Steven Paulson: Doing Lutheranism

Lutheran Theology, by Steven PaulsonI’m currently awaiting delivery of Steven Paulson’s book Lutheran Theology, from T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series. In the meantime, this review from Themelios by Orrey McFarland has been whetting my appetite.

First, the structure of Paulson’s book. This follows the example of Philip Melanchthon and others in using Romans as a template, reflecting Paulson’s understanding of Lutheran theology as “unfinished business [of] commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans.” McFarland says that:

The arrangement is straightforward, but gives a certain vibrancy to the flow of Paulson’s argument as he attempts to present Lutheran theology and navigate Paul’s letter in a coherent manner as the same task.

But for McFarland, what makes Paulson’s book special isn’t its structure, but “his single-minded insistence on a number of themes important in the Lutheran tradition,” three of which McFarland summarises as follows.

1. Justification by faith alone and the right distinction between law and gospel

For Paulson, “The key to any theology, especially done the Lutheran way, is to ask what role the law plays in its system.” Paulson emphasises two “uses” of the law: its “alien use” to “preserve and sustain life in the old Aeon until the preacher arrives,” and its “proper use” in which law “magnifies sin and exterminates any possibility for salvation other than Christ”:

Paulson seeks throughout the book to point out the error of believers when they allow law and works to play any role in salvation by smuggling a “Legal Scheme” into the gospel. While avoiding and arguing against antinomianism, Paulson’s mission is to expound the “Lutheran passion on earth” (p. 5)—distinguishing between law and gospel.

I’ll be interested to see, though, how Paulson addresses the “third use” of the law.

2. The role of the preacher and the Word 

McFarland quotes Paulson as saying that “Luther’s great discovery [was] that preaching has always and only been the thing that makes faith, and so justifies.” McFarland continues:

preachers announce the two-fold Word of God, which, in distinction to human words that merely signify, actually kills and recreates sinners. Preaching reveals Christ and makes a hidden God no longer hidden. […] “Faith is created by a promise that comes externally, as an alien word” (p. 119)—externally through a preacher by the will of God.

For me, this aspect of Lutheranism – its sacramental view of the Word in which the Word is a means by which God “actually kills and recreates sinners” through human preaching (rather than preachers merely giving us information about how to be killed and recreated) – is critical; the “engine-room” of Lutheran spirituality, as I’ve written before.

3. Luther and the history of Lutheranism 

Paulson doesn’t seek to define Lutheranism over-against Catholic or Reformed theology. Instead, he turns most of his criticisms on the Lutheran tradition itself, which he sees as an attempt to “tame Luther” by taming “the wild animal of the end of the law”:

Paulson breaks up the history of Lutheran thought into four “episodes” (literal, allegorical, tropological, anagogical), with Luther representing the “literal” stage and the other three trying to figure out what to do with him; but the main solution is to readmit the law into God’s salvific act in Christ. Consequently, past Luther, no thinker is safe from Paulson’s critique.

Again, as anyone who’s ever noticed my occasionally, slightly sour references to “Actually Existing Lutheranism” will be unsurprised to hear, this may be music to my ears: certainly the gulf between what Lutheranism could (and should) be, and what it often ends up as (especially in its worship) has been a constant frustration to me over the years. It’s still possible, though, that I may end up, like McFarland, wondering whether Paulson has gone a little too far: “the reader is left wondering which Lutherans, if any, can be trusted beyond Luther and Paulson.” Ouch.

Conclusion 

McFarland concludes with further praise for Paulson’s book:

Paulson sets about the task of explaining Lutheran theology not by rigidly moving from historical point A to theological point B, but by engaging with Paul and Luther and seeking to show the deeper logic behind why Lutherans believe what they do. And given Paulson’s high view of preaching, it is no surprise that this book reads as proclamation—very dense proclamation, of course. The result is engaging writing that will benefit the student, lay person, and scholar. Readers of any category could not ask for much more.

Except, in my case, a slightly more rapid delivery of my copy…

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