechism), one presumes that Tranvik will not be guided by a scriptural positivism. Moreover Tranvik is clear that Christians should not “make an absolute (thus sayeth the Lord) type of claim” about ethical matters based upon some supposed privately received “Word of the Lord.”16 Tranvik’s approval of modern liberal ideas of equality and democracy as well as his ethical fallibilism lead one to suspect that at least some of his principles are rooted in the philosophical tradition running through Mill to Hume and Locke. On the other hand, Luther’s very notion of “orders” of social relations may have roots in the work Luther’s and Melanchthon’s favorite philosopher, Cicero.17

[14] Third, these questions about principles raise further questions about the relationship of Christian theology—especially Lutheran expressions of it–to ethics. If Cicero or philosophical liberalism can or do provide such guiding ethical principles, does Luther’s theology of vocation, or do the scriptures themselves, add anything to the content of ethics for Christians? If so, what? Does Luther merely provide a theological motivation, approval and/or justification for taking up a previously or independently existing general view of ethics as public or “outer righteousness”?

[15] Many of these questions are obviously well beyond the intended scope and primary readership of Martin Luther and the Called Life. It is worthwhile to raise them here in part to demonstrate that this short book, written so clearly and so clearly written at an introductory level, points to the very heart of a number of vital and live issues both for the notion of orders of creation and for Lutheran ethics generally.

1 Mark D. Tranvik. Martin Luther and the Called Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016) 1, quoting Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works (1520), translated by Scott Hendrix (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012) 20.

2 Ibid., vii.

3 Ibid., 4, citing Christian Smith with Melinda L. Denton., Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford Press, 2005); cf. Tranvik, 156-157.

4 Ibid., 5.

5 Ibid., 9.

6 Carl Braaten’s, “God in Public Life: Rehabilitating the ‘Orders of Creation,’” First Things (January, 1992). (accessed January 15, 2017 ) still stands as a fine, brief account of the origin, history, and abuse of this doctrine, along with a proposal to purify and revive it.

7 Tranvik, 9.

8 Ibid., 10.

9 Ibid., 76.

10 Ibid., 165.

11 Ibid., 10.

12 Ibid., 106.

a href=”#_ednref13″ name=”_edn13″>13 Ibid., 118-19, where Tranvik hints at this tragic history by quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an opponent of the abuse of the orders of creation.

14 Ibid., 120.

15 Ibid., 66, 97, 155, 157

16 Ibid., 120.

17 See Gary Simpson, “’Written on their hearts’: Thinking with Luther about Scripture, Natural law, and the Moral Life,” Word & World, Volume 30, number 4 (Fall 2010) 419-428; also by Simpson, “’Putting on the Neighbor’: The Ciceronian Impulse in Luther’s Christian Approach to Practical Reasoning,” in The Devil’s Whore: Reason and Philosophy in the Lutheran Tradition, ed. Jennifer Hockenberry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010) 31-38.

Charles Peterson

Charles Peterson, Ph.D., is an ordained pastor with Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and serving at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio.